VDI Keeps on Knockin'

Arthur Cole

Is the IT industry really getting serious about virtual desktops? The idea of stripped down workstations feeding off a centralized architecture has been knocking on the door for so long that it's hard to tell whether it has any legs this time.

But ready or not, the drive is on to convince you that you can save money and simplify your infrastructure with either a full virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) approach a la VMware, or a Terminal Services solution from Microsoft/Citrix.

There is evidence that interest in the concept of desktop virtualization is growing, even if the details on what the technology entails are a bit fuzzy. VMware claims that it has 7,000 VMware View customers delivering more than a million seats. The spread covers a range of industries, including the financial sector, education, manufacturing, health care and telecom. Jocelyn Goldfein, VP and GM of VMware's desktop unit, told Sys-Con that a second generation of users is about to be drawn in by the customization and flexibility offered by the latest "user-centric" offerings.

Other anecdotal evidence of growing interest includes a Web survey from Freeform Dynamics and The Register, which found that knowledge of virtual desktops was greatest when the specific technology included things like thin clients and centralized architecture and then trailed off when the subject shifted to virtual desktop images. Still, there was a surprisingly strong showing of organizations (close to 70 percent) that say they have launched VDI solutions to at least some of their user groups.

But just as it looked like some clarity was coming to the virtual desktop, a new breed of systems is about to hit the market that combines VDI with that other none-too-clear concept: cloud computing. IBM is working with Desktop-as-a-Service provider Desktone to bring VDI capabilities to Citrix and VMware users through its own Web services cloud. Known as the IBM Smart Business Desktop, the setup aims to provide both the central management capabilities that admins need along with the flexibility and user customization that workers want. The only drawback at the moment is the fact that it can't do full-motion video or multimedia.

Meanwhile, thin client specialist Wyse Technology is hoping to make its platform more attractive by extending the life of the typical PC through what it calls "Project Borg," a new virtualization software system built on the company's TCX platform. The Borg software adds automated management, enhanced multimedia and multi-display support and the company's Collaborative Processing Architecture (CPA) that splits workloads between the server and the client, lessening the processing burden on central systems. Wyse's intent is that if it helps enterprises extend the useful lives of PCs under VDI platforms like VMware View, then that's a PC that can be easily swapped out for a Wyse client later on.

Despite these advances, questions of manageability, security and, yes, overall flexibility continue to dog the virtual desktop. It's interesting to note that, having virtualized the server, storage and networking portions of the data center, the PC represents the last of the low-hanging fruit before the drive to move beyond virtualization and into the cloud kicks in.

The question remains, though: Just because it makes sense for vendors to offer virtual desktops, does it makes sense for enterprises to adopt them?

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