What ever happened to desktop virtualization?

Virtualizing desktop environments and applications for safe, secure, flexible delivery to many types of access point devices has been on the edge of the IT market for years. Why hasn't it taken over?

Back in 2008, I published a column that asked the question, "Why bother with desktop virtualization?" For some reason, I've been hearing questions about the same technology here in 2014.

What is desktop virtualization?

Virtual desktops, the combination of virtual access, application virtualization and virtual machine software, have been heavily marketed for years. It appears that the promise of lower operational and administrative costs, combined with the potential for higher levels of both availability and security, would have simply propelled everyone into working that way. The truth, however, is that rather than adopting virtual desktops, individuals have, instead, have adopted other technologies including apps on their smartphones or tablets or accessing applications using Web-based methods.

Is this the best approach to deliver productivity or business applications?

It is clear that managing desktop systems, dealing with both operating system and application updates, helping folks deal with things that went bump in the night, and other issues such as security for mobile systems is costing organizations more time and money than they'd really like to invest. Much of this is being discussed in the industry under the headings of "mobility" or "BYOD." Desktop virtualization offers the hope of getting this under control.

What gets in the way?

As mentioned in other commentaries and posts and in no particular order, here are a few of the issues that get in the way.

  • Today's approach to desktop applications¬† (i.e., applications and operating systems running directly on physical systems) is workable albeit complex and expensive. The first golden rule of IT (see Reprise of the Golden Rules of IT for more detail on the golden rules) says "if it is not broken, don't fix it." So, companies continue to use this approach because it is workable.
  • Most desktop virtualization approaches require some changes to operation of desktop systems, applications and the like. The second golden rule of IT is "don't touch it, you'll break it." Since company's back end systems are so complex, many have chosen to leave well enough alone on the front end.
  • The performance characteristics of virtualized systems differ from physical systems and while those differences get smaller and smaller with each generation of hardware and virtualization technology, differences often lead to support issues. While these can be minor on a person-by-person basis, larger organizations can see these issues add up into a significant investment in support time.
  • People have come to see the machine issued by the company as their tool. They've often customized the systems to better fit their working style, and their personality Some of these changes would be problematic in a virtual world. The problem, by the way, isn't the customization itself. It is with the approaches used to move people's work environment from the physical to the virtual. It is far easier to move standardized work environments than it is with a whole herd of one-off environments, so IT administrators often try to use this migration as a way to lasso users and drag them to a single standard environment. People don't like being lassoed and dragged.

Citrix, Microsoft, VMware and Parallels and VMware, have been offering tools to make migrations from physical to virtual much easier. From time to time, I've tried to use these solutions only to find that I couldn't make them work within the time I could spare to play.

The human element comes into play

Furthermore, many of the issues revolve around the human consciousness and not around technological issues. It is quite possible that the trend towards cloud-based personal productivity applications such as email, document management and calendar management might make it easier for organizations to move to virtual environments.

What's really happening today?

What appears to be happening instead, is individuals have chosen a different approach. They've asked their companies to encapsulate workloads and offer them as IOS or Android apps or make those applications accessible through internal Web sites.

What is your company doing along these lines? Is it pushing desktop virtualization or turning towards offering mobile or web-based access?