What happened to virtual desktops?

With all of the technology that has been launched or announced in 2009, why hasn't every desktop become virtual?
Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor on

Virtual desktops, the combination of virtual access, application virtualization and virtual machine software, has been a force in marketing of virtualization technology for years.  When some of the technology that was announced by folks; such as Citrix, Ceedo, Ericom, Install Free, Microsoft, Pano Logic, Parallels, Quest/Provision Networks, VMware (VMware View), Xenocode and many others; one would think that this approach would be found at almost every desktop. It isn't. The key question is why?

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. Desktop virtualization offers the hope of getting this under control.

In no particular order, here are a few of the issues that get in the way.

  • Today's approach (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."
  • 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." So, many organizations would rather leave well enough alone.
  • The performance characteristics of virtualized systems differs 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, their personality and 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.

Some suppliers, such as Parallels and VMware, are offering tools to make migrations from physical to virtual much easier. I tried to deploy a couple of these on an experimental basis and found that I couldn't make them work within the time I could spare to play.

Quite a few 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. We'll just have to see what happens in 2010 to know if this approach will become more prominent.

Editorial standards