Doing more with less on the desktop

Server virtualization is well understood these days, but the benefits of virtualization extend beyond the data centre. The next frontier – desktop and application virtualization – is a bit harder to explain to customers, and the business case may be different. But it holds the promise of new revenue streams for resellers, even in uncertain economic times.

Many organizations have already extended their ever-greening cycle on desktops or didn’t jump into a Windows Vista upgrade, so there are a large number of PCs out there well beyond their historical best-before date. Customers are faced with planning and budgeting for a full-blown desktop refresh or looking at other alternatives – including virtualization.

The capital cost savings associated with that virtualized desktop infrastructure might not be dramatically different than a full-blown replacement, but the end state is a much more desirable one: complete delivery control, simplified management and the ability to provide disaster recovery.

Organizations are trying to figure out how they can do more with less and use existing equipment as long as they can, and virtualization is the perfect way to do that says Steve Davidek, board director of Connect, the HP user group.

“In my organization, I usually do a replacement every three to four years,” he says of the City of Sparks, Nev. “We’re on a five-year cycle right now. Things are starting to break, and we’re stealing parts from older PCs trying to make sure we can keep things running until we have the budget to replace our PCs.” Long-term, he believes the better investment would be to set up an infrastructure for virtual desktops (thin clients for the desktop can last five to 10 years because everything is done at the server level).

“I’ve been trying to get the money to do this for two years now,” says Davidek. “As our budget keeps getting cut – my capital is cut to zero for this fiscal year – I’m probably not going to be able to do much, but if I can show them this is what I need to do to keep things running, I think it’s going to help.” That’s how he initially sold the organization on server virtualization.

Hardware and software sales are slow, but consulting sales are up, so customers are focused on getting more from what they have says Trent Dilkie, vice-president and CSO of Gibraltar Solutions, an Ottawa-based virtualization reseller that partners with VMware, Citrix and Microsoft.

It seems like the really big infrastructure projects are being pushed off in favour of optimizing what they’ve got, he says, and that’s played well for VMware and Citrix. In terms of server virtualization, that’s really the VMware world. “Everyone’s talking about Microsoft’s virtualization, but nobody’s really doing it in production that I’ve seen yet,” he says. “We’ve got a handful of people using [Citrix] XenServer – everyone says from a technology standpoint it’s fantastic, but they’re still comfortable with VMware because it’s the incumbent.” Citrix recently announced it would give away XenServer for free.

Right now, application virtualization is synonymous with Citrix, and several companies have adopted Citrix for problem applications – ones that are otherwise too slow or too complicated to install. Similarly, several use Citrix for secure remote access.

“I don’t know of anyone using ThinApp yet from VMware,” says Dilkie. “I know of companies that are playing with it, but haven’t deployed it.”

The next frontier – device independence

With application virtualization, you’re taking the application off the desktop or mobile device and moving all the data associated with it into the data centre. “I’m running Microsoft Office from our Fort Lauderdale data centre and it looks like I’m running it locally,” says David Wright, area vice-president of Citrix Canada. “I can leave my Lenovo notebook at work and go home, and using the client on the Mac side I’m able to go back into my work environment, so it really provides you with device independence.”

Based on measured feedback from customers, that typically provides a 30 per cent operating cost reduction. “Many of our customers no longer need to have the latest and greatest PC available for everyone because the servers they have in the data centre do all the processing.”

Desktop virtualization means that when you boot your computer, a desktop comes up that’s associated with the device you’re using. You would then use a browser to access another desktop altogether that is corporately imaged and managed, so it’s actually virtualizing the entire desktop as opposed to just the applications. This helps cut down on management expenses at the end-point level.

“It’s the type of technology that creates a long-term relationship between the partner and the customer, because many customers have hundreds of applications they use in their environment,” says Wright. A customer may start by virtualizing one or two applications that are difficult to manage and, after seeing the benefits, decide to virtualize more applications as time goes by. “We have partners that have spent five years working with the same customer virtualizing applications.”

Virtualizing an application requires expertise, he says, so partners are trained to configure servers, test the application with end-users and help the customer go live. In some cases, partners would manage that environment.

