Desktop of the future

It might be in the cloud, it might be in your pocket, it might be virtual, but it won't be the traditional PC we've all become used to

Metro Health Hospital, a healthcare system serving 130,000 patients across Michigan, is already using what some consider the desktop of the future. The hospital has rolled out server-hosted virtual desktops to every employee no matter where they are or what client device they use.

While employees within the hospital primarily use thin clients to access their virtualized desktops, those outside the hospital can use whatever device they want, says Chris House, senior network analyst at the healthcare firm.

"It works in the hospital, but it also works over the Internet because it's just Remote Desktop [Protocol]," House says, explaining that VMware's Virtual Data Infrastructure (VDI) uses RDP to communicate with the client devices.

The only data that passes across the network are mouse clicks and screen changes, ensuring optimal performance. But unlike other remote presentation technologies, such as Citrix Xen App (formerly Presentation Server), users aren't accessing only applications, but are actually able to access their complete Windows XP desktop just as if it were local.

The overall effect is greater security and flexibility -- without a hit on productivity. "We have remote transcriptionists who deal with medical records and information, and they're able to access their sessions remotely from their homes over their high-speed Internet connection and then work that way," House says. "They get our desktop, and we don't have to worry about what they're using as their home computer."

Metro Health's setup is also far more secure than traditional PCs. Not only have the virtual desktops been locked down so that employees can't use non-sanctioned peripherals such as CD drives and USB sticks, but with VDI, the actual remote PC sessions run on centralized VMware ESX servers in the hospital's secure data center. This ensures that the hospital complies with US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations, as sensitive patient data never leaves the hospital. "It's very secure and easy to lock down," he says.

Changing of the guard

It seems like the enterprise desktop has been the same for decades: PC tower, monitor, Windows operating system, Microsoft productivity applications. But experts say the desktop of the future may look and feel quite different. Possibilities include server-hosted desktop virtualization, the ubiquitous Microsoft Office being replaced by applications in the cloud such as Google Apps, Linux making huge inroads in terms of desktop OS, and the venerable tower PC you're probably using right now quickly becoming obsolete.

One thing users and experts agree on is that the traditional PC tower is practically dead, and in five years, other form factors, such as laptops, thin clients and ultra-small computers will be more the norm.

"The actual computer part will become much smaller," says James Gaskin, an author, speaker and tester in Houston. "Look at the Apple Mini, the Shuttle PC or the all-in-one PCs like the Mac, where they stick all the workings of the computer on the back of the monitor. In five years, the desktop form factor will have shrunk even more than it has today."

Michael Rose, an analyst at IDC, agrees and notes that laptops will become far more common in terms of the typical enterprise desktop, because of the need for mobility and especially as virtualization takes greater hold. "My sense is we'll see a continuing trend away from desktops toward notebooks," he says. "And when you add desktop virtualization into the mix, there's even a possibility it could drive sales of more thin-client products, especially if we're talking the server-hosted desktop model like VDI."

In fact, IDC estimates that shipments of laptops will overtake PC shipments this year. While in 2007, PCs accounted for 37 per cent of the market, and laptops 30 per cent, in 2008, the analyst firm projects that PCs will drop to 35.3 per cent and laptops will hit 36.3 per cent.

In a March report, the analyst firm found that worldwide PC shipments were expected to grow 12.8 per cent in 2008, but that the growth was fueled primarily by the market for portable computers. The firm also predicts that thin-client shipments will more than double over the next five years to 7.2 million worldwide.

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