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Virtual desktops

Bulent Teksoz, Regional Technology Manager, Symantec Middle East and North Africa.The pace of desktop virtualisation deployment is only expected to speed up now that Windows 7 is on the scene and client-hosted virtual desktop offerings are emerging. There's huge interest in desktop virtualisation technology, due to its promises of improved security, manageability and flexibility. “Multiple factors are converging to make 2010 a breakout year for virtual desktops. As 2009 drew to a close, desktop virtualisation has progressed along the same rapid trajectory that server virtualisation enjoyed two to three years ago – moving quickly from test labs, to pilots, to full scale production deployments,” says Yannick Kunegel, Manager, Systems Engineering, Citrix Middle East.

As virtual desktop technologies continue to mature, an increasing number of enterprises are proving their mainstream viability by rolling out large-scale virtual desktop implementations to thousands of users, improving security and reducing desktop management costs by up to 50% in the process, he adds.

Enforcing end-user compliance with regulatory requirements, securing users data and intellectual property, simplifying application and desktop management, or enhancing flexibility to support an expansion plan, are typical catalysts highlighted by organisations for seeking alternative to traditional desktop computing model.

“Desktop virtualisation presents a truly mobile workforce – the advantage of connecting from anywhere at any time – which is essential in today’s business environment. Endpoint virtualisation provides instant on-boarding for the mobile employee and casual workers in the Middle East. Applications as-needed are delivered and updated instantly, as are on- and offline support, and policy-driven functions,’ says Bulent Teksoz, Regional Technology Manager, Symantec Middle East and North Africa.

With endpoint virtualisation, users can access both legacy and updated environments simultaneously on the same physical hardware, and migration to new systems and applications is easier. There is faster support and software updates – both of which can be managed without a visit from IT.

Increased security is another promise. “Desktop virtualisation involves decoupling the different computing layers and storing some or all of them in a data center. Through virtualisation, employees can access their applications and data very safely over a network, minimizing the risk of data loss. On the IT side, virtualisation accelerates deployment of new capabilities without needing to acquire new hardware and configure components. It also helps reduce application testing requirements and compatibility issues and simplifies disaster recovery and compliance,” says Wilson Xavier, Windows Client Business Group Lead, Microsoft Gulf.

How it works

In virtualised desktop environments, the operating system, applications and associated data are abstracted from the user's PC. Broadly speaking, there are two types of desktop virtualisation. Local desktop virtualisation runs the entire desktop environment in a protected “bubble” on the user's PC. Hosted desktop virtualisation stores the users' desktops in the data center, requiring users to access their desktop images through a network connection.

Within these categories are several sub-types.

In the hosted desktop virtualisation realm, enterprises can store virtual desktops on a standard server accessed by multiple users simultaneously, or a PC blade architecture in which each blade typically serves just one user at a time. Users can connect to their desktops using thin clients, laptops or regular desktops, but hosted desktops usually preclude any sort of offline access.

Local desktop virtualisation is achieved either with a bare-metal, or Type 1, hypervisor, or a Type 2 hypervisor that is installed on top of the PC's operating system. Bare-metal hypervisors are not yet widely available, but vendors say they will provide better security than Type 2 hypervisors, because the bare-metal type runs independently of the client operating system. They also deliver better performance than hosted desktops, because applications run on the local client instead of a remote server.

Desktop virtualisation, with its promises of improved security, manageability and flexibility, may be on the verge of huge adoption, some experts are predicting. But as with many new technologies, there is a catch. ROI is one of the main selling points, but desktop virtualisation requires significant upfront costs and it can easily take three or four years to realize financial rewards.

While server virtualisation virtually guarantees a speedy ROI, desktop virtualisation can be cost-prohibitive to start and deliver a somewhat less immediate and difficult-to-quantify return on the substantial investment.

Analysts estimate choosing virtual desktops can cost 150% to 250% more than traditional PCs — and that's just for the direct cost of acquiring the technology. Savvy IT managers realize when pricing out a project they need to also calculate indirect costs.

Kunegel says the cost of desktop virtualisation depends on the type of solution a company chooses. Different types of workers across the enterprise need different types of desktops. Some require simplicity and standardization, while others require high performance and personalization.

“The larger the number of desktops in an organization, the lesser is the TCO of desktop virtualisation. However, there are a lot of other technical aspects involved, like the applications being used, user locations, amount of data being handled, etc, that also impact the cost of desktop virtualisation,” says Chandan Mehta, Product Manager, Fujitsu Technology Solutions.

Teksoz agrees: “Adding virtual desktops to the environment in an effort to lower endpoint total cost of ownership (TCO), an organization may actually increase its total cost per endpoint because they now need expensive new storage for those virtual images and also need a different solution to manage those virtual desktops.”

That said, though, there will likely be an uptick in the acceptance of desktop virtualisation, for a couple of reasons. First, more vendors are offering Virtual Desktop Infrastructures (VDI), which give each end user a private “desktop.” VDI uses the same kind of hypervisors that allow many virtual machines to run on a single physical host. But rather than running five- or ten-server VMs on one physical server, VDI can run 50 PC operating systems, each of which serves a single end user.

The other big change is support for peripherals, multimedia and other Web- and PC-focused technologies. These have been inaccessible for users of shared-image terminal-services types of systems — that is, traditional desktop virtualisation — but nowadays most users won't do without them.

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