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IT pros dish on the future of desktops

VDI is working out the kinks. Thin clients ease desktop management. And some say cell phones may replace fat clients.

CHICAGO – IT experts here last week said it is possible that many of the problems plaguing alternative desktop computing models will be resolved within two to three years.

At BriForum 2008 there was plenty of evidence of how these technologies are grabbing IT managers' interest. Problems with virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technologies, such as outdated protocols, and graphics transfers could be addressed by companies such as Microsoft through its acquisition of Calista Technologies. Qumranet Inc. has the combination of its kernel-based, virtual machine open source software and its SPICE connection protocol. With all that, end users are closer to getting a graphics-laden experience, akin to what they would get with a physical PC on a LAN.

And Citrix Systems Inc.'s Provisioning Server also makes it possible for end users to share the same disk image,

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something many emerging VDI technologies still cannot do.

More application compatibility is needed with application virtualization technology, but Microsoft's SoftGrid works with about 70% of all applications. In a couple of years this number should reach 90%, said Brian Madden, an independent industry analyst and the founder of BriForum.

Another advance is coming in the form of virtualized user profiles. Symantec Corp., for example, is developing technology that lets a user's customized personal settings follow that person regardless of the end device, said Brian Duckering, senior product manager with Symantec's Endpoint Virtualization Group.

And some evolving technologies can resolve problems currently faced by Win32-based applications in a cloud computing environment. Currently these applications work poorly in this realm because of their need for domain logins, interactive Windows sessions and user profiles.

"Could we start to see real business applications move off of Win32? Or maybe we'll see rich Internet applications," said Madden, citing examples of HTML5, Adobe AIR, Google Gears, the Silverlight plug-in, Mozilla, Prism and site-specific browsers as shifts in this direction. "As applications evolve, perhaps away from Win32 and more toward cloud computing … we're seeing the early bits now, it could become mainstream," Madden said.

What we have today

Many corporations are closely following the evolution of the alternative desktop. One example is Philips Electronics, which has 700,000 end users worldwide. The company is exploring desktop alternatives to save money and to update its infrastructure, said Luis Palacios, IT project manager with the company's lighting division.

"We've been a castle … no one gets in and everything is locked down, but the drawbridge is coming down," Palacios said.

That lowering of the drawbridge reflects the need to accommodate mobile and offshore workers. Palacios said he would like to change the way his company manages PCs by 2010. If an employee wants a laptop loaded with applications, that's fine -- that person just has to manage it himself. The alternate choice for that person would be to access applications through Citrix Presentation Server.

As for offshore engineers, the company hands off work to contractors all over the world – these are the workers who will get virtual desktops. "Server-based computing introduces too many clicks that they don't want to deal with," Palacios said.

VDI on the other hand will give them the same desktop experience they are used to, minus the extra clicks, he said.

Connectivity limitations

No more desktops … period. That is the goal for Richard Ballou, computer coordinator for real estate developer HHHunt Communities, located in Blacksburg,Va.

The company is moving to mobile thin clients where processing happens in the data center. Users access applications through the Citrix Access Gateway. Thin clients helps cut the management problems associated with PCs, but it does introduce some connectivity constraints.

"Connectivity isn't reliable wherever you go and we can't have people on a [home building] site without access," Ballou said. "And we can't expect sales people to roll with the punches if they are on a sales call and they can't download their high-end graphics presentation because of bandwidth or connectivity problems."

One remedy is to use Verizon AirCard wireless cards for broadband access. There's a pretty good chance that Verizon has a tower nearby giving employees access to the company's Citrix Web interface and, in turn, the applications they need.

Look no further than your cell phone

Another IT manager predicted that some corporations will move away from computers and tap cell phones as a primary way of doing business.

The cellular network is already built, everyone has cell phones and there are many access points. But until cell phone manufacturers make bigger screens and resolve some of the data privacy issues, this option will not take hold, he said.

"People are already doing a lot of work on their cell phones, but they don't want to work on a tiny screen all day," said Ken Buckley, a Citrix engineer with a large benefits consulting company in the Midwest. "And [vendors] also need to work on the graphics mode."

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