Suddenly, virtual desktops are a real contender

The recent releases of Vista and Office 2007 have companies rethinking how to deploy future upgrades

Once a drab, also-ran solution for call centres, schools and other undemanding environments, virtual desktops are suddenly hot, with vendors touting products aimed at mainstream corporate information workers. Not only are the latest wares more powerful and flexible than previous offerings, but vendors say they're also cheaper and easier to integrate.

The recent releases of Windows Vista and Office 2007 have some companies rethinking how to deploy future upgrades. Others are in a receptive mood after positive experiences with first-wave virtual desktop products such as Microsoft's Terminal Services and Citrix Systems' Presentation Server, as well as server virtualization software from VMware.

Under the big top

"We're definitely looking at all of the options," said Michael Koval, senior vice president and CIO at Long & Foster Real Estate. Besides using VMware on the server side, the U.S.-based firm has used Presentation Server for the past seven years to deliver hosted applications to more than 3,500 employees and 16,000 affiliated real estate agents. Besides centralizing management, Citrix also allows Koval to dole out applications on an as-needed basis, reducing the number of licenses he needs to buy.

Citrix, which acquired application streaming provider Ardence Inc. in December, now claims to be the only vendor offering all forms of virtual desktops -- from terminal servers to app streaming to desktop virtualization -- managed in a common infrastructure. Koval says that's good news.

"It's definitely more attractive, because then I don't have to go upstairs to ask for money to overhaul my entire infrastructure," he said. "I picked Citrix many years ago because they already had a lot of services under one roof. That trend has only continued."

TCO, easier deployment seal the deal

Other vendors introducing products include Virtual Iron Software, which is teaming with Provision Networks to provide desktop virtualization software for $US120 per desktop. The vendors claim that their offering, which stores a user's personalized desktop (including data files, applications and operating system) in a virtual machine on a server, is cheaper than managing conventional PCs. "There is so much awareness of the [total cost of ownership] at the desktop level, we knew we had to come in below that," said Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing officer at Virtual Iron.

Other vendors tout easier deployment. ClearCube said last week that the latest version of its PC blade software now includes a connection broker that can manage virtualized desktops created by VMware software.

While deploying desktop virtualization was technically possible using VMware alone, "logistical hurdles" made it cumbersome for most users, according to independent analyst Brian Madden.

"The smart vendors took a lot of notes and went to developers to make this happen," Madden said. "That's why you're seeing a wave of products just now hitting the market."

But most of the products remain point solutions, offering application streaming or terminal services or desktop virtualization, but not all three, said Madden. Citrix is the only vendor to have announced a "true end-to-end offering," he noted.

"VMware is focused on the underlying infrastructure. While Microsoft technically has everything, their products are managed by three distinct product groups, meaning users still need to cobble together a solution," he said. "So it's Citrix's game to lose, no doubt."

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