The devilish details of desktop virtualization

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

My workspace, your server

Everyone agrees, though, that getting end-users to embrace virtual desktops is the greatest hurdle fronting the technology -- that is, removing the "personal" out of the PC in the employee mindset. In fact, when Soland first brought the concept of desktop virtualization to his boss, Hiltz's initial fear was that users would balk. After all, angry employees and productivity loss are death knells for any technology.

Soland solved this problem by making Hiltz a beta user. Soon Hiltz realized that a virtual desktop looked and acted the same as his old PC, except that he couldn't put a picture of his children on the screen's background. Natixis traders also liked the virtual desktops because they suddenly had more processing power. Moreover, Natixis didn't replace their powerful workstations with thin clients -- traders could still work offline using applications running locally. "We didn't use thin clients," says Hiltz. "A thin client without a network connection is a boat anchor."

It's important that end-users feel like they are getting something out of the deal, says Wilson. That's why he gave employees 19-inch monitors, the largest screens available at the time. And he touted desktop virtualization's biggest end-user benefit: the ability to work anywhere. Now Amerisure employees can work from home a couple of days a week.

Still, many people view laptops as a tether to their personal lives -- not just for work -- and shun the locked-down, thin-client world order. But Wilson sees desktop virtualization as an enabler for them. "I can see a day within the next three to five years when I will hire someone, and he'll say, 'I don't want you to supply me with anything; I just want to connect my MacBook to your environment,'" Wilson says. "Our environment will totally do that, and it'll lower my costs even further because I won't have to provide him with a thin client."

Road bump ahead?

Infrastructure upgrades and cultural acceptance are two game-killing guns leveled at desktop virtualization. But there are other technical wrinkles that still need to be ironed out, says Doug Dineley, InfoWorld Test Center executive editor. There's no question that the environment serves up a host of benefits, such as better security, he says, but the jury is out when it comes to potentially hampering worker productivity.

Dineley feels that end-users will need a way to work offline on a virtual desktop -- a way to check out a virtual machine and work on files without a network connection, a la Google Gears. "As we get further along, I suspect we'll start hearing some horror stories," Dineley says, "like unintentional denials of service that bring the blood of users to a boil."

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Tom Kaneshige

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