IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

The Promise of Desktop Virtualization

Increased security and easier desktop management are just two benefits of employing virtual desktops, but not every business is a good fit for the technology. Learn where the opportunities are. By Megan Santosus

Mention virtualization to many channel partners, and they are likely to conjure up visions of data center consolidation, reduced hardware footprints, and streamlined provisioning. While server virtualization has undoubtedly proved a boon to some channel partners, it's not the only kind of virtualization that holds promise. Desktop virtualization--specifically of the server-based variety in which virtual machines in effect run on a server in a data center where they are accessed by end users--can provide channel partners with new business opportunities.

The premise of server-based desktop virtualization (also called hosted desktop virtualization) is straightforward. Rather than having individual desktop machines loaded with operating systems and applications, desktop virtualization essentially separates hardware from the software by allowing desktops to run on virtual machines on a server. The operating system and applications run on a server in the data center, which, thanks to virtualization software, delivers a desktop to users via a network. A single server can host multiple virtual desktops, allowing many users to access their desktops and applications simultaneously using PCs or thin clients; all the processing and data storage takes place on a server. 

"Hosted desktop virtualization is the virtualization technology that is of most interest today," says Natalie Lambert, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. "There is such potential to lower costs, increase security, reduce the burdens of desktop management, and improve remote access."

The three leading vendors in server-based desktop virtualization are Citrix Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., and VMware Inc. Citrix's offering, Citrix XenDesktop, delivers desktops on demand from a data center when users log on. Microsoft offers a variety of virtualization software; the company's Windows Server Terminal Services enable IT managers to host desktops on a central server that is accessed by end users locally or remotely. Microsoft also offers Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) that hosts desktop operating systems on virtual machines on a server. Both of Microsoft's offerings enable desktops to be centralized in a data center; however, VDI requires more resources because it involves the virtualization of an entire desktop environment on a server. And from VMware comes VMware View, a portfolio of software products that enable the centralization of virtual desktops in a data center.

According to Lambert, there's no one-size-fits-all desktop virtualization technology, and the individual merits of each vendor's offerings depend entirely on the computing needs of end users. Indeed, Citrix and Microsoft have long been partners in the desktop virtualization space, so it's plausible to mix and match technologies from different vendors to come up with the most suitable virtualization solution. It can also make sense to stick with one vendor; a customer that uses VMware for server virtualization may opt for VMware's desktop virtualization technology due to the ease of dealing with a single vendor.

In general, Lambert says, "VMware and Citrix provide management and virtualization technologies in one solution, while Microsoft has all the software available." Ultimately, vendor selection has to be assessed on a customer-by-customer basis. Channel partners, Lambert says, "have to make sure that they fit the virtualization technology to the user needs."

While user needs vary, there are some general guidelines as to where hosted desktop virtualization can work best. Companies that have remote, task-based employees who typically spend the bulk of their time accessing Office suite applications could benefit from desktop virtualization. So, too, could organizations that employ contract workers or need to provide business partners with applications but not hardware. Even users who need processing-intensive applications such as accounting or ERP can get their desktops delivered via virtualization provided there are plenty of server resources available in the data center.

Hosted desktop virtualization is likely insufficient for organizations that rely heavily on rich media or 3D graphics, or require serious computing power for heavy-duty financial analysis. (There may not be enough performance when many virtual machines run on one server.) Desktop virtualization is also a poor fit for mobile workers, because they won't have access to data or applications. Yet despite the limitations inherent with hosted desktop virtualization, the technology can provide channel partners with significant opportunities.

Joe Brown, president of Accelera Solutions Inc. in Falls Church, Va., for example, can speak firsthand about the potential of desktop virtualization. Accelera is a provider of virtualization technologies (both server and desktop) and has seen its business grow nearly 800 percent over the past three years. "We've grown due to our focus on the virtualization space," Brown says, adding that channel partners should think of the markets for server and desktop virtualization as distinctly different. "Right now, desktop virtualization is a very trendy new thing that everyone is interested in," Brown says. "It can enable customers to shed the burden of supporting even a small number of desktops as well as provide a flexible computing environment."


Indeed, eliminating the burdens related to desktop management is one of the key selling points of desktop virtualization. Providing patches and software upgrades is greatly simplified in a virtualized environment because there is only one physical machine--the server on which virtual desktops are running--that needs to be administered. In a virtualized environment, "you can take a single desktop image and deploy it to a workforce regardless of differences in hardware," says Chris Wolf, senior analyst at the Burton Group, an IT research firm. Desktop virtualization can also enable companies to upgrade applications without upgrading desktop hardware. And from a user's perspective, a virtualized desktop may even perform better than a physical PC. "Users' virtual desktops can start as a clean image," Wolf explains. "With no excessive software, they boot really fast. It's just power up and be off and running."

Another key selling point is that support headaches can be significantly alleviated because the applications and operating system run on a central server. Any software-related problems can be fixed without sending a support person to an end user's location. Andi Mann, research director at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) Inc., an IT research and consulting firm in Boulder, Colo., believes SMBs in particular can benefit from desktop virtualization's support paradigm because they just don't have the internal resources to address end-user problems quickly in a traditional desktop environment. With desktop virtualization, those end users who are distributed or who work remotely "don't have to wait for someone to show up and fix their system," he says.

The biggest benefit that hosted desktop virtualization can deliver is in the area of security. With all data residing in the secure confines of the data center, a lost or stolen laptop is more of an inconvenience than a security threat. End users still have access to the data they need to do their jobs, but they no longer have the onus of storing and securing that data. For many companies, "the security benefits of desktop virtualization far outweigh the costs," says Lambert.

What exactly are the costs of desktop virtualization? That all depends on an organization's existing desktop infrastructure and computing needs, but Lambert and others say that organizations that are counting on saving significant money by moving to desktop virtualization are often disappointed. "With server virtualization, there's consolidation in that assets are being reduced," Wolf says. "With desktop virtualization, you may need to add servers, network storage, and thin-client terminals to connect to virtual desktops." And as Lambert points out, the cost of network storage isn't trivial. "While network storage is significantly better than desktop storage, it can cost 10 to 15 percent more," she says.

Although there seems to be consensus that the desktop virtualization technology itself is mature and offers a viable alternative to traditional desktop environments, what is lagging is a rigorous way to prove the business case. The returns often bandied about in conjunction with desktop virtualization--namely, reduced support costs and improved security--aren't always determined by exact science. And that, more than the technology, stands to hamper the adoption of desktop virtualization.

Not every organization has an immediate need for desktop virtualization, either. Darrell Stymiest is the director of IT operations at UGL Unicco, a facilities management company in Newton, Mass. As a veteran customer of VMware and Citrix server virtualization technologies, Stymiest thought it was logical to start looking at virtual desktops. About a year ago, he piloted a project to see how the technology would fit into his company's computing landscape. While the performance proved adequate--there was essentially no difference from the user perspective--the pilot wasn't successful. For one thing, UGL Unicco leases its PCs for 30 months, so there was little benefit in moving to desktop virtualization as a way to avoid PC upgrades. But Stymiest says the pilot failed for a more fundamental reason: "We were not trying to solve a specific problem," he says. "We were just evaluating how the technology worked."

So channel partners seeking opportunities need to look at the technology as more than just a trendy alternative to desktop computing as we now know it. To be successful, channel partners need to understand their customers' business issues, assess their computing needs, and determine how desktop virtualization can solve their problems. As EMA's Mann says, "It's really important to work with business managers, find out what their needs are, and deliver quick wins."

About the Author

Megan Santosus's picture

Megan Santosus is a Boston-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to The ChannelPro Network.

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