Desktop virtualisation: Ready to rule


by Steve Evans| 21 June 2011

After being the 'Next Big Thing' for what seems like years, desktop virtualisation may finally be ready to hit the mainstream. Steve Evans looks at why the time is right and what role mobile devices such as Apple's iPad are playing in increasing adoption

Way back in 2009 at the VMworld Europe conference in Cannes, Jerry Chen, at the time VMware's senior director of enterprise desktop platforms, demoed the company's mobile virtualisation platform. Chen used a Nokia N800 tablet to flip between two operating systems - "One for work Jerry and one for personal Jerry," as he put it.

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People don't want to carry two phones, the one that's approved by IT and a "cooler" phone that has a bit more personality, Chen added.

One way to combat this, he explained, is to combine multiple virtual machines on a single device - converging your work life and personal life on a single device, but ensuring that they are completely separate. The demo included firing up the device running Windows Mobile (which has since morphed into Windows Phone, of course) before switching to Android.

He tested a number of mission-critical apps in Windows (such as Solitaire, which no self-respecting IT exec should ever be without) and then used the Android VM to check the time at VMware's Palo Alto HQ.

The idea behind the platform was that any data you have on a device will long-outlive the device itself, therefore you should be able to retain your mobile phone persona when you change to the latest, shiny mobile gadget. Data, apps, contacts or any data accessed by the device can be stored remotely and pushed out to a new device.

Desktops leading the way?
This is remarkably similar to desktop virtualisation, which was also a big theme at that year's VMware conference. Just before the conference kicked off, the firm announced a massive revamping of its virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) platform with the emphasis on enabling mobile workers to access their virtual desktop on the move.

VMware View, as the product was rebranded, featured a platform called View Composer, formally called Scalable Virtual Images. It enables IT departments to create a centralised master template with user data stored separately, potentially reducing storage costs by up to 90%, VMware said.

It also introduced Offline Desktop, which meant workers could access their virtualised desktops via a laptop.

"A user can be connected to a virtual desktop over the network, but then if the user wants to run that virtual machine locally, they can 'check out' the virtual desktop and boot it up locally. So you're running that same machine, and any files or applications you have stored locally will still be there. The virtual machine is executing on the local machine," explained Tommy Armstrong, VMware's senior product marketing manager at the launch, adding that when a user reconnects the machine the server image will be automatically updated.

"The desktop is the next big frontier for VMware and virtualisation," added Jocelyn Goldfein, general manager, desktop business unit at VMware, at the same launch. "We think machine virtualisation has the same capacity to transform desktops as it has demonstrably transformed data centres."

So what has happened since then? It's fair to say that desktop and mobile virtualisation hasn't taken off in the same way as server and storage virtualisation, but there are signs that may be changing, particularly when it comes to the desktop element.

Windows 7 lends a helping hand
"Desktop virtualisation is taking off now primarily because of Windows 7," points out Ian Wells, regional director, Northern EMEA for Veeam Software, a company that deals with management and backup and recovery for VMware environments (although its Backup and Replication product has recently been extended to Microsoft Hyper-V environments).

"It is a very good way of rolling out new operating systems, plus it's then easier to roll out future updates and new operating systems. The fact that support for Windows XP is coming to an end and Windows 7 is seen as good enough for enterprises is driving adoption of desktop virtualisation," Wells tells CBR.

A Forrester report recently stated that 90% of the businesses they quizzed expected to migrate to Windows 7 eventually, so the potential for desktop virtualisation is strong from that point of view. But what has held back adoption so far? "It scares people," Jerome Semichon, senior solution architect in Dell's Infrastructure Consulting Services, told CBR a while back.

"Server virtualisation, although it affected all users, was invisible. With desktop, it's very visible, most notably in applications like Word, where users have to start the learning process again," he added.

Despite this, Semichon said that the company had seen impressive take-up of desktop virtualisation because firms are starting to rethink their desktop infrastructure. "Desktop virtualisation is changing the way people work, the same way they've been working for years. It feels new, but it's not. It's not rocket science, it's using the building blocks we've had for years," he added.

In fact, since then Dell has ramped up its efforts in the desktop virtualisation arena, with the release of Dell Desktop Virtualisation Solutions (DDVS), a pre-configured platform containing the hardware, software and services needed to run a virtualised desktop environment. It is based on open architecture and can support most end-user computing devices, according to the firm.

Multi-device world
Another firm that is seeing heavy interest and adoption in desktop virtualisation is Citrix Systems. Patrick Irwin, product marketing manager at the virtualisation specialists, tells CBR: "We've been in that space for 20 or so years, but it's only in the last two that it has been referred to as desktop virtualisation and there has been a big kick up in interest.

