by Laurianne McLaughlin

Desktop Virtualization: Inside VMware’s Strategy and Newest Plans

May 14, 20084 mins

VMware has two big desktop virtualization technology improvements waiting in the wings. Will they win over enterprise IT leaders who've been watching and waiting on desktop virtualization?

“Virtualization is a how, not a what,” says Jerry Chen, VMware’s senior director, enterprise desktop. The truth of this statement—and the extent to which some people in the virtualization community forget this truth— struck me yesterday, after I got an update from Chen on VMware’s strategy and plans for desktop PC virtualization.

For the most successful IT teams, virtualization is a how. It’s how you cut data center costs; it’s how you provision new PCs faster to the business than ever before; it’s how you get to say “yes” to many business-side requests that used to take months and thus used to require a “no.” Desktop virtualization could be the how to another classic IT problem: Desktop PCs still take much too much time and money to manage.

The security and management-related benefits of desktop virtualization are easy to understand for industries such as financial services and healthcare, which not surprisingly are two of the markets where VMware is having early success. (Government and education are also buying into the idea, Chen says.) Retail companies with many branch offices, knowledge firms like law firms, and even some manufacturing companies are starting to be verticals where VMware is selling desktop virtualization more, Chen says.

Still, when you consider the three main types of virtualization, server, storage and desktop, desktop lags in adoption behind the other three, to date. In CIO’s latest survey of enterprise IT leaders on virtualization, 25 percent of you said you are currently using virtual desktops; 13 percent plan to do so within a year, and 21 percent plan to do so within one to three years. But 37 percent of respondents have no plans to use virtualized desktops.

Sure, you’ve been stung by previous technology vendor promises to simplify PC management. It would be hard to find an IT leader who hasn’t been; it’s just a matter of how badly you’ve been stung. VMware faces this legacy.

But two desktop virtualization technology improvements, currently in the works and demonstrated at the recent VMworld show in Cannes, could make desktop virtualization a much more appetizing proposition for enterprise IT.

The first is what VMware calls “offline VDI” (virtual desktop infrastructure), and it means new flexibility for users of VMware’s desktop virtualization technology. Users will be able to work offline then check back in with the server and stream changes back to the VM. On the management side, IT will be able to manage desktop and laptop users in a more similar way, Chen notes.

The second improvement, scalable virtual images, is a technique that VMware believes will reduce management overhead and storage costs, for all those VMs for users. Desktop virtualization users will have a “master” virtual machine with “child” VMs that store only the differences in that individual user’s VM as compared to the master. This means much less storage space is required per user. It also means when you roll out a new app or patch, you just update the master.

As for when exactly we’ll see these technologies roll out, Chen won’t say just yet. But there’s no question that VMware moves a lot quicker than its “new” rival, Microsoft.

But what hurdles does VMware still face as it tries to sell enterprise IT on desktop virtualization? With the long-simmering resentment about how hard it is to manage Microsoft Windows desktops, and the current skepticism of Vista, what else is holding up IT acceptance of desktop virtualization?

Multimedia formats like rich video still have some performance issues in a virtualized desktop environment, Chen says. New graphics and monitor technologies may help. Also, IT works on long-cherished desktop PC refresh cycles, so widespread change on user desktops doesn’t happen fast, he notes.

But working in VMware’s favor, Chen believes, is the fact that we’ve moved out of what VMware calls the consolidate phase (that first wave of virtualization) and into the automate phase. If you talk to an IT leader about virtualization now, it’s all about management and automation, Chen says. That’s not surprising: who do you know that wouldn’t like to know how to reduce PC management costs, improve security and simplify management?

VMware is also counting on the fact that IT wants a set of management tools that cover virtualized servers and virtualized desktops in one. So is Citrix (known for its thin client roots,) which is going to be making a lot of hype and noise at its user conference being held in Houston next week.

So you tell me: Is virtualization enough of a “how” for your enterprise on the desktop yet? If not, what are you waiting for? Will VMware’s two big ideas change your mind? What do you want to see from VMware, Microsoft or Citrix to convince you to dump those devilish desktop clunkers once and for all?