Virtualization to drive use of staff-owned PCs at work

Gartner claims PC virtualization tech could give staff more freedom to use their own hardware at work, without compromising network security.
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

The ability of virtualization technology to free software from the underlying hardware could give more companies the option to allow employees to choose and run their own devices at work, according to analysts.

A recent study from analyst house Gartner into employee-owned-notebook programs, revealed that an increasing number of staff want to use their own laptops at work.

Gartner claimed that around 10 percent of companies have some form of employee-owned-device program. The analyst also claimed that small and medium-sized companies are more likely to take advantage of this kind of scheme than large enterprises.

Speaking to ZDNet Asia's sister site ZDNet UK last week, Gartner analyst Brian Gammage said that, increasingly, portable-technology consumers are identifying with particular devices and brands, in much the same way as a car is seen as a fashion statement.

"It is going to become increasingly difficult for companies, especially with younger staff, to say: 'You will use this boring black box that we give to everybody.' They are going to want to use the things that they use and make them feel more comfortable and more productive," he said.

However the biggest obstacles to allowing more staff to use their own equipment at work have traditionally been security and manageability considerations. Where companies have allowed staff-owned devices onto corporate networks, it has not been because those companies have solved the security issues, but because they have ignored them. "Most of the organizations permitting people to connect to networks with their own stuff were working on a 'don't ask, don't tell policy', and that doesn't sound particularly robust to us," said Gammage.

Most company PCs have to work with a local application load, which affects both the management and hardware requirements of the devices. Some well known organisations have got around this by web-enabling their applications so they can work with any device, but that is not the reality for most companies, said Gammage.

Gartner claimed that an employee-owned-notebook program needs to contain four key elements: a technology solution to protect the device and the network its attached to; policies to guide behavior; third-party maintenance to make sure the device is available; and some kind of payment to the employee for the responsibility they are taking.

The best way to tackle the first element--that is, securing an unknown device--is through the separation of software from hardware afforded by virtualization, according to Gammage.

"The virtual-machine model allows you to maintain a managed end point, using existing management infrastructure on a device that you don't know or care about," he said.

The technology required to manage and secure an employee-owned PC goes beyond existing solutions--such as Microsoft's Remote Desktop, for example--and should be based around true virtualization, said Gammage.

"None of the products in the marketplace right now would do this. This is a virtual machine, built with a tool such as Ace from VMware or Sentillion's vThere or the Kidaro Managed Workspace product, which, of course, Microsoft has now bought," he said. "These technologies allow you to create a well-managed virtual machine, but they are run from an unmanaged or unmanageable device."

The users who are allowed to take advantage of such employee-owned-equipment schemes tend to be among upper management, according to Gammage, with companies only allowing around 2.5 percent of their workforce to use their own hardware.

"They are trying to contain the people who have broken free. Most employees have to use standard corporate issue apart from those who are powerful or important enough to say: 'I am not going to use that.' In most companies, telling the chief executive they can't use the laptop they bought in the airport at the weekend is a career-limiting statement," he said.

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