Virtual desktops promise much, but just how do you get there?

IT managers have desktop virtualization goals in mind, but they are unclear on the impact of this technology.

Desktop virtualization holds much promise from a systems management point of view.

An IT manager can classify user groups, for example, and just create one image for those users' needs that can be easily controlled and swapped out on virtual desktops.

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And maybe the IT staff can stream down applications on an as-needed basis to a thin client and lock down security at the same time.

It may be simple in theory, but IT managers don't know how to make their desktop virtualization goals a reality.

"The different ways of doing [desktop virtualization] and how it will change things in my environment is clear as mud," said Gerald Pattyn, IS manager with geographic systems vendor Farragut Systems Inc., in Lafayette, Colo. "I would not want to be in a position of having to make the decision of [which vendor] to hitch my horse up to."

Which technology is going to make it? How much more storage will I need if I swap out desktops for applications streamed from the data center? If a user runs into a problem with an application, does that problem stem from the host or guest operating system?

Vendors pitch virtualization

IT managers are asking these questions just as software suppliers begin to buzz their shops with emerging desktop virtualization technologies. Some turn to consultants to figure it all out, much like the airline that is considering virtualizing 20,000 of its desktops.

Customers want to know if desktop virtualization will solve problems or create new ones, said David Payne, virtualization expert and CTO at integrator Xcedex LLC in Minneapolis. "[The airline] says, 'We're getting these [vendor] pitches and they sound good, but what impact will it have on my infrastructure?' And the vendors are also not talking about a quote on how much it will cost."

In the end, the airline's WAN will need a major overhaul to support the completely different client/server traffic that, in this case, a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) will create, and one that the client's current architecture does not support, Payne said. Right now, the company's infrastructure is good enough for several hundred workloads for the applications they have. VDI removes the power from the desktop and puts it in the data center.

"Now you're talking about tens of hundreds or tens of thousands of loads going over that pipeline to the data center," he said. "That's a lot to consider."

Let's just wait and see

Many IT shops, particularly those in medium- to large-sized organizations, are taking a serious look at desktop virtualization, according to Intel Corp.'s recently released survey of 700 IT professionals.

But even the majority of early adopters among these IT shops, 46%, are only at the evaluation stage, while 9% are in the process of selecting a vendor and 12 % are testing desktop virtualization technology, according to the survey.

As far as actual deployments, Terminal Services has the most with 31% of respondents installing the technology to virtualize desktops. After that, installations drop off markedly with 10% installing application streaming technology and 4% OS streaming technology.

George Podolak, director of IT operations at Manhattan-based architectural design firm Pei Cobb Freed is among those weighing different scenarios, such as eliminating the need to buy high-end workstations for a group of users that only need access to specific applications for short amounts of time.

"Virtual desktops, maybe a bunch of blades, can help us pool our resources to give us as much power as needed, whenever it's needed, as opposed to going out and buying really high-end workstations for users who only use them for a few months," Podolak said.

His goal is to pool power resources and make the most of what he has, which is a common interest among IT managers. Cost savings by reducing power consumption or hardware purchases often tops the list of reasons why IT managers are looking at desktop virtualization.

Others like David Barnhill, acting manager and senior system specialist of Academic Enterprise Systems for the University of Kansas, want to make management easier by linking thin clients to centralized virtual machines.

At this point, unfortunately, Barnhill doesn't know which technology is right for his situation. Will it be terminal services or application streaming? He doesn't want to see an end user revolt. "With dumb terminals, we may give them XYZ and they want ABC, and some people really like to use ABC, and we'll have to get into why they can't use it," Barnhill said.

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