Virtual desktops - once the most rigid, least friendly way to put applications in front of end users - have become a hot topic by promising to deliver the security and easy maintenance that was always desktop virtualisation's strength. The trouble: Desktop virtualisation now comes in so many varieties that even vendors confuse terms referring to the flavours. Market leader Citrix Systems, now working hard to expand virtual desktops into roles that the company hasn't traditionally filled, rolled out a version of its Xen Desktop solution last fall that allowed customers to choose any of six major delivery methods.
Competitor VMware is close behind, followed by Microsoft and a host of add-on vendors and open-source integrators offering similar approaches, bolstered from the other end of the client-hardware spectrum by thin- or zero-client virtualisation products such as Pano Logic or NComputing.
Add to that the potential to stream apps to end users from external SaaS providers, access all or part of a virtual desktop from the cloud via platform-as-a-service, nestle a secure VM within an otherwise insecure personally owned iPad, smartphone or other gadget-and the choice gets very complicated, according to Chris Wolf, infrastructure and virtualisation analyst at The Burton Group.
"Most of the companies that talk to me about [desktop virtualisation] end up holding off because of the costs, especially licensing costs that usually made it about as expensive to leverage a full form-factor PC rather than a virtual desktop," according to Roger Johnson, technical lead for the Enterprise Systems Group at high-end audio/video reseller Crutchfield Media.
Johnson, a blogger and speaker at both Microsoft's TechEd and VMWorld conferences, virtualised the servers but not the desktops at Crutchfield. The VDI-friendly Windows licenses that Microsoft announced last month will do more than any new product to attract new customers, Johnson says.
Another comparison problem: Users find few, if any, good benchmarks comparing the performance of various flavors of virtual desktops from Citrix and VMware, let alone those from cloud providers, according to independent desktop-virtualisation analyst Brian Madden.
Madden published a VDI comparison that "just scratched the surface of this technology" last month at BrianMadden.com, barely favouring Citrix over VMWare View for most uses, though the experience of both seemed more of a "mash-up" than well-crafted solution, he says.
In 2008, facing budget cuts and the need to equip three new schools, Texas' Montgomery Independent School District chose Citrix over Pano Logic because the latter had better graphics support for specific applications, according to George Thornton, network operations manager for the school district.
Maintenance costs were vastly lower than comparable PC networks, but the project had to expand to include three different flavors-terminal servers, virtual apps and VDI-to meet the requirements of different user groups.
That's common now, but could become unnecessary if the move toward cloud and virtualised applications continues to the point that IT departments can focus on creating virtual environments for each employee to view or use on the device of his or her choice, Wolf says.
A lot of IT departments are talking about that possibility, too, but may hold off until the security of virtual desktop environments is proven, Johnson says.
"The total project costs, even if they're low, there will be a learning curve, and you don't want to get the TCO up higher by having to pay a couple of thousand dollars for every credit-card loss or HIPAA violation," he says.
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