The devilish details of desktop virtualization

Early adopters of virtual desktop infrastructure report compelling benefits, significant hurdles, and a cloudy view into ROI

Companies are drawn to desktop virtualization for a variety reasons. Lifetime Products, a manufacturer of polyurethane tables, sheds, and basketball hoops, chose desktop virtualization for its inherent data protection aspects. Desktop virtualization ensures that all of Lifetime's product-design data and other intellectual property remain safely locked inside its datacenter in Utah, even though engineers scattered here and abroad work daily on new designs.

Last year, Natixis Capital Markets virtualized workstations for 30 employees (out of 400) to give them server-level reliability and horsepower. Natixis deploys virtual instances of desktops on servers inside its datacenter for its army of traders. "If some traders ran apps locally on their workstations, then they wouldn't be able to do anything else on them," says Drew Hiltz, CTO of Natixis in the United States.

Slow from the starting gate

Despite all the buzz around desktop virtualization, there are signs of tepid adoption. In a recent survey conducted by sister publication CIO, only one out of four respondents was using desktop virtualization; one in five said it would be a year to three years before they'd deploy the technology; and 37 percent said they weren't interested at all.

Why all the hand-wringing? The fact is, desktop virtualization has a few technical blind spots that it still needs to cover. Graphics and streaming video don't work well on a virtual desktop without significant (and costly) network upgrades. "If you have high-graphic apps, this is going to be a kludgy environment to work in," Wilson says.

Certain applications also don't run smoothly on a virtual desktop, while some software licensing even forbids their use. "There are vendors selling applications who still want to resist," says Hiltz. "Vendors play with licensing models to squeeze more dollars out of you. I can't run Bloomberg on a virtual desktop based on the language of the licensing, even though technically I could."

Both Hiltz and Wilson worry that virtual desktop users will drain datacenter resources. Part of the problem is that users feel resources are unlimited in the virtual desktop model. Another issue is that management tools are not yet up to par, in terms of controlling CPU and memory usage for every employee. "I'd like to be able to throttle a user down," says Wilson. "While vendors say they have this ability, that's not really true yet."

Desktop virtualization adopters say these concerns aren't even the toughest hurdles when deploying the technology. They point to the need for massive infrastructure upgrades that wreak havoc on ROI, resistance from managers who are wary of hitching workers' productivity to a live Internet connection, and pushback from end-users who don't want to lose control of their workspaces.

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