XenDesktop, VDI, SolidICE offer benefits but no panacea for IT managers

I am always skeptical about new technologies that "threaten" to transform the traditional PC desktop.In my 20 years following the PC industry, I’ve seen them all – server-based models, thin clients, application streaming technologies, hosted ASP and newer software-as-a-service models, even Linux.
Written by Paula Rooney, Contributor

I am always skeptical about new technologies that "threaten" to transform the traditional PC desktop.

In my 20 years following the PC industry, I’ve seen them all – server-based models, thin clients, application streaming technologies, hosted ASP and newer software-as-a-service models, even Linux.  I still use a traditional Windows-based PC and so do my friends (who are not Mac fanatics) and most U.S corporations.

Vendors in each of these categories have experienced some measure of success. Ardence, Wyse, Softricity,  Google Apps and Ubuntu are cases in point.  But none have really taken off as their marketeers have predicted.

Desktop virtualization is another one of those technologies that has a shot at changing the way end users compute and how IT manages desktops. Virtualization’s success on the server is legendary, and Microsoft support for it on the server and desktop bodes well for adoption.

But it won't be the panacea to desktop management that everyone imagines -- at least in the early years.

VMware’s launch of its Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) got the discussion rolling several years ago and since then hundreds of customers have embraced the market leader's VDI solution.

The launch of Citrix XenDesktop and Citrix Desktop Receiver today is deemed a big milestone for the technology because it ushers in competition for VMware and brings the most successful desktop changing vendors to the table – Microsoft and Citrix, working in concert.  We also see new companies coming to the fore, such as Qumranet, which recently shipped its KVM-based SolidICE desktop virtualization solution. Still, there obstacles that will hinder adoption of  desktop virtualization technology, which third party ISVs are happy to point out to reporters. 

First, customers won’t see the kind of immediate return on investment they saw on the server side. Customers saved millions by dumping server hardware and moving multiple workloads to a single server. This naturally won’t happen on the desktop -- every user needs his or her own PC. Thin clients can replace desktop PCs but there’s little in the way of hardware savings. The cost savings are significant in the way of power usage and security management but are operational in nature and realized over time, one exec from Wyse acknowledged. 

Perhaps the most distressing and ironic challenge comes in the form of additional desktop management complexity. Even as it simplifies existing desktop management chores such as configuration, updating and security, virtualized desktops are often mixed in with traditional PC desktop infrastructures and this requires another layer of management, said one ISV that is hopping on that opportunity.

“Every vendor in the virtual machine space is claiming the cost savings by going virtual.  This has been proven to a large degree on the server but less so on the PC.  When servers are virtualized, they literally and physically go away because they run on another server.  Cost savings are immediate,” said Jason Smith, vice president of business development for ScriptStart. " When a desktop is virtualized, most of the time, there is still hardware and software infrastructure needed to run the VM.  In reality, this just adds another software layer to mange for most organizations that are looking to implement VDI or XenDesktop on top of existing infrastructure.  Therefore, cost-savings and ROI for desktop VMs require a different look."

Can I get you some desktop management software for that desktop management solution?

ScriptStart is a Dunwoody, Georgia-based ISV whose Profile Unity solution gives customers a central, portable profile to use at any Windows desktops, whether virtual, thin or physical.  One executive said as customers end up with a mix of traditional desktops with virtual desktops, management becomes a key issue. He recommends that IT managers develop best practices for deploying virtual desktops. “The reality is that the adoption is slower than the market perception is.  Many of our customers cite that they are still running traditional Windows desktops and Citrix Presentation Server (XenApp as it is now called)  and only a few are starting to experiment with VDI, and still fewer have shown interest in XenDesktop,” said Smith. 

Leostream is a virtual hosted desktop ISV that has more than 100 “brand name” customers using hosted virtualized desktops including Commerzbank, Mayo Clinic and Honda.  The Waltham, Mass. company sells a Hosted Desktop Connection Broker that manages hosted desktops and assigns users to hosted desktops running on physical or virtual machines. It integrates with fat Windows desktops, thin clients from Devon IT, Neoware, and Wyse and with web browsers. 

David Crosbie, CTO of Leostream, said the market is already bifurcating between low end simple functionality and high end systems that integrate with all the security and management systems in a datacenter.  “At the high end it is functionality or lack there of that is the barrier,” Crosbie said. “VDI is by definition limiting - because people don't just want Virtual Hosted Desktops. They want Physical Hosted Desktops and then they want Terminal Services and Presentation Server. So we work with VMWare on a whole bunch of big projects that their broker can not handle.”

The complexity of managing the mixed environment will be heightened by other emerging technologies. “Microsoft does not need to worry about VDI but they do need to worry about connection brokers, particularly when the differentiation between online and offline connection broker merges, and when provisioning of hosted desktops gets extended to include OS Streaming  such as [Citrix] Ardence and Application Virtualization such as [Microsoft] Softgrid” he said. “We see ourselves as the glue that binds all this technology together."

Is your head spinning yet?

Yet another ISV said cloud computing is another option that will challenge the commercial virtual desktop solution. Some companies may opt to outsource their hosted desktops to a cloud provider or implement XenDesktop, VMware VDI or Qumranet in house -- or both.  “You know what's interesting about VDI deployments in the context of cloud computing is I'm seeing almost no interest. Most of the interest we see are from VARs and software vendors who hear the hype. There seems to be a disconnect between what vendors are pushing and market interest,”said Reuven Cohen, cofounder of Enomaly, a Toronto-based ISV whose platform enables cloud computing. “For the time being I feel the VDI market is saturated and I am avoiding it. As applications become more and more network centric the need for a hosted desktop will move from one of being a centralized repository of desktops to a distributed server environment made available as a cloud service.  Think Amazon Desktops and Desktone and Skytap.”

Still, third party ISVs have software to sell.

There's no doubt that desktop virtualization offers big benefits, including ones that vendors could not provide in the past -- especially support for virtually all applications. While many custom and vertical applications could not be hosted on Citrix Presentation Server, all applications can be virtualized and served to the desktop. And this means customers can have one environment, rather than a mix of fat, thin, virtual and physical clients. 

But will they take the plunge? IT managers are very conservative when it comes to messing with desktops, but virtualization is a game changing technology. It may be the thing that finally shifts the predominant desktop computing model. Time will tell.

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