Virtual desktops - Frenemies at the gate

Apple's tablet-PC darling started out as a shiny target of gadget lust offering a world of possibilities. Now it is a key facilitator in the battle to free the desktop from IT managers

Apple's tablet-PC darling started out as a shiny target of gadget lust offering a world of possibilities. But before long, it was a key facilitator in the battle to free the desktop from the tightly-controlled domain of the IT manager — a workable business tool that is steadily replacing long-favoured laptops for more and more mobile employees, David Braue writes.

Managing the iPad — and the dozens of imitators that will flood the market this year — promises to become one of the biggest headaches for IT managers finding it harder and harder to maintain the consistency of the corporate standard operating environment (SOE) in an intrinsically mobile world. And while the lack of viable alternatives once meant it was possible to focus on rolling out better-the-devil-you-know corporate desktops, the new mobility paradigm is driving more and more IT executives to entirely rethink their desktop platform.

For many, the answer increasingly lies in virtual desktop technology, an application delivery paradigm that was once more gimmick – a proof-of-concept borrowing from immensely-popular server virtualization – than corporate imperative. Yet with the whole idea of the corporate 'desktop' now necessarily extending to tablet computers that are more smartphone than PC, virtual desktops are gaining popularity as a way of regaining control and stemming device management chaos.

Conceptually, virtual desktops exist simply as files, stored and run on high-powered servers in a reversal of the 1990s-era client/server paradigm. In the virtual-desktop world, the client still has all the power – but it lives on the server, not the client. Indeed, virtualization has separated the whole idea of a 'client' from the application running on it: a client, these days, is simply a device. As long as you have adequate telecommunications coverage and can broadcast a functional desktop environment to that client, it doesn't matter where the client is located – or what shape it takes.

Virtual reality, real benefits

Despite its promise, virtual desktop technology has taken a while to get off its feet: for all the industry's enthusiasm, the time-honoured desktop model remains sacrosanct for many. There are also practical issues, such as ensuring that applications are easy to use on mobile devices' smaller screens, points out Mark Rugless, workplace strategy and services executive for Asia-Pacific with IBM.

"We've got a large number of proofs of concept around the region," Rugless explains. "People are trying to understand what the use cases are where it makes sense to do this." IBM's flagship local customer is the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing, which in December signed a $109m services deal that includes delivery of a 4500-desktop virtual desktop platform.

Recent signs suggest momentum is slowly building, even at the lower end of town. Last August, virtualization giant VMware assembled a "crack team" of desktop-virtualization specialists designed to launch a charm offensive against Australian businesses. Early takers of VMWare's View virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solution included two local councils — the 200-desktop City of Cockburn, south of Perth, and South Australia's City of Norwood, Payneham and St Peters — but a number of private enterprises have followed suit.

For example, bedding retailer Forty Winks' franchise in Mile End/Marion, South Australia installed View during a major virtualization project, allowing users to access MYOB and other systems from three sites – and saving workers 2.5 days per week of duplicate data entry as a result. And 90 employees of wind-power generation company Infigen Energy used View to smooth a corporate restructuring: staff could access old and new desktops at the same time, accessing applications including Microsoft Office, Visio and Project from anywhere.

Agricultural cooperative Wesfarmers has also found benefits in virtual desktops, using View and VMware's ThinApp application-virtualization system to deploy more than 150 virtual desktops running an Oracle Hyperion financial reporting application. That application was made available to employees without disrupting the individual SOEs of ten different Wesfarmers subsidiaries, saving IT managers at those subsidiaries from each having to configure, test, roll out and support the application individually. Based on its success, Wesfarmers is considering adding 350 more virtual desktops to support its workers' compensation operations.

Although many IT managers may go into a virtual desktop deployment expecting capital reductions, these deployments highlight VDI's real value. Centralisation, for example, allows concentration of computing power and attendant reductions in hardware capital and maintenance costs. It makes for easier backup, security, and user data management.

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