Should CIOs look at virtual desktops?

Suppliers are touting virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) as the next wave of IT innovation, but CIOs should tread cautiously for now, say analysts. Many...

Suppliers are touting virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) as the next wave of IT innovation, but CIOs should tread cautiously for now, say analysts.

Many businesses are seeing the benefits of server virtualisation, which include simpler management, lower power and cooling costs and more efficient use of servers.

VDI puts users' desktops in the datacentre, making it easier for IT departments to manage applications and roll out software and operating systems. The technology promises more effective security since no data is stored on PC desktops.

Business case

There is a compelling business case for moving to VDI, claims Rory Clements, specialist systems engineer at VMware. With standard desktop systems, for every dollar spent on hardware, $3 is spent managing it, he says. But desktop virtualisation can lower desktop PC cost of ownership by 50% and simplify the roll out of new software, such as Windows 7.

If the hardware fails, users do not have to wait for a PC to be rebuilt. Their data and their desktop PC environment is stored centrally in a datacentre. They simply log in from another machine and have full access restored, says Clements.

The biggest savings come from moving off desktop PCs and laptops, says David Angwin, director of marketing at Wyse Technology, which sells thin client devices. Thin clients have come a long way in the past 15 years, he says. Today they support access to local USB devices and webcams.

They offer streaming high definition video, support for voice over IP (VoIP) headsets. Also available are mobile thin clients that connect via a 3G modem, using a new networking protocol called PC over IP (PcoIP), which is designed to transmit the desktop PC environment to a PC client efficiently.

"Thin clients only use 7-18 watts of power compared to 70 watts on a desktop PC, they can be deployed instantly and are very reliable," Angwin says.

Return on investment

However, analyst firm IDC warns CIOs to proceed with caution. Unlike server virtualisation, there is no clear return on investment for VDI, warns Matthew McCormack, consultant in IDC's European Systems Group.

IDC's research has shown that most organisations that have adopted VDI are in financial services, healthcare and government, which generally have large budgets and require high levels of availability and security. There has been less interest from other sectors. "The majority of VDI projects we have seen have been tactical deployments or pilots," says McCormack.

The challenge for IT directors is to ensure that VDI projects give users the flexibility to use the computer desktop in the way they are used to.

IT departments should not force VDI on desktop users, says McCormack, who recommends that they look for areas of the business to target, such as human resources or finance, and assess the suitability of VDI in each department separately. The business is likely to evolve over time to run a mixed environment comprising traditional desktop and laptop PCs along with VDI users, he adds.

VDI is not for everyone. The industry has yet to solve the problem of how users can access their desktop when they have no network access. VMware says it is working on technology that will solve this problem, but it is early days.

Hidden costs

The other challenge, according to Iain Mobberley, virtualisation practice leader at VMware consultancy OCSL, is the hidden costs of VDI.

"It can easily cost £2m to £3m to deploy VDI to 5,000 users," he says. "One of our customers saw a massive hike in their costs because they underestimated the costs."

The payback on rolling out VDI to 14,000 desktops could take between five and seven years, which means VDI is not a quick win, unlike server virtualisation, says Mobberley.

"Users need to understand the software licensing costs of VDI, and the storage requirements of putting users' PC data in the datacentre," he warns.

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