Desktop virtualization goes hand-in-hand with application virtualization. As you virtualize the desktop, you may want to use application virtualization to create custom-delivered desktops says Grant Aitken, country manager with VMware Canada. An organization, for example, may not want to have 35 different versions of a standard desktop to accommodate the different application mixes that end-users want, so application virtualization can be used to simplify image management.

Right now, we’re seeing pilots, proof-of-concept projects and limited deployment activity. “Almost all of our customers that have virtualized servers have been looking at desktops over the past 12 months,” he says.

In the cloud

The reality, though, is that smaller companies rarely get into virtualization because the entry cost and complexity are too high, says Gibraltar Solutions’ Dilkie. Mid-sized companies may consider it for a handful of applications or remote access. This is where cloud comes in – a way to provide virtualized applications to anybody who wants them.

“Everyone has heard about cloud computing but no one really knows what it is – a lot of companies are just re-branding what they’ve got as cloud computing,” he says. “I wouldn’t say people are clamoring for cloud computing, but I have customers asking us to host virtual desktops for them.” Gibraltar’s initial cloud offering will launch sometime in April.

The economic climate has probably slowed down virtual desktop adoption, says Dilkie, since the cost of entry for a virtual desktop environment is so high. “There’s a capital outlay that people don’t want to do right now, so everyone’s kicking the tires on it,” he says. “That’s why our cost model for the customer is pretty simple – it’s an hourly rate or a monthly rate, there’s no upfront cost, and if you need 10 [desktops] this month and 20 next month, it doesn’t matter.”

Connect’s Davidek has also been watching the cloud. “I’m still confused about what it’s going to entail, but here are people pulling in applications as they need them, rather than having to purchase the full-blown license,” he says. If your desktops are virtualized, you don’t have to load the entire Office suite on every desktop – you’re literally making everything a service. “Sometimes I get nervous about it because I haven’t really seen it work, but I think all this will come together in the long-term.”

Making a business case

ROI, however, isn’t the driving factor for most customers looking at application virtualization. “It’s much more about solving point problems as opposed to looking at an overall ROI picture for the entire organization,” says Dilkie.

The capital cost win with desktop virtualization is not as significant as server virtualization, where you might get a 10:1 ratio. “There may be some capital cost wins, but they’re marginal,” says Aitken. It’s mostly about operational cost savings as well as agility to modify desktops and improve the overall management structure.

That means the business case is different. “You’re dealing with an end-user on the other end,” says Aitken. “Server virtualization happens in the back office and is mostly invisible to the end-user, whereas desktop virtualization impacts users’ desktops – what they see on their desktops and where their data is stored.”

This introduces a completely different element in terms of managing expectations and getting user buy-in. Users have to consider this a win, not a downgrade or creation of a two-tier model where some users get the ultimate experience and some get a degraded one. If partners want to go down the path of desktop virtualization with their customers, they have to be conscious of the end-user impact.

“If the project is all about saving money for the company, they need to figure out a way to make it a win for the end-users as well,” says Aitken, “otherwise they’ll probably run into end-user resistance.” If you’re going to change out a user’s physical desktop with a thin-client device, for example, upgrade the keyboard and display so the user sees it as a benefit, even if the desktop experience is identical to what it was previously.

Once you have a customer in a virtualized state with increased portability and mobility, you can provide a secondary site for disaster recovery. “Now you’re getting into a much more sophisticated business relationship that has recurring revenue on a month-by-month basis,” says Aitken, “so virtualization creates an on-ramp for a different type of revenue stream for our partners.”

Selling the benefits

In an organization with distributed PCs, there are costs associated with installing new software, doing upgrades and managing day-to-day operations says John Sloan, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. With a virtualized infrastructure, you have more control over the configuration of those virtual machines, so you can distribute applications to the desktop from fewer master images.

With desk-side support, application maintenance and deployment costs, the bigger the organization, the greater the economies. If you can reduce desk-side support in an organization with thousands of desktops, that could play out in terms of reduced head count, or you could put more resources into optimization. Smaller organizations that maybe have one or two people in IT won’t see as much of an impact, he says, but virtual desktops can still save them money.

“You go from managing PCs as an asset to managing desktops as a service,” says Sloan. “That is going to require some cultural change within IT, but ultimately will be a less expensive way of doing things.” Because of today’s cost pressures, some organizations might be pushed into doing this; for others, it’s about getting ahead of the curve and remaking how they deliver services to their clients.

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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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