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Desktop Virtualization Gathers Steam

November 8, 2010

By Mark Boslet

Always the bridesmaid, never a bride. That idiom could describe the $300 million desktop virtualization market – a market always on the cusp of huge growth.

Although some technical challenges remain, key product improvements should spark a nice year ahead – and accelerating sales – for top vendors.

Desktop virtualization holds great promise. A "virtual" desktop environment is stored centrally on a server and accessed on-demand by PCs or local clients.

Workers benefit because they can sign in from anywhere, including at home, and have the freedom to use a variety of devices: PC desktops, laptops, Apple computers, thin clients, even smart phones and eventually iPads.

Centrally Managed Applications

The system brings new efficiencies to IT. Programs, applications and data are managed and updated in the data center instead of machine by machine. Desktops are easier to set up, new applications roll out faster, security is improved and downtime is reduced.

New desktop virtualization software introduced this summer brings improved enterprise maturity. Organizations eager to move ahead are likely to seize upon the capabilities – particularly the management support for large-scale deployments of thousands of desktops.

Many organizations will justify their decisions with projections of improved service and lower costs. Desktop virtualization simplifies technology access for an increasingly mobile workforce and lets workers more easily and securely access corporate video and new media.  IT departments see desktop virtualization as a way to cut desktop support costs and streamline software management.

"Going from 20 seconds to 5 seconds is a big deal."

— Mark West, technology architect, Spectrum Health.

Industries expected to benefit most from desktop virtualization include health care, financial services and education. Security and mobility are the primary reasons. Students can access their university desktops while on campus or at home to keep up with class work. Patient records are more secure because access is automatically cut off when a laptop is stolen and taken from a hospital.

Virtualizing 8,000 Desktops

One healthcare business with big ambitions is Spectrum Health of Michigan. The company hopes to virtualize 8,000 of its 12,000 desktops over two to three years.

Mark West, technology architect, says the justification is greater worker efficiency and better patient care. The idea is allow doctors and nurses to use computers at a patient's bedside to more quickly call up patient information.

"Going from 20 seconds to 5 seconds is a big deal," he says.

By the time the project is complete, West expects to see costs savings of 30 to 40 percent. He expects to extend the life of PCs by as much as 50 percent, and he anticipates consolidating IT support staff.

Measured Approach

Not all businesses are moving at the same pace. David Avery, a database administrator at General Dynamics C4 Systems in Arizona, says he is considering desktop virtualization for training rooms where U.S. Army soldiers receive instruction on satellite, radio and computer communications.

But he is still evaluating his needs, including server and storage requirements. "I want to make sure we move ahead in the right way," he says.

"People are taking a more measured approach to how they are deploying," says Dai Vu, director of virtualization products and solutions at Microsoft.

Managing Storage

Several technological challenges remain. Data storage is one. Storage designed for desktop virtualization is largely used to write to disk, says independent analyst Simon Bramfitt.

This contrasts with storage for a traditional data center, which is commonly used to read information from a database or application and deliver it to users. When workloads get heavy, big caches of memory can be placed in front of a disk to speed retrieval.

There is no easy way to beef up systems to handle large write volumes, so IT staff on desktop  virtualization projects typically need to budget more money for adequate storage capacity, says Bramfitt.

How to Move Ahead

For companies interested in moving ahead, several steps can smooth deployment. One is to hire consultants with hands-on experience. Allocating 10 to 15 percent of a budget is worth it, vendors and analysts say.

Another recommendation is to segment users by need. Product designers who run computer-hungry CAD programs have different demands than task workers in a call center.
Desktop virtualization promises to transform IT. Companies simply need more time to determine how to make it work for them.

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