How desktop virtualization will end IT client hardware maintenance (and kill off Best Buy's Geek Squad)

In one fell swoop, John Whaley might end IT client hardware maintenance.And he might kill off the Geek Squad, too.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

In one fell swoop, John Whaley might end IT client hardware maintenance.

And he might kill off the Geek Squad, too.

Whaley, the chief technical officer of desktop virtualization company MokaFive, says desktop virtualization is becoming more widely adopted in the enterprise -- but the path to adoption is far from an open freeway.

Whaley's Silicon Valley-based company has devised a fascinating "layered" approach to virtualization on the desktop, and he thinks the method is a winner when it comes to pleasing IT pros and end users.

Just in time for VMWorld 2009, ZDNet sat down with Whaley to talk about the things people need to know if they are exploring desktop virtualization in their organizations.

ZDNet: Let's talk about how desktop virtualization came to be.

John Whaley: There's a huge amount of hype about it.

Virtualization is not a new concept at all, and it's been a part of computer science since IBM mainframe days. It got a lot of renewed interest in the early 2000s where VMWare came about and got a lot of attraction on the server side. You get a lot more flexibility, you can easily deploy new servers, keep them up and running. There has been a lot of success on the server side.

On the desktop side, that's kind of the new frontier in virtualization -- to be able to get some of the benefits on the server side and bring them to the desktop. The desktop is a lot more challenging than servers. The desktop touches everybody, so there are a lot of unique challenges.

ZDNet: Why desktop virtualization?

JW: The benefits comes down to manageability and flexibility. Today, if you take a desktop computer -- how much does it cost to provide one to an employee? -- it's only a small fraction is the hardware cost. The rest of it is around keeping things up to date, secure, and operating OK all the time. Management costs are much higher than hardware costs.

You have people that are becoming more and more tech-savvy and more dependent on their computing environments. They need them to be productive and creative. And they're also very used to being able to use technology from their personal lives. From an end-user point of view, work and home are beginning to blend together. People work from home or the evening, and likewise at work, they'll want to login and pay their bills.

On the IT side, there are a lot of cost pressures to keep costs down. There is a lot of regulatory pressure as well -- in California, if a company loses personal information, they have to notify everyone and give them protection. That might become a national law. Not to mention that malware is more malicious and a lost laptop potentially costs a company a lot of money. There's a tension that's building and growing that's driving some of this.

Desktop virtualization gives you extra flexibility. A company can provide a virtual environment that's managed or locked down. Because it's virtualized, you can run it side-by-side with other environments. A lot of legal firms want to carry about MacBook Airs as corporate bling, but [their IT departments] have very strict rules for tracking documents.

You can't tell a partner, "You can't do this." They'll say, "We pay you money, make it happen." So a virtual environment controls that. Users can run that on the hardware of their choice.

There's a pent-up demand for that choice. They can work from home, but on the company side they're protected.

ZDNet: What are the hurdles in desktop virtualization adoption?

JW: There are definitely challenges.

There are many different technologies that fit under "desktop virtualization" that you can split into two basic areas.

One model, desktop virtualization or VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure), is where you have a server running all of the desktops, and your local machine connects to that server, an image running on that server. Your local computer becomes a thin client, a terminal. That model grew out of server virtualization.

That helps with manageability, but there are big downsides: you have to always have a network connection -- hopping on a plane is a problem -- and you have to have a big server infrastructure, especially if you're rolling it out to 10,000 users. Because you're using a remote display protocol, you don't get good interactive performance. Working from home or traveling, you suffer from a bad user experience because signals to click, for example, have to go all the way there and back.

The other model, you still do computation on the client side. You manage it from a central location, but execution happens on an end-point device. You don't always need a network connection, you have speed, and you don't need tons of servers. A lot of the newer technology is pushing more toward client-side.

It's still very new technology; it's still cutting edge. The type of companies starting to deploy it are companies that see IT as a competitive advantage. It's still very early.

ZDNet: So how do you justify it to the boss?

JW: In the near term, the places you'll see the most benefit are the places where users need to have flexibility. You'll be able to manage offline people -- contractors, part-time people.

In most cases, it's not about cost, it's about the added benefit of virtualization. The long-term promise of virtualization is that it will reduce costs. But it's a new technology right now, so a company won't see immediate cost savings.

ZDNet: ...and the end user?

JW: There are a lot of challenges, even with the model that executes on the client-side.

Anytime you're touching a user's desktop or interacting with it, it's a very personal thing. You have to tread lightly.

You can't walk into an IT department and say, "We're going to change this," and change everyone's desktops. People are quite sensitive and attached to it -- they use it every day.

A lot of it is money but a lot of it is making sure the end users feel the benefits without taking stuff away from them.

There's a chance users will rebel -- that's happened in other areas of IT, with policies, but users work around it. They'll forward stuff to their GMail account.

ZDNet: Tell me about MokaFive's take on desktop virtualization.

JW: A lot of the early virtualization work was providing a locked down environment that can't be customized. A generic environment. There's a tension between management and customization.

What MokaFive has been pushing on is user personalization so that you can have a standard image provided but users can layer their own customization on top of it. Our 2.0 product this year announced a new feature allowing users to install their own applications on top of the standard image. When IT updates that image, you'll still keep your customizations. They're kept in separate layers so that when they screw something up, it won't affect the corporate settings.

It's all running in a secure environment. It's like a sandbox. You're running from the golden image, so even if you mess it up -- it doesn't even matter how bad, say with malware -- just reboot. It's back. One of the demos we have is where a user is working on an Excel spreadsheet and clicks on a bad link with a rootkit. After a reboot, the rootkit is gone, but the document still has all the latest data.

That's just one example.

MokaFive's secret sauce is that we have a technique to take your Windows image to split into different layers that can be managed independently.You can manage independently user policies, documents and applications. You can backup the layers you want.

The fundamental property of virtualization is that it adds a level of indirection.

ZDNet: Who should look into desktop virtualization?

JW: There are two places we're finding the most attraction today for desktop virtualization.

The biggest area is with users who have considerations about security and lock-down, where admins need to have tight control over what they're doing. That's one area where we're seeing a lot of use of virtualization -- the financial industry, where there are particular considerations where data should live, for example.

The other area is where you have users who need to run multiple environments or run an environment on their home computer -- a "Bring Your Own PC" BYOPC situation -- for extra flexibility.

That works for industries such as finance, healthcare, law, government.

At MokaFive, the long-term vision is to be able to administer my family's computer so they won't have problems without being next to them. There are many challenges around that. That's the ultimate goal -- where you can manage it wherever you want and use features -- updates, backups, et cetera -- so the end user doesn't have to do anything.

ZDNet: So you're trying to kill Best Buy's Geek Squad.

JW: Pretty much, yeah. With this, you shouldn't have to go in for a $300 computer repair.

ZDNet: What should we expect in the future?

JW: Things will get smoother. The technology will mature. Companies won't provide a PC anymore -- they'll just offer a stipend and provide a managed environment. They'll get out of the hardware business completely.

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