When Is It Right for a Business to Consider Desktop Virtualization?
Tips for determining whether desktop virtualization is right for your business.
Imagine for a moment a company that has amassed more than five million users within a decade by offering a lower-cost technology that is comparable, if not superior, to the status quo. You would think such a firm would be crawling with venture fund managers and IPO specialists.
Now think of desktop virtualization, and ask yourself why this particular advance in IT technology isn't getting more respect.
Success, of course, is usually relative. For everyone who sees five million users, there are those who see less than 1 percent market penetration. And we're still way short of meeting Gartner's prediction of 49 million active seats by 2013.
Believe it or not, one of the chief stumbling blocks to date has been the true cost of desktop virtualization. While thin clients do cost less than PCs, and centralization does provide a cheaper alternative to current licensing agreements, the fact is that virtual desktops don't exist in a vacuum. Their presence has a ripple effect throughout the entire data center infrastructure, very little of which, it turns out, is ready for the increased activity that hundreds of new virtual environments produce. This is especially true for storage.
"Existing storage infrastructure was designed to store unique data and maximize capacity," says Bernard Harguindeguy, CEO of Atlantis Computing. "The Windows operating system is constantly accessing its virtual hard drive on shared storage for non-storage related functions, meaning that data is not written or read, which creates significant desktop performance degradation. Addressing that decrease in performance requires a significant amount of expensive high-end storage capable of keeping pace with these non storage-related interactions."
Harguindeguy says Atlantis has a lower cost fix in the form of the ILIO platform, which alters the way the virtual desktop approaches storage from its perch on the I/O layer.
"The root cause of the VDI storage problem is that Windows is designed for a dedicated low-latency PC hard drive and is extremely inefficient when that hard drive is replaced with a high-latency storage system shared by many virtual desktops," he says. "Atlantis ILIO solves the VDI storage problem by fundamentally changing how Windows interacts with VDI storage and does so at the I/O level without adding anything into the virtual desktop image or changing the storage infrastructure."
ILIO is available for both the VMware View and Citrix XenDesktop platforms.
Not all solutions are so accommodating to the current market leaders, however. New generations of developers are looking to remake the virtual desktop concept from the ground up, say, by doing away with internal infrastructure altogether.
"On-premise VDI solutions are failing at widespread acceptance for many reasons," says Peter McKay, president and CEO of Desktop-as-a-Service provider Desktone. "The two top reasons we continuously hear about are the high up-front costs and the complexities involved in building an internal data center to deliver desktops. All internal VDI does is take one complex business process, desktop management, and move it to the server side of the business. In addition, not only are the up-front costs high but the ongoing costs to operate, such as power and cooling as well as manpower, are variable, so planning is very difficult. As a result of the large up-front costs and the infrastructure needed to manage desktops from servers, demonstrating an improved total cost of ownership (TCO) has proven to be very difficult for on-premise VDI."
With the cloud, however, come all the usual concerns about security, compatibility and vendor lock-in. Desktone is attempting to get out in front of these fears with a new blueprint that allows enterprises and service providers to deploy integrated virtual desktop environments built on a common software platform and operational reference architecture.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that the desktop should be spared the movement toward service-based architecture any more than servers, storage or networking. What's unclear is whether enterprises will be willing to trust their desktops to the vagaries of the cloud any more than the rest of the IT infrastructure.
When you think about it, the primary goal of desktop virtualization is to leverage existing PC infrastructure as much as possible. Just as unvirtualized servers generally run at about 10 percent utility, much of a standard PC's capacity sits idle most of the time, even when the machine itself is being used. Setting aside future considerations surrounding desktop image flexibility and remote access, many smaller organizations are turning to new types of low-cost solutions that claim to spread the processing power of a single PC across multiple users.
These "multiseat" platforms typically involve some kind of docking station that allows a standard PC to branch out to varying numbers of clients, typically less than 20. Utilizing software like Windows MultiPoint Server, multiseat providers say they can cut a typical worker's hardware costs to $100 or less. Many platforms are now moving on to their second or third generations, adding such things as advanced graphics support to accommodate complex enterprise environments and leveraging high-speed, multicore processing to overcome many of the performance and latency issues that dogged the concept early on.
"CPU processing power has continued to improve over time and with today's quad-core processors and adequate RAM, a single companion server can easily support standard computing applications like Internet surfing, word processing and email for up to 10 users," says Ron DeCamp, senior product manager for accessories at multiseat developer Targus Inc., which recently added a USB graphics component from DisplayLink to its Zero Client platform. "DisplayLink's advanced video virtualization technology allows us to provide up to 1080p quality video to multiple users simultaneously."
Improving the bells and whistles may make multiseat and full virtualization solutions more palatable to some, but it's likely there will be significant entrenched resistance for a little while longer at least. Virtualizing server and networking environments is one thing, but the desktop hits people where they live.
And with the financial benefits coming under increasing scrutiny, it seems desktop virtualization has a few more rows to hoe before its leading supporters can claim broad market success.