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For some, the time is nigh for virtualizing desktops

Though the desktop virtualization market will likely see a shake-up within the next two years, some IT managers are ready to risk the chaos.

The Boston financial services firm, Loomis Sayles & Company wants a greener computing environment and improved use of remote access.

David Mickelson, the firm's chief technical architect, hopes that by next year all of the desktops and servers will be virtualized, which will go a long way to making this happen.

Mickelson has been testing Citrix Systems Inc.'s XenDesktop and VMware Inc.'s VDI bundle of desktop virtualization technologies, comparing the pros and cons of each. He's not expecting to really save a lot of money by adopting the technology. Rather, the benefits of having virtualized desktops would outweigh any costs.

Putting faith in desktop virtualization

Desktop virtualization tools are still so new that all the pieces are not yet in place. But that also isn't stopping the Reverend Clayton Crawley, who is the CIO at the Church Pension Group, the New York-based financial services arm of the Episcopal Church, which also happens to be the 136th largest pension fund in the U.S. with assets totaling $10 billion. His group supports about 500 end users.

The Church Pension Group is not a Windows shop although it does use Microsoft Exchange for messaging, which it licenses as a managed service from Azaleos Corp., the Seattle, Wash.-based services provider.

Crawley's group serves as the business and technical arm for the parent organization and its affiliates. Its desktops are a combination of Macintoshes and PCs. Crawley plans to start testing desktop virtualization in 2009. The Church Pension Group is a VMware shop. Crawley's Mac uses VMware Fusion to run Windows. The group's call centers use Mac Minis, which also run Fusion.

Crawley's goal is to set up his organization so that it shouldn't matter if the group's employees run PCs or Macs, but as it turns out, the organization is rolling out more and more Macs over time. Executives are even using iPhones that they connect to the Microsoft Exchange Server on Microsoft's ActiveSync.

What's with all the Macs? "You can't break them," he said. "They run like a work horse. We had PCs but we had to swap them in and out all the time."

For more extensive desktop virtualization, he said he plans to test the server-based desktop virtualization software made by Pano Logic Inc.

Citrix vs. VMware

Desktop virtualization gets a lot of media attention. But it's still nascent technology, and many of the examples shown by VMware and Citrix are relatively simple. For Loomis Sayles & Company and the 350 to 500 end users locally and in remote offices, Mickelson said he wants something more sophisticated.

In addition to testing Citrix XenDesktop and VMware VDI, the latter of which is a combination of VMware ESX, the connection broker called VDM and VirtualCenter server provisioning software, Mickelson is considering testing thin clients made by Wyse Technology.

Among other things, he is learning that it is difficult to integrate the firm's biometric security infrastructure. The firm uses fingerprints. "It works great when everything is on the desktop but how do you pass the fingerprint back and forth?" he said.

Apart from getting multifactor authentication to work, Mickelson said he is evaluating monitor support and desktop performance. "[Citrix Independent Computing Architecture] is viewed as better than [VMware Remote Desktop Protocol]," he said. "Multiple monitor support is better with Citrix."

Mickelson hasn't compared the costs of both yet. He said, however, that the big message now is that neither is perfect. "You won't be able to click your fingers and have it all go well," he said.

Mickelson is interested in one feature from VMware that won't be out for a while. Last February, the vendor demonstrated offline VDI, where a user can check out a personal virtual desktop that runs on VMware's VDI and run it on a laptop for use offline. For Mickelson's purposes, the feature would put VMware out over Citrix.

"One of our use cases is when we have analysts going on the road and they can write their research reports on an airplane," he said. "They can sync back up when they get to the office."

Look before leaping

It's possible that VMware will release offline VDI by the end of the year, but at least one expert predicts that other vendors will be offering similar capabilities at the same time. In fact, for the next 24 months the market upheaval expected in desktop virtualization will be legion.

"Any IT shop that wants to install desktop virtualization technology today, I say good luck with it," said Brian Madden, an independent consultant that specializes in virtualization technologies.

"The reality is that the technology won't be ready until mid-2010. There are some specific cases where [virtual desktops] make sense but I'd be nervous about rolling it out," Madden said. "If you want to start a project today, you have to look at the products as they are today."

For IT shops that want to roll out desktop virtualization whole hog, Madden advised the managers to "back off and count to 100 and then look again in six months."

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