Agencies struggle to manage desktops in increasingly mobile enterprises

Desktop virtualization provides a flexible environment for a range of devices
 

When desktop PCs were about the only thing people had to work with, managing that part of the IT infrastructure was time-consuming but relatively straightforward. Now, particularly with the explosion of mobile devices in the enterprise, the desktop is a movable resource and managing it has become a complex affair.

As a result, desktop virtualization, which moves management of the desktop from each endpoint and centralizes it in a data center, has begun to capture the attention of government agencies.

Dell Inc., for example, will deploy desktop virtualization at the Veterans Affairs Department as part of a four-year, $600 million contract to supply it with PCs. And in July 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded a five-year, $25 million contract to deploy desktop virtualization for 19,000 of its employees.

“The sheer effort involved with maintaining PCs and doing major upgrades is enormous,” said Erica Hilgeman, marketing manager for desktop virtualization solutions in Dell’s Public Business Group. “If you then look at the population of users becoming more mobile and the proliferation of mobile devices, enterprises are struggling to manage the variety and spread of network endpoints that are out there.”

They are spending so many resources on this that they struggle to deal with other, more strategic requirements, she said.

Whereas server virtualization is aimed mainly at saving agencies money, desktop virtualization supposedly does that but also makes the user experience better and faster. It also provides for a more flexible environment since the desktop can be accessed from any device.

“You can access it from any home device, for example, and you can recover systems more quickly when they go down,” said Terrence Cosgrove, an analyst at Gartner Research. “Plus you can control images better, which speaks to the requirement by the feds for a standard desktop configuration.”

Cosgrove believes security may be the best driver for desktop virtualization currently. Because all of the data in any compute process is handled in the data center rather than at the endpoint, even if a device is lost or stolen, there’s no data on it.

Other advantages are a little more speculative, he feels. While it cuts costs by simplifying management of the desktop, it also requires investment in infrastructure, such as network connectivity. The look and feel of the environment are also key to getting user acceptance for desktop virtualization, so support resources will be needed there as well, at least for a time.

He also questions the overall need for the device agnosticism that’s touted as another advantage. Those who use iPads tend to want to use iPads and not Windows devices, so it’s “not an optimal solution” for those people, he said.

It’s also not for every user group in an agency or for every situation. Because it requires good bandwidth, it wouldn’t work well for battlefield situations, for example, where connectivity can be spotty.

“We see the greatest success with folks who have a relatively simple usage pattern, those who work mainly with such things as Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer,” said Hilgeman. “We have successfully done desktop virtualization for more complex situations, but it’s not the best place to start.”

The biggest effect on whether a desktop virtualization deployment succeeds or not is for organizations to have a good idea of what they want to get out of it, Hilgeman feels. Trying to solve a specific problem, such as providing a secure telework program, or manage a geographically dispersed population of devices is the kind of thing that desktop virtualization deals well with.

“Coming into this with a problem to solve will prove to be much more profitable for them than coming to the technology for the technology’s sake,” she said.

What does this mean for the eventual uptake of desktop virtualization?

Globally, it’s happening and relatively quickly, according to Laura DiDio, principal analyst at Information Technology Intelligence Consulting, a Boston-based research and consulting firm. In a recent survey she conducted of more than 400 businesses, some 27 percent said they were using desktop virtualization, versus just 17 percent in a similar survey conducted 18 months before.

Gartner is also expecting the market to take off over the next few years. Cosgrove said the company is projecting a total market of some 40 million virtual desktops by the end of 2015, though he pointed out that will still be less than 10 percent of all corporate PCs.

The potential fly in the ointment is cloud computing. If organizations make a move to the cloud faster than is now expected, that could obviate the need for desktop virtualization, Cosgrove said, “because why do you need it if you can get all of your applications from the cloud?”

“Given the level of interest we see now, I don’t think it will go away,” he said. “But it is a complex consideration so we don’t expect it to have a broad play. It will be much more of a strategic deployment for enterprises.”

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