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Virtual PCs and SaaS force IT to rethink Windows desktop

Microsoft's Windows and Office won't fall into the tar pits any time soon, but ideas like virtual desktops and SaaS are real threats to tradition.

For years, IT managers have struggled with trying to configure, manage and secure their sprawling population of Windows desktops. Like corporate Cinderellas, they keep it all together but dream of days without the drudgery.

It's no surprise, then, that these managers are keeping a close eye on -- and expressing great excitement about -- two potential trends that challenge the idea that each end user needs a dedicated PC, hard drive and copies of Microsoft Windows and Office.

Virtualization and the changing Windows desktop

Virtual desktops can clean house but move cautiously

Who should use desktop virtualization or SaaS?

Why SaaS is not a desktop replacement

Key terms and definitions

The first trend is about virtualizing the Windows desktop as well as applications, and there are several techniques for doing this. Virtualization can eliminate repetitive jobs such as patching, which usually require a person to visit each end user's machine to perform on-site maintenance.

A virtual hosted desktop lets people access a copy of an operating system stored in the data center, so end users can access their own unique desktop software from any device.

This process can make management of those desktops far easier because they are all located in one data center. Desktops can also run locally on a virtual machine. Enthusiasm for the virtual hosted desktop is spreading to tangentially related areas such as application streaming and application virtualization.

Moving applications to the Web

A second trend that will challenge the traditional Windows desktop is the concept of shifting many of the applications – even those that IT managers think of as core applications such as word processing, spreadsheets or email – over to the Web to be remotely hosted and provisioned.

This idea is often referred to as Office 2.0, which is a twist on the term Web 2.0, a reference to the Web's shift toward more community activity. Office 2.0 involves moving common office applications online to be used in a collaborative manner. It's really about process management and the way people work together.

Software as a Service (SaaS), which is remotely provisioned software, is not just about wholesale desktop replacement. It changes the serial interaction model that most workers are accustomed to by offering tools that allow many workers to interact with the same document.

"The virtual desktop model is more about efficiency and economy, manageability and operational issues," said Jonathan Eunice, principal at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H.-based consulting firm. "Web 2.0 or Office 2.0 is trying to do something more, and that is to go beyond what the traditional desktop can do."

But the reason that these two trends have gone from being a glimmer of an idea to something with real potential is that there are more vendors and more technologies available that provide pieces of the puzzle. Also, the companies have grown, and products are no longer on version one, said Josh Nelson, vice president of information and network technology at Cox Communications Inc., the Atlanta-based cable provider.

"In the past, delivery wasn't necessarily there," Nelson said.

Virtualization market gets a jolt

The sleepy summer tech sector got a jolt in mid-August when VMware Inc. raised nearly $1 billion in an initial public offering. The next day, thin client stalwart Citrix Systems Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., bought XenSource Inc., an open source virtualization software management tool maker, for $500 million.

The market is full of bustle although today there are few enterprises putting desktop virtualization into practice. InfoPro Inc., a New York-based market research firm, recently conducted a survey of executive-level IT managers in 147 enterprises.

Ninety percent of those managers said that today, only 5% of their desktops are virtualized. These managers were asked to rate just how critical desktop virtualization is today. About 70% said not at all or minimally, 19% said somewhat and 11% said very or extremely.

When asked how critical desktop virtualization will be in 2010, 25% of respondents said not at all or minimally, and 42% said somewhat. And 33% said they believe desktop virtualization will be either very or extremely critical.

At this point, however, many of the executives said they believe it will be part of Microsoft's own desktop strategy, said Bob Gill, managing director at InfoPro.

New twist on an old thin-client idea

This is not the first time that the idea of a thin client has tried to challenge Microsoft's desktop dominance. Oracle Corp.'s CEO Larry Ellison and Sun Microsystem Inc.'s former CEO Scott McNealy, shopped the idea of the diskless network computer in the mid-1990s as an alternative to a Windows desktop.

But server-based computing had been oversold, and the reality is that everyone needs some kind of a desktop. The question is will the desktop run locally on each device or will it be served up remotely.

Also, today, IT shops are talking not just about whether they want to replace Windows but also about whether they can provide an alternative means of delivering applications to the desktop. There are a variety of architectural approaches emerging, and IT managers have to weight carefully the needs of each end user before they can decide what to offer in their enterprises.

Whether the virtually hosted desktop -- or even SaaS -- will ever be a threat to the current Windows desktop model is unlikely. So is the idea of Windows desktop as we know it going away entirely, at least for a while. Certainly SaaS will take longer to catch on because it changes the way people work.

Tough business case for virtualized environment

"The advantage Microsoft has is the one that it has always had, and that is it has a massive ISV community built on top of Windows that will have to shift to build applications on top of a hypervisor," said Neil Macehiter, principal at Macehiter Ward-Dutton, a Cambridge, U.K.-based consulting firm. "Like the chicken-and-the-egg situation, ISVs won't move until they see customer demand, and customers need to see ISV applications," he said.

For customers who have recently undergone a desktop refresh, it will be hard to make a business case to move to a virtualized environment. Each enterprise will also have to come up with a concrete cost of ownership analysis and return-on-investment analysis because [virtualizing the desktop] will be perceived as a risk.

"Strategic architects are and should be talking about this, but when it comes beyond the talk and goes to the board, what is the additional benefit?" Macehiter said.

"Who is responsible for patching?" he added. "Who do you call for support problems? How do you deal with patches if you have a virtual appliance? There are scenarios that make sense but there is a raft of issues that come up."

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