Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Desktop Virtualization - Yeah, Right!

One of the "new", "new" things that seems to be bubbling up in 2009 is the idea of "desktop virtualization." This basically means that rather than installing an operating system and all your applications on your own physical hard drive (a huge pain-in-the-ass for Enterprise folks) - that your desktop would be running (depending on who you talk to) either: in the cloud, on the LAN/WAN, or on a virtual OS that could move from machine to machine.

I like this idea - in theory. The theory goes like this: you could be on the LAN or maybe at a client's office and need to get a document that's on your local machine. You could just login to some server, and BAM - your actual operating system would appear with all your documents - just as if you were sitting right in front of it.

I think it would be cool to be able to set up your operating environment and applications - and then just access them from where ever you are and from whatever device (hardware) you happen to have at hand. It could be a desktop (does anyone even have one anymore?), your laptop, your netbook or even your mobile phone.

To a certain degree, you can do that today - using GoToMyPC or other "screen sharing" solutions. The problem is that you have to have your machine on - and connected to the Internet, and you're limited in the number connected peripherals that can be used, etc.

So, a bunch of server virtualization marketing folks came up with the idea: "Hey, if we have the technology to vitualize entire operating systems for server use - how hard can it be to virtualize the actual user's operating system."

Turns out - pretty hard.

There are the "traditional" RDC (Remote Desktop Client) folks like Citrix and Microsoft - who want you to buy a room full of rack-mounted servers and use their screen-sharing technology (basically just Terminal Services) to solve the problem. This is generally how it's done today. Each server can contain 20-50 "virtual" desktops - that users can log into. They can have applications installed (usually only by downloadingthem - or by having IT install them physically on the machine) - and you would use them from within a window on your existing laptop/desktop.

This allows IT to maintain patches, updates, and also establish rules for what can (and can't) be run on the machines. The downside to this approach is that if you're using anything that's even remotely graphics-intensive the performance just sucks. If all you're doing is email, Office-like applications and browsing then it's pretty OK. The "rub" is that you have to have a machine that also needs it's own Windows operating system (or Parallels on a Mac) in order to even work the RDC software.

That means, that someone, somewhere (usually you) will be tempted to just install your own applications and run it locally for times when you're not connected to the network, or as a backup in case the WAN goes down, or the server crashes, etc. So, you're really no better off in the long run. You still have your own OS that needs to be patched, updated, etc. Also, if you're trying to access it from a mobile device - have a nice day - it's not supported.

There is one interesting idea, however by VMware. They're calling it "View 3". View 3 is trying to make a single desktop "image" available that contains the operating system, all your apps and documents - but will allow you to "take it with you" across multiple devices - including smart phones.

The "Offline Desktop" as VMware calls it - is still labeled "experimental" - so it's not ready-for-prime-time yet, but at least they're working on it. Raj Mallempati, a marketing manager for VMware had this to say in a December 2, 2008 article in eWEEK:
"What we are doing with VMware View is looking to meet the end user's requirements, which calls for a personal desktop that can follow them across different devices and across different networks. At the same time, this type of solution provides IT with a very simple and cost-effective way to manage different devices and desktops."
Sounds pretty good to me... IF they can get it to work. IF they get the price point right. IF someone else like Google doesn't beat them to it and offer it for free (with ads, of course). IF they make it easy to update and cross platform.

They used to have a similar kind of VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) back in the "old days" as well. They called it a "mainframe." Larry Ellison and then Sun CEO Scott McNealy had the same idea back in the 90's - it was called the "Network Computer" or the "ThinPC" or the "Un-PC". So I guess they were right after all - and maybe sometime in the NEXT 10 years it will become a reality as more and more people are sick and tired of constantly updating and patching Windows.

It's time for a change, that much is clear. Will virtualized desktops be the next big thing? I don't think we'll see wide-scale adoption until at least 2017. Even though it's a pain-in-the-ass - people are "used to" the current paradigm and that's a lot of momentum to overcome.

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