by Kevin Fogarty

VMware, Citrix Duke It Out on Desktop Virtualization

May 20, 20085 mins

Why is the virtualization news this week all about desktop virtualization? It's no coincidence that everyone wants to talk desktop the same week that Citrix holds its big conference for partners and customers.

If you pay any attention to the IT news, you’ll realize there’s one major theme for this week: desktop virtualization—a theme fueled more by coincidental self-interest than technology.

Maybe you’ve seen some of the articles all around this week:

Sure, there’s plenty of news. But, as with much news in the computer business, it focuses on what vendors are announcing&mdasusually technology they’ve been working on for months or years and that they’ve tried to hold back and release at a time that’s most advantageous for them.

So when you see the headline “VMware Makes Thin Client Moves,” it’s not because someone at VMware has just discovered the existence of the thin client.

That news came out of VMware this week because Citrix is having its own conference this week and is generating headlines by announcing partnerships and technology that would be just as accurate and/or useful to customers they had been announced last week, or next.

VMware and the other companies that get in on the fun (See”Neocleus – A different take on desktop virtualization”) by announcing their own stuff are just stealing a little of the spotlight.

That doesn’t mean desktop virtualization technology’s no good; it’s been around a lot longer than server or storage virtualization, in fact, and has been successful to a limited degree in every generation of computing almost since Grace Hopper chased the moth out of the Mark II.

It’s gotten better with every generation, too, to the extent that people who’ve never heard of desktop virtualization, remote sessions, thin clients or shared-host, terminal-based computing are happily signing up for Software As a Service (SaaS) offerings like Google Apps and, remote desktop-session players like GoToMyPC or online storage and email services.

None of those is a complete desktop-virtualization solution; they don’t make it easier to install, secure or manage vast armies of personal computers or reduce the cost and hardware requirements of the PCs themselves.

They only slice off small pieces of things the end users themselves would like to do, and provide it on a shared-host, remote-session basis.

But they work; and they attract end users who, for once, are on the winning end of the something-for-nothing calculation that usually benefits only IT managers and the vendors who sell them things.

VMware and the rest of them are selling a much more complete picture of virtualization, cost-savings and simplified management. (See “Desktop Virtualization: Inside VMware’s Strategy and Newest Plans” for more detail.) They’re excited because the number of desktops out there is so much higher than the number of servers that they figure if they can virtualize even a fraction of those, it will make them rich.

They’re right, too. Most of the PC universe is pure greenfield for virtualization vendors. It will stay that way because end users, for the most part, don’t want to be virtualized. They don’t mind if someone else manages their line-of-business applications and makes their storage available without too much hunting, and keeps the network attached and running.

But they don’t want to have to dial in and stay connected while they’re on the road, or working from home, or even be unable to load MP3s on their hard drive and play music in the office while they work (on headphones, of course).

PCs are like desks; everyone knows they belong to the company, but mess with your workers’ desks and the personal stuff in them and you’re in for a world of trouble.

That’s why desktop virtualization will be successful on only a limited basis. It will remain attractive to the same kinds of companies for the same kinds of roles that use remote sessions and thin clients and virtual desktops and all the other ways to cheaply support PCs used by more than one person for relatively generic functions.

Call center operators, bank tellers, data-entry clerks, retail clerks and all the other non-knowledge workers who need to either plug information into a computer or get it back out, are good targets for virtual desktops.

Anyone who has to spend hours and hours in front of a computer and is expected to come up with answers to problems using their own imagination and experience, or use their brain as anything but a conduit for information from customer to computer, wants some control over their work environment.

True, VMware (and probably others) are now making arrangements to allow virtual desktop users to work offline. But that’s just an extension of the partial-VM that I mentioned before. As they have with gMail and Salesforce and all the other selective-virtualization services, end users will accept the virtualization of some aspects of their working environment. And that level of virtualization will save some money and effort for their employers. It will be much easier to update applications that users access only through remote session on a secure server, for example.

Web front ends became popular interfaces for business applications for the same reason; users didn’t mind going through a browser, and all the code sat on the server. No more wandering around userland with a DVD updating everyone’s fat client every three months.

Virtual desktop infrastructures will be more flexible than previous iterations, and probably more popular. They’ll allow IT to leave all the “important” stuff in the data center and leave end users with what amounts to a sandbox that they can carry around and play games or MP3s on.

That should satisfy both constituencies. IT gets more control; users keep their independence.