Desktop Computing 3.0: Will Virtualization Steal the Show?

How thin will the next round of client computing devices be? Intel and VMware both want to answer that question, but there's IT confusion among a bevy of choices from PC virtualization to application streaming. Here's a look at the battle for the desktop and how IT can prepare.

For the next wave of desktop client computing, how thin will be in?

MORE ON Desktop Virtualization

Survey: Virtualization in the Enterprise

Citrix Seals XenSource Deal, Pressures VMware

Is Citrix the Real Rival to VMWare?

That's the question enterprise IT leaders struggle with right now, as VMware and a slew of rivals talk up desktop virtualization and a host of other "thin client" options as smart replacements for today's desktop PCs—which still cost too much to manage, secure and maintain.

Today, Intel launched a fresh salvo in the debate, releasing results of a fourth quarter 2007 survey of 705 IT decision makers at medium and large U.S. businesses, declaring a "dead heat" in the race among emerging models for desktop computing.

Those models start with desktop PC virtualization, "VDI" as VMware calls it, or "virtual hosted desktop," as Intel calls it. In this model, a user's whole desktop PC image lives not on the local PC, but in the backroom on a server.

The main drivers for IT to want to move to this or other "thin" client models include greater centralization of IT administrative chores in a time of lean staffing, disaster recovery, security and compliance concerns, and lower cost of ownership. Nobody's saying mobile devices are going away. But make no mistake, desktop computing will morph, analysts say.

"The enterprise client device is up for grabs," says Forrester Research senior analyst Natalie Lambert.

What are the other main options, in addition to VMware's vision? Traditional "terminal services" computing (as in Wyse terminals;) application streaming (where the client PC has a host OS but streams applications from a server); OS streaming (where the whole client environment streams on demand from a server); and blade computing (where identical clients plug into racks.)

Virtualization's Reach Now

Intel's survey took a picture of where IT opinion stands on these flavors of desktop computing, at the moment. The lowdown: "There's no clear winner," says Mike Ferron-Jones, Manager of Intel's Emerging Model program, who presented the survey to reporters today.

According to Intel's survey, 39 percent of the enterprises have a current deployment of desktop virtualization; 84 percent are using terminal services; 30 percent have currently deployed application streaming, 26 percent are using blade PCs and 15 percent are using OS streaming. But enterprises doing "broad deployments" of all those options are in the single digits (other than terminal services, which is an old technology).

What should IT leaders make of these figures? First, a bit of context: If you're thinking this discussion sounds somewhat like "back to the future," you're right. Thin clients, which put the computing burden on servers not clients, have been around for decades. But today's virtualization technology is helping VMware offer a new take on thin desktop computing, one that could pose more of a threat to Intel and Microsoft than Wyse ever did. Understandably, Intel can't like a future picture of desktop computing that doesn’t require much CPU power at most user desktops. VMware has no such problem.

Second, compare these Intel survey numbers to CIO's survey on virtualization: In the CIO survey, 25 percent of enterprises said they were currently using desktop virtualization and another 13% said they planned to do so within a year. But 21 percent said it would be one to three years before you deployed, and 37 percent said they were not interested. (CIO's survey did not break out any questions on application streaming or OS streaming.)

ROI Confusion

That reaction to desktop virtualization looks quite different than the bear hug that enterprise IT has given server virtualization. Why? Desktop virtualization is harder to plan, and harder to calculate TCO figures for, says Burton Group senior analyst Chris Wolf.

"Desktop virtualization's greatest obstacle is the clarity of the business case, which is much more clear-cut with server virtualization," Wolf says. "Until the technology matures, you're not going to see the 12-18 month ROI that's common with server virtualization today. That's why I've seen enterprises willing to dip their toe in the water, but not quite ready to jump in feet first."

Moreover, says IDC research manager Stephen Elliot, many IT managers do not even yet fully understand the differences between the various flavors of desktop virtualization, application streaming and the like.

Elliot's reaction to the Intel survey: "It's great for causing more confusion in an already confused desktop virtualization marketplace," he says.

"Most enterprises are still figuring desktop virtualization out; architecture, model, technology, process impact, and security," Elliot says. "The net is that it's growing and appropriate for certain segments; but most users are still working through what is the 'model' that fits their business and technology needs, and most importantly how much will it cost and save."

So if your enterprise is working with desktop virtualization in a sandbox mode, say in a department or two, you certainly have plenty of company.

"Many of the large enterprises I have worked with that have virtual desktop deployments are usually only leveraging virtual desktops within a small department," says Burton Group's Wolf. "The majority of enterprises have been waiting for the technology to mature prior to committing to a hardware vendor, virtualization vendor, and virtual desktop management platform. So while an enterprise may have a virtual desktop solution in place, it is probably far from being a large scale solution at this time."

Streaming's Advantages

In presenting the survey, Intel's Ferron-Jones argued that application streaming and OS streaming offer advantages compared to VMware's vision of desktop virtualization, since these options can deliver streaming media such as video to clients more smoothly. (Citrix, which recently merged with virtualization pioneer Xen, is known in the application streaming market for its presentation server product.)

Intel raises a valid point, says Burton Group's Wolf. While Intel and VMware both have their own agendas, it's important for IT leaders to understand that all of these client computing options will not only survive but also improve in the next few years, Wolf says.

"All methods of application delivery will be deployed, as each has its advantages," Wolf says. "Vendors are actively working toward making application delivery transparent to end users. So eventually users will 'get' their applications and not necessarily know how they are delivered," Wolf says. That delivery will depend partly on the user's physical location and available bandwidth, he adds.

It's too early to judge how this battle for the next wave of client computing will ultimately play out in terms of Intel's market share.

"Ultimately, I believe that the desktop is getting sucked back into the datacenter and onto servers," says Forrester's Lambert. "This hosted model simply provides a better environment for IT to manage and secure."

"With that said, mobility is increasing and there will always be a need for laptops and other mobile devices," Lambert says. "In addition, consumers will always have their PCs that are not server-based. So, this is a mixed bag for Intel."

For enterprise IT, three realities seem clear for now. Vendors are keen to win your affection for the next round of client devices. They'll continue to cook up confusing terminology and jargon around client computing. And you'll have to do much more homework on desktop virtualization than you did on server virtualization.

Related:

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

Watch out for these 6 IT management traps to avoid