"We conducted a survey in October 2009, when Windows 7 was released and 35% of respondents said they would be adopting desktop virtualisation within a year. We asked the same question a year later and the response was closer to 80%. First time round 25% said they wouldn't adopt it. That figure fell to below 5% a year later."

While Irwin admits that this was a self-selected audience, he claims that it is evidence of where the industry is at now and that users are now well educated about the benefits of desktop virtualisation. Part of this user education is the acceptance that desktop virtualisation is not just about sitting at your desk and accessing your desktop that is hosted in a data centre somewhere rather than in a box next to your feet. As Citrix's Irwin puts it, desktop virtualisation is about "divorcing your work from your location".

To that end it is perhaps no surprise that desktop virtualisation has begun to gain more acceptance as the use of mobile devices has skyrocketed.

"We live in a multi-device world now," Chris Young, VP of End User Computing at VMware, tells CBR. "It was only just over a year ago that we saw iPads come onto the scene and now tablet devices are exploding, including Android. That's been part of the change in the way people interact with their devices; mobiles have become a core part of our personal and work lives."

With increasing numbers of workers being mobile, remote access is becoming more important and workers are starting to change the way they work, Young contends. "We inherently want to be more mobile, more social, we want to collaborate more and we want more real-time access to information and communications," he adds.

One organisation benefiting from this approach is Leicestershire Constabulary, a police force, which operates across an area of 965 square miles with a population of nearly one million.

The organisation decided back in 2007 that it could save time and increase the productivity of police officers through mobile access to data. They reckoned that enabling officers to handle administrative tasks while out on patrol would increase their productivity by 30%.

The organisation settled on Citrix's XenDesktop platform, which was installed on Panasonic CF19 ToughBook laptops (not as sexy as iPads, admittedly, but they get the job done) used in patrol cars. This enabled officers to link up to the applications they normally use in the office, giving them a familiarity with the system. The laptops are connected back to base via an on-board 3G card.

"The ability of XenDesktop to deliver a virtualised desktop to the mobile units meant officers were able to interact with the same core systems and software they were used to back in the office. The only difference was that the computer was in the car," says James Pearce, information systems analyst, Leicestershire Constabulary.

Another advantage of desktop virtualisation is, of course, security; no data is held on the device as it is all sent back to the server and is held behind the organisation's firewall. This is particularly relevant to Leicestershire Constabulary as a lot of the sensitive information they hold relates to offenders or crimes.

"One of the concerns of all stakeholders is ensuring the security of the data delivered to our officers while on the move," Pearce adds. "[Desktop virtualisation] means we hold nothing on the notebooks, so removed altogether."

Windows on an iPad?
But for those high-paid execs who would rather access their virtualised desktop on their fancy new iPad or Android-based tablet rather than a rugged laptop, there are options. Recently, Quest Software unveiled its new vWorkspace Connector for Android version 1.0, which enables vWorkspace users to securely access virtual Windows desktops and applications from Android tablets and mobile phones.

This followed hot on the heels of an earlier vWorkspace Connector announcement that extended device support out to iPads and other mobile devices. It essentially enables users to run a Windows or Linux environment on their tablet, giving full access to mission-critical applications when out and about.

VMware, too, has embraced the iPad revolution with VMware View Client for iPad. Chris Young says this move is driven by the increasing popularity of iPads in the enterprise. "With VMware View Client for iPad, employees and enterprises get a win-win combination - a complete, secure virtual desktop platform they trust, paired with the unique touch interface of the iPad employees have come to love in their consumer lives," he said.

This consumerisation of IT has driven law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal (which has since merged with Denton Wilde Sapte to form SNR Denton) to reassess its PC infrastructure. The company hooked up with Citric to create Follow Me PC, its virtualised desktop infrastructure that can operate on any device over any network.

Chris Lewis, manager, software services at the firm, says: "You can run a complete corporate desktop on the iPad - your data, your applications, your PC follows you around."

It's interesting to note that many desktop virtualisation initiatives - such as the two mentioned in this article - do not list cost-savings as the driving force behind it. "Price is always the question with any technology," says Citrix's Irwin. "Companies will need to spend money on it but that's not why people are doing it. It's about business improvement, it's about productivity."

VMware's Young agrees: "In terms of server virtualisation we have a legacy of delivering immediate return on investment and I think the expectation around desktop virtualisation is that you'll see the exact same thing. But it's an enabler for far more than that: user productivity, modernisation of user computing. Two years ago it would cost you more on a capex basis to deliver a virtual desktop than a physical one, but that is coming down now. However, the value of desktop virtualisation is in the enablement that it brings to the end user computing paradigm that is going through huge change."

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