Is the virtual desktop the next big thing?

Tom Simmons, the leader of Citrix's federal team, sees the virtual desktop as a next big thing in the federal market. The only problem is that it's still a few years away.

Tom Simmons, the leader of Citrix’s federal team, knows what one of the next big things in the federal market will be. It is just starting to peek out over the horizon, but it still three or four years away.

A virtual desktop is where applications, the operating system, storage and everything else that now resides on your PC is housed in a data center – or several data centers – and is served up to your device when you log on. It is the long-talked about promise of the thin client and the concept of buying everything as a service.

The potential is there, as Simmons describes it, to save money, increase efficiencies, and improve security. Mobility and the need to access applications from any device and location also are driving the push for a virtual desktop.

It will enable organization to take advantage of the bring-your-own-device trend without sacrificing security. It can be a new line of business for systems integrators.

“It’s a transformational technology,” Simmons told me.

The virtual desktop allows for more centralized management of devices for activities such as patch management and roll outs of new applications. Controlling access is also easier and more efficient.

As a company, Citrix is betting that by 2015, the virtual desktop will have reached the same level of maturity in the commercial markets that virtual servers and storage enjoy today.

But it will take a bit longer to reach that level of maturity in the government market, Simmons said.

There are several challenges; the return on investment calculation is tough the first year because to the infrastructure needs to be built to support a virtual desktop platform, he said.

And unlike virtual servers and virtual storage, which basically only changed how those technologies were accessed, a virtual desktop is much more complicated, Simmons said.

“A virtual desktop is a platform,” he said. “You have to take into account all of things that go into your desktop environment.”

This includes managing applications, printers, storage, resident applications, virtual applications, the operating system, the server infrastructure and the network infrastructure.

“You have to get of all that right,” he said.

The approach to desktop virtualization is critical to its success. “If you treat it as a platform, the results are good,” he said.

Simmons points to the intelligence community where virtualization allows analysts to use a single computer to access multiple networks that isolated from each other. “They have 70,000 users on a virtual desktop environment,” he said.

“But when you treat it as just another applications, that’s when there is trouble,” Simmons said.

Systems integrators have been slow to jump on board because a virtual desktop has the potential to turn their business models upside down because it potentially changes how you bill customers and what you bill them for.

There are also issues to be figured out on the software licensing side of the equation.

He singled out Computer Sciences Corp. – a Citrix partner – as an example of a major systems integrator that has established a practice that specializes in virtual desktops. The company is providing virtual desktop services, known as workplace as a service to the Homeland Security Department.

CSC also is rolling the technology out internally, Simmons said.

More systems integrators will make similar moves as agencies look to buy more technology as a service, he said.

Adoption will gain momentum as success stories come out of DHS, as well as with projects underway at the State Department and what DISA is doing with its enterprise email offering (which is a step toward a virtual desktop platform), he said.

The General Services Administration also is taking a leadership role in this area, Simmons said.

Citrix, of course, faces competition for delivering this technology, primarily from VMware, and to a lesser extent, Dell. Amazon Workspaces also is a very basic form of desktop virtualization, he said.

“But our biggest competitor is the status quo,” he said.