Virtually a desktop

Virtually a desktop

The desktop is becoming increasingly costly to provision, support and protect.

Many CIOs sympathise with Henry Ford’s famous “any colour as long as it is black” strategy for the Model T Ford. In the past the ‘Model T’ desktop suited both users and the CIO, but not any longer. User expectations are rising. Consumer innovations are creating an increasingly digitally passionate and knowledgeable workforce. Why can’t I do at work what I can do at home? Organisational boundaries are also becoming more porous. Users increasingly expect to be able to work from any device and any location to access resources on both enterprise systems and the internet.

The CIO’s challenges are increasing. The evolving global financial crisis is putting increasing pressure on budgets. The cost of Microsoft Vista/Office 2007 and IBM Lotus Notes 8.0 software upgrades is forcing CIOs to open the desktop ‘can of worms’ and to ponder the alternatives.

New software-as-a-service office productivity paradigms are on the rise and are often referred to as ‘Office 2.0’. These include 37Signals, CentralDesktop, Cisco Webex WebOffice, Google Docs, Huddle, HyperOffice, IBM Lotus Bluehouse and Notes Hosted Messaging, Microsoft Online Services, Oracle Beehive, ThinkFree, WorkConnect and Zoho.

The desktop is becoming increasingly costly to provision, support and protect. The cure, standardisation and lock-down of the devices, is costly to administer — and (from a user perspective) often seen as worse than the disease. The locked-down desktop is increasingly at odds with the practical reality of the dynamic web 2.0 world of downloads, mash-ups, plug-ins and widgets.

The bottom line is the desktop that served your organisation for the past five years, is unlikely to continue to meet the expectations of either users or CIOs in the future.

One of the key limitations of the current approach to desktops is the decentralised nature of the platform — each device with its own discrete hardware and software environment. Current management approaches seek to automate the work involved in managing the distributed machines.

The next phase of evolution of the corporate desktop will use virtualisation technologies to separate the software and data from the device being used to access the network. This will create new ways to meet the contradictory needs for both user flexibility and corporate control.

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) solutions allow the operating system, office productivity software, other applications and user personalisation settings to be packaged into a standardised hardware-independent format on servers in a datacentre. When a user logs on, from any device and any location, their applications and data are served to their access device.

From the user’s perspective, they are accessing ‘their desktop’ – in the same state as it was when they logged off. From the CIO’s perspective, the operating system, applications and user personalisation settings are centrally stored and managed on virtual desktops in a controlled, secure and policy/licencing compliant environment.

Desktop virtualisation is often confused with thin client computing — where the applications are centralised on the server and the client is simply a display device.

A virtualised desktop, in contrast, can be served up to any device, be it a thick client PC or laptop, thin client device or smartphone. A virtualised desktop can be aware of, and make full use of resources on the device, such as USB ports, graphics and DVD drives.

A virtualised desktop can also be streamed to a thick client PC or laptop and stored on the device to enable offline use.

Cautious enthusiasm

The desktop virtualisation market is at an early stage of evolution. A range of start-ups are at the leading edge of fully fledged VDI solutions — though these are not necessarily enterprise-ready in terms of integration with the major platforms or at-scale operational capabilities.

The major vendors are on the acquisition trail and are rapidly iterating their integrated solution offerings to include desktop virtualisation capabilities.

Some of the key VDI vendors and products include Atlantis Computing Unity, Ceedo Enterprise, Centrix WorkSpace, Citrix XenDesktop, ClearCube Technology, HP VDI solutions, IBM desktop virtualisation solutions, Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualisation, MokaFive LivePC Engine, Sychron Advanced Technologies OnDemand Desktop, Sun Desktop Virtualisation solutions (including the recently acquired Innotek VirtualBox) and VMWare ACE.

CIOs should put investigation of VDI solutions on their 2009 workplan, in order to get onto the front foot to meet the expectations of both their CFO and their users.

Look to some of the smaller vendors for the latest innovations or the majors for more integrated offerings, but make sure you pilot VDI in your own organisation to see through the vapourware and test the costs and, more importantly, to gauge the reactions of your users.

Dr Steve Hodgkinson is research director, public sector for Ovum in Melbourne.

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