IBM puts virtual desktops in the cloud

The company will launch a hosted virtualization service in October in Europe and North America

IBM is rolling out a subscription service that aims to make it easier for large companies to use desktop virtualization, a technology that has been slow to take off but which some say has big potential.

Desktop virtualization allows companies to host an employee's desktop OS and applications in a virtual machine on a central server, where they can be accessed using a Web browser from a thin client or desktop PC.

Proponents say the technology can lower IT costs by centralizing the management of desktop software, and make workers more mobile by allowing them to access their corporate applications from any computer. But desktop virtualization can be complex to implement and many IT departments don't have the skills yet to do it. And some companies are put off by the need to make an up-front investment in new server software and hardware.

IBM aims to address those challenges with the IBM Smart Business Desktop Cloud, a service for large and mid-size companies that will be rolled out in Europe and North America this October, IBM announced Monday.

The service will allow companies to create employee desktop images and upload them to an IBM data center in North Carolina or in Germany, where IBM will host and manage the images for a monthly fee.

"We're trying to offer an infrastructure to customers that allows them to move forwards a little more quickly with desktop virtualization," said Rick Morgan, product manager for the IBM Smart Business Desktop Cloud.

IBM doesn't have much of its own desktop virtualization software so it built a "best of breed" product using VMware's ESXi hypervisor, Citrix Systems' HDX connection broker, and virtual desktop infrastructure software from Desktone. It has tested the system with thin clients from Wyse Technologies but says customers can use any type of client computer.

IBM has been building such hosted systems for clients on a custom basis, but this is the first time it will offer a pre-built desktop virtualization package for a fixed monthly fee, Morgan said.

It won't disclose the pricing before the service goes on sale, however. Customers will be charged per desktop on a monthly basis, depending on how much processing power and memory they need. They may also need to buy assessment and planning services from IBM to get them up and running, Morgan said.

Jeff Boles, an industry analyst with Taneja Group, said the service from IBM could encourage more companies to virtualize desktops. "Large enterprises are only going to be comfortable going into this if there's someone with IBM's scale behind it, so I think that makes this offer quite compelling," he said.

The service will appeal most to companies that have fairly standardized desktop images, such as call centers, and which already use some type of hosted desktop management services, Boles said. "I think in those cases it could be quite profitable for IBM and more efficient and economical for the customer," he said.

While IBM will host the desktop images and manage the virtualized servers and storage they run on, customers can continue to use the directory and authentication systems they have in their own data centers.

"If the customer has mature authentication and data management schemes they can continue to use those without having to outsource all of that," he said.

Customers will need to sign up for at least 50 desktops to use the service, IBM said. For companies that don't want their desktops hosted at IBM's data center, for regulatory or other reasons, IBM will provide the hardware at the customer site and manage it there, Morgan said.

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James Niccolai

IDG News Service
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