To Virtualize the Desktop or Not


A steady stream of upgrades to leading desktop virtualization releases are taking aim at some of the crucial shortcomings in the technology in the hopes that financially strapped enterprises will start to view VDI as a necessity rather than a luxury.


Among the targets of the upgrades are improved multimedia processing and greater flexibility within established enterprise environments to bring performance closer to the level of standard workstation architectures.


The gambit is that by investing in VDI now, the ROI will start to kick in just as the economy hits the worst patch later this year and into next, and then will jumpstart profitability as the economy recovers late in 2010 or 2011. That's the plan anyway.


Probably the most significant release came from Citrix last fall when it unveiled XenDesktop Ver. 2.1 with a management stack that makes it easier to launch virtual desktops from a wider variety of virtual platforms. Enterprises will be able to deliver either Windows XP or Vista from VMware and Microsoft environments, as well as Citrix's own XenServer. The release also expands the variety of thin clients that can be deployed to include Wyse, HP and even Web-enabled clients.


That list was recently expanded with the release of a XenDesktop version of IGEL Technology's Universal Desktop client. The XenDesktop Appliance Mode works with Microsoft Windows XP Embedded to switch from the IGEL platform to a XenDesktop environment at the click of a mouse. The system can also be tied to IGEL's Digital Service Virtualization platform that provides a more PC-like experience through local delivery of services such as Web, multimedia and Java applications.


More recently, Parallels updated its Desktop 4.0 for Mac platform that offers improvements like expanded shader support and support for Intel's Streaming SIMD Extensions (SSE4) for enhanced multimedia processing. The system also opens Windows in the background whenever a Windows app is opened in Mac OS, making it easier to drag and drop files between the two systems.


These are incremental improvements to be sure, but they do push the technology toward further parity with traditional desktops. The question is whether this is enough to convince enterprise managers that they need a VDI environment now.


For Jim Sanzone of virtualization consulting firm Virtera, the answer may lie in whether you view desktop virtualization as a tactical or strategic investment. A tactical approach calls for a specific challenge to be addressed and a clear-cut solution implemented so that ROIs can be accurately calculated and future deployments can be charted out. This can be very effective, but somewhat limited in scope and sometimes downright unwieldy when too many needs are present. A more strategic approach requires a longer view based on how one technology, in this case VDI, fits into the overall picture.


Both approaches are effective, and more often than not it takes a combination of the two to produce a positive result.


Is there a magic formula to determine whether VDI is a good investment today? Sorry, no. But if a significant investment is not in the budget now, there's an extreme likelihood that the technology will provide a close equivalent to desktop performance in the not-too-distant future.