Xen and the art of virtual desktop management

While PC costs have dropped dramatically, the costs of maintaining them is another story. Managing a workplace desktop can cost more than $5,000 per year, per employee, according to one industry estimate.

One technology that could help lower these costs is desktop virtualization.

There is a caveat, however.

While server virtualization has taken off in the data centre, desktop virtualization is still uncharted territory.

But it’s a growing market.

Gartner Research revised its previous desktop virtualization estimates this spring, due to faster-than-expected growth. For customers, there’s no clear market leader at this point, but there are a number of contenders, including Citrix, VMware and Microsoft.

Citrix, for example, just entered the Canadian market with XenDesktop, which allows for central management of desktops in the data centre.

This helps companies eliminate manual desktop management processes and reduce associated costs by up to 40 per cent, according to the company.

Citrix has been in the business a long time with Presentation Server, now called Xen App, and has about 7,000 customers in Canada, from health care to financial services.

Over the years, it has added technologies to its portfolio, including XenDesktop. “The idea is to take all of the challenges associated with managing a desktop on a physical basis and move those into the data centre,” said David Wright, area vice-president with Citrix Canada.

Desktops are provided on a virtual basis, so computing is occurring in the data centre, and the IT manager can configure any type of device to run these virtual desktops.

“Any IT manager or business unit manager looking at reducing costs and increasing end-user flexibility will be interested in [desktop virtualization],” he said.

Managing desktops in a conventional sense means that if you want to update a desktop or make any other changes, you have to – in some way, shape or form – touch that device.

With desktop virtualization, an IT manager can set up a configuration in the data centre where desktops can be quickly created, standardized and customized without having to go out and touch the end point.

This will be particularly useful in production environments, such as call centres, or for knowledge workers who use applications specific to a particular industry, as well as mobile users, said Wright.

There’s a lot of interest in desktop virtualization right now, particularly among companies faced with servicing many desktops during a refresh cycle, said John Sloan, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

You can buy new white-box PCs and roll them out in a virtualized environment, and there may be savings in the order of 10 per cent, but that’s a pretty thin margin.

“Where large enterprises report the most savings are in terms of reduction of desk side support, because you manage these PCs as virtual instances,” he said. “You have much more control over them – you can more easily secure them, you can more easily update them.”

And end-users will still have the same desktop experience – only they don’t have a box sitting under their desk.

In a virtualized environment, companies can also take an incremental approach during the upgrade cycle, where employees can continue to use a legacy PC from their desktop. “The main benefit from a business standpoint is in terms of longer-term maintenance and management of desktops than short-term hardware savings,” said Sloan.

VMware is the 100-pound gorilla in virtualization, but most of that is on the server side, he said, where the company is a market leader.

In creating a virtual desktop environment, however, it’s more of a level-playing field between VMware, Citrix and Microsoft, though Citrix has a close relationship with Microsoft.

“Microsoft will say if you’re building this out right now, use Citrix, because they recognize Citrix has the experience in terms of desktop provisioning,” he said. “They can claim a fair amount of experience in this area.”

While VMware offers software for virtualizing PCs, its focus has been on the data centre, he said, while Citrix has always been involved in desktop computing and provisioning applications with Presentation Server.

In the past year, both vendors realized there was a lot of opportunity here and they’ve been ramping up their products – Citrix through its acquisition of XenSource, a company focused on commercial tools for managing the Xen hypervisor.

A lot of Citrix customers with more traditional hosted applications may start to look at other options, and they’ll definitely consider this, he said.

While desktop virtualization is in its early days, this is a period of darkness before the light for vendors, said Kevin Restivo, senior research analyst for software with IDC Canada. It’s an option increasingly being examined by companies, both domestically and abroad, even more so abroad, mainly because of the increasing costs of IT infrastructure, as well as complexity and risk.

“In theory, virtualized desktops can help [reduce] all those factors, so when companies start examining IT infrastructure models, that’s a consideration,” he said. This is partly due to the recent popularity of server virtualization, as companies are looking to mitigate costs and risks in a number of different parts of the IT organization.

Another emerging poster boy for desktop virtualization is the Mac and its Parallels Desktop program, he said, which allows users to run Windows, Linux or any other operating system alongside OS X. While this is on the consumer side, it’s calling attention to the concept of desktop virtualization.

“There’s definitely an education component, so vendors are sowing the seeds in the market right now, but I don’t think there’s any question it will blossom over time,” said Restivo.

Microsoft has invested in this area with the acquisition of Kidaro, a provider of desktop virtualization solutions for enterprises, which will be incorporated into future updates of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack for Software Assurance.

The concept of server virtualization is much more popular now, which will lead to other parts of the infrastructure being virtualized – the less important parts that won’t bring down an organization’s operations if something goes awry (x86 servers were the first to be virtualized, because they’re more mission-critical to the organization).

“The desktop is one of the next frontiers for the virtualization camp,” he said. “It’s one of those disruptive technologies that isn’t going anyway.”


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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