Virtualization, as a hot IT trend, is dead. Long live desktop virtualization

Don’t get excited. I didn’t say virtualization is dead — I said virtualization as a hot IT trend is dead. Like personal computing as a hot IT trend is dead. They’re not hot trends any more because they’re all over the place. Nothing to get excited about. Just part of the furniture.

The idea of consolidating computer servers onto fewer physical machines is something we can pretty much take for granted now. The next step is consolidating desktop PCs onto central servers.

This is a step beyond the old terminal services concept, and it’s a different approach from the PC blades idea that got some attention a few years ago. The desktop blades – a company called ClearCube is their biggest advocate – are separate physical machines on blades that fit in a rack in the server room and are connected to thin clients on desktops.

One advantage of PC blades is that the parts of the PC that are most likely to fail are centrally located. Besides keeping them safe from clumsy and inquisitive users, this means that if something breaks, technical support staff can fix it faster. In fact,

ClearCube’s design allows a technician to pull a failed blade out of the rack, slide another in, and get the user back to work in minutes. And users can log into their PCs from any desk.

But this approach still uses one physical computer – because a blade is a computer – for each user. Desktop virtualization, on the other hand, means one virtual machine per user, but a smaller number of physical servers.

And when hardware fails, users can be back to work even faster than with PC blades, because you’ll just move the virtual machines to another server.

“There’s been a lot of interest and it’s been really growing for the last two years,” says John Sloan, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.“You can centralize the management of the applications. You can centralize the management of the desktops, and reduce the time and effort that has to be deployed at the desk-side.”

Desktop virtualization isn’t a big money-saver, Sloan says, because you still have to put hardware on every desk. But it can significantly improve the security and the management of desktop applications, and that’ why businesses are looking at it.

There might be some cost savings if older desktop PCs no longer have the power to support new operating systems (like the notoriously resource-hungry Vista) and can be reconfigured as thin clients to virtual PCs running in the server room.

The movement to take computing power off the desktop and put it back in the data centre has quite a long history. It has never turned into the kind of megatrend proponents like Oracle’s Larry Ellison once predicted, and I hesitate to suggest it will now. But desktop virtualization strikes a pretty good compromise between the dedicated desktop machine and the efficiencies of a central system with dumb terminals.

Each user still has his or her own machine, albeit a virtual one. The most critical hardware is inside a secure (we hope) data centre, where it’s also easier to manage.

Recovery from hardware failures is faster. There’s a power savings. The idea has merit, and it may have legs.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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