Tablets, smartphones, BYOD add fresh momentum to virtual desktop projects

Does the device-neutral nature of desktop virtualisation give it fresh relevance in a world where PCs aren't the only devices that need access to information and applications?
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Server virtualisation is flying high, but its cousin desktop virtualisation seems to need a much longer runway before taking off in the enterprise.

Desktop virtualisation separates the desktop OS, software and data from the underlying hardware as the bulk of the processing is carried out — and the data stored — remotely rather than on the client device, which could be a thin client, a desktop, a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone.

Virtualizing the Enterprise: An overview

This potentially allows organisations to use older hardware for longer (because local processing power is less relevant) or deliver applications to a wider range of devices than just the traditional PC. But because desktop virtualisation can involve additional networking and storage, it has been less of a must-have technology than server virtualisation.

Desktop virtualisation has been listed as a CIO priority for 2013, but when asked whether they were planning to rollout desktop virtualisation in their organisations, the ZDNet/TechRepublic CIO Jury voted 'no' by a margin of seven to five.

The CIO Jury has considered this question twice before, getting a 'no' verdict by nine to three in 2009 and again by seven to five in 2012. This suggests that the relevance of desktop virtualisation is still open to debate among tech decision makers, although the comments made by CIOs on the subject suggest that they increasingly see desktop virtualisation as way of extending the use of older kit and embracing new devices.

A number of tech chiefs also said they had already taken the plunge and virtualised their desktops.

Robert Cireddu, director of technology at Riverside Local School District in Ohio, said his school district rolled out desktop virtualization in 2012 to allow students and staff remote access to district owned resources, including server-hosted applications and district maintained storage. "It was a way for us to embrace a student population's use of their own devices, as desktop virtualization is device neutral," he added.

The move has allowed the school district to continue using old hardware "with new hardware speed," according to Cireddu. "Currently we have replaced 240 desktops with virtual desktops. In all instances, those virtual desktops now run on old repurposed Windows computers. Our goal is to replace as many as a thousand desktops over the next three years," he said.

Here's what is really worrying CIOs, right now

Alan Bawden, operations and IT director at The JM Group responded "Already done and dusted", while Brian Wells, associate CIO at Penn Medicine said: "In addition to all the desktop management and support productivity benefits, we view this as a great way to provide access for BYOD devices to a standard desktop."

Duncan James, infrastructure manager at Clarion Solicitors, said the biggest barrier for virtual desktop projects comes down to four things: infrastructure design, licensing, office politics and the associated implementation and running costs of the solution. "The licensing of VDI, in particular, is a difficult one to nail even before any kit is purchased. Try looking up a definitive answer on virtual desktop access, roaming user rights and Windows companion subscription license to see what I mean."

He added: "This move is being forced by the consumerisation of IT — web-based SaaS apps have glossy shop windows delivered by app stores on smartphones and tablets. Many customised industry-specific applications are reliant on dated Windows desktop architecture. It's going to take a rewrite from the ground up from some vendors to catch up with their competitors and the demands of their customers."

Several tech chiefs said they are piloting and investigating the technology. John Rogers, IT director at Nor-Cal Products, said: "The answer for us is 'maybe'. We are rolling out a pilot test to see if it provides enough performance and cost-savings before pushing it out company-wide."

Matt Mielkem, Director of IT at Innovations Federal Credit Union, added: "I am researching the concept to replace desktop PCs at our teller dialog towers. The towers we have in place are non-traditional teller pods that replace the teller-line concept. These pods tend to get really warm when a PC is placed inside."

Michael Hanken, VP of IT at Multiquip, said: "I believe it is the next logical step if you do it for the right reasons — don't bank on significant cost savings."

Because desktop virtualisation can involve additional networking and storage, it has been less of a must-have technology than server virtualisation.

Desktop virtualisation encompasses a variety of technical options, and it's also possible to create a similar effect without necessarily using virtualisation technology, as John Gracyalny, VP of IT at SafeAmerica Credit Union pointed out.

"We will not be replacing our PCs any time soon — they are only two or three years old. However, last year when we upgraded to Windows 7, we virtualized the desktops in the sense that the PCs no longer write anything — not working documents, not desktop, not even temporary internet files — to the local drive. ALL disk writes go to the network drives. This makes for much easier management. So, in essence, we already have."

Andrew Paton, group manager IT services at Rondo International said: "We already have a solid investment in desktop management and deployment tools catering for Windows 8. I do, however, believe that this will be part of our strategy over the next two years. As always there will have to be some real value to be obtained rather than just jumping on the latest tech for the sake of it."

He added: "Virtualisation requires its own skill set, and in a small organisation I cannot see the value in doing both traditional desktop and virtualised, but rather a move from one to the other for the entire fleet. We also do not allow BYOD at this stage, and to me this is where desktop virtualisation can become really attractive."

Shawn Beighle, CIO at the International Republican Institute, said : "In my scenario, weak infrastructure in remote locations all but eliminates the possibility of desktop virtualization. As infrastructure improves though, this is something that I would like to explore."

Keith Murley Manager of Information Systems at Schimenti Construction, said: "We do not have any deployment plans; however, we continue watching this technology mature, as it can provide undeniable value."  

This month's CIO Jury was

  • Laurie Dale, director of IT for Ability Beyond Disabilty
  • Delano Gordon CIO Roofing Supply Group
  • Richard Storey, head of IT at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust
  • Joel Robertson, director of IT, King College
  • Kevin Quealy, Director of Information Services and Facilities, Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia
  • Jürgen Renfer, CIO, Kommunale Unfallversicherung Bayern.
  • Jeff Cannon, IT director of Fire & Life Safety America
  • Brian Wells, associate CIO at Penn Medicine
  • Madhushan Gokool, IT manager at Storm Model Management
  • Tim Stiles, CIO at Bremerton Housing Authority
  • Michael Hanken, VP of IT at Multiquip
  • John F. Rogers, IT director, Nor-Cal Products

Want to be part of TechRepublic's CIO Jury and have your say on the hot issues for IT decision-makers? If you are a CIO, CTO, IT director or equivalent at a large or small company, working in the private sector or in government, and you want to join TechRepublic's CIO Jury pool, or you know an IT chief who should, then get in contact. Either click the Contact link below or email me, steve dot ranger at techrepublic dot com, and send your name, title, company, location, and email address.

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