Now that both the server and storage infrastructure are well on their way to virtualization at most data centers, the wagons are poised to enter the next frontier: the desktop.
But while the vendor community has been pushing for centralized virtual desktop images feeding an army of thin client devices for several years now, the technology still has several major hurdles to overcome.
Unlike the already centralized worlds of servers and storage, desktops are distributed by nature, which automatically pits the management needs of administrators, particularly those related to security, against the user's desire for workplace flexibility and autonomy.
That's the pattern emerging from most of the surveys that are coming back, the brunt of which can be summed up by the statement: "Yes, we'd like to implement desktop virtualization infrastructure (VDI), but..."
Take the recent study released by access management firm Imprivata. The group reports that 73 percent of its respondents are investigating or are planning to investigate VDI this year, with simplified management and infrastructure cost-savings topping the list of major drivers. So far, so good. It's only once you drill down into the numbers that you realize that most of these organizations are still struggling with security and authentication issues (not surprisingly, two areas that Imprivata specializes in), and are trying out a range of solutions such as biometrics, access cards and passwords to varying degrees of success.
The UK Register and Freeform Dynamics have identified a number of potential barriers to VDI implementation, most of them centered around general unfamiliarity with current technology. At best, it seems that many organizations are interested in sampling VDI, but are at a loss to determine where it would do the most good. And is it wise to deploy a single platform and hope the workforce can adapt to a new way of working, or are there mix-and-match strategies that may prove more flexible?
Yet another problem is data migration from the physical to the virtual environment, according to Virtualization Review's Amy Hodler. This is particularly important for user customization, which allows users to configure their own work environments to enable the highest level of productivity. The sledgehammer approach to this problem would be to simply snapshot an image and move it directly to the virtual desktop, but this is a nightmare for administrators who end up having to deal with an army of individualized images. A much better approach is to abstract and migrate individual environments through one of the many migration tools available, although you'll need to make sure it can handle all of your users' data, is open to automation, and can work with your existing management stack.
Some of the newest VDI offerings are intent on satisfying these conflicting demands. A startup called Wanova is on the launch pad with its Distributed Desktop Virtualization architecture, which the company says addresses both administers' and users' needs, particularly those of mobile workers who need to go offline. The approach is to provide a desktop image called the Centralized Virtual Desktop (CVD) on a central server that provides the management and provisioning portion, and tie that to a slightly more powerful device than a standard client, the DeskCache, that can maintain individual settings and provide for offline work when necessary. The two are linked via the Distributed Desktop Optimization system, which provides real-time, bi-directional connectivity.
While the VDI train is moving slowly, the fact of the matter is the barriers to implementation are no more substantial than any other paradigm-shifting technologies we've seen in the past few years, including virtualization itself. Centralized architectures are the wave of the future because they are both cheaper and easier to manage -- and that holds true for the desktop just as much as for servers and storage.
The difference is that the desktop is where people live, digitally speaking, so this is a change that will be felt more deeply. But that doesn't make it any less necessary.