The Sami people of Scandinavia are said to have hundreds of different words for snow. The technology known broadly as user virtualization doesn't have nearly this many, but its growing importance in IT industry circles has spawned a number of alternate descriptions, such as 'workspace management', 'persistent personalization' and 'profile management'.
However it's defined, there's no question that user virtualization solves difficult problems for IT departments. Its central purpose is managing an individual's data, personal files and applications as a distinct layer that's separate from the hardware, operating system and application layers. User virtualization's benefits include better security and smoother Windows desktop migrations and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) projects.
For IT departments, user virtualization is about delivering a consistent experience to users regardless of what type of desktop they're using, where they’re located, and whether they're using a mobile device or a notebook. Preserving and managing employees' personal workspaces across different devices and connection scenarios is crucial in these iPad and notebook crazed times.
"With user virtualization, you're managing the user and ensuring that you're protecting valuable assets, regardless of what device or apps they're using," said Peter Rawlinson, chief marketing officer at AppSense, a New York City-based user virtualization vendor.
While VMware, Citrix and Microsoft have their own user virtualization products, smaller vendors have stepped into the fray with products that address more specific pain points. As the mobile workforce continues to swell, user virtualization is emerging as a must-have technology for IT departments.
"With desktop-as-a-service and VDI, you now potentially have a user who is moving around through the day through several different desktop delivery models," said Jeff Fisher, vice president of business development at RES Software, Plymouth Meeting, Pa.
There's been plenty of activity in this space over the past year. AppSense last February scored a $70 million round of venture capital funding from Goldman Sachs, and Citrix in August acquired RingCube, whose vDesk product preserves personalization of user settings and speeds migrations from physical to virtual environments. Liquidware Labs, another user virtualization player, adopted a two-tier, worldwide distribution model and in November inked a distribution deal with Arrow ECS.
Organizations currently planning Windows 7 migrations -- and there are many, as Windows XP usage worldwide has been steadily declining -- are logical candidates for user virtualization. Whether they're migrating to a physical or virtual Windows 7 desktop, organizations can save themselves a lot of hassle by maintaining personal settings and desktop setup scripts.
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User virtualization also allows organizations to standardize on a smaller number of master images, which lowers administration and support costs, said Eugene Alfaro, director of IT engineering services at Cornerstone Technologies, San Jose, Calif.
"If you're going to use a master or 'gold template' disk scheme, you have to have user virtualization," he said. "If you're tied to persistent disks to maintain personalization for users, and that nullifies any cost of ownership benefits for VDI."
Standardizing desktop builds and application delivery is another area in which user virtualization can help in Windows desktop migrations. "With personalization and simple profile management, [user virtualization] gives you look and feel of own private image, even though you're using a shared image," said Andy Paul, principal virtualization consultant at data center solution provider GlassHouse Technologies.
User virtualization has also proven an effective way to get the wheels turning on stalled virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) projects.
In some cases, VDI deployments get hung up because of technical issues. But employees have also been known to revolt after the physical-to-virtual transition because the look and feel of virtual desktops is different from what they're used to. The stripping away of personalization has been a thorny issue for many companies that have introduced VDI.
Paul Kunze, director at IntraSystems, a Braintree, Mass.-based solution provider, said this can even lead to dissension in the ranks after VDI projects. "The virtual desktop experience needs to be as good or better than physical desktops," he said. "If it's challenging for users to get to apps, or the profile setup is more cumbersome, end users won't buy in."
Seen in this light, user virtualization is like a steamroller that smoothes out the wrinkles that invariably emerge in the wake of desktop migrations. In the last six months, all of Cornerstone's desktop and application virtualization deployments have included some element of user virtualization, according to Alfaro.
"When we move customers from a non-virtual desktop over to a virtual one, the big question is, can we make it seamless to the user?" said Alfaro. "One rule in IT is you don’t rip and replace the user experience, and that's why seamless migration is important."
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Ken Phelan, CTO of Gotham Technology Partners, a Montvale, N.J.-based virtualization solution provider, notes that in some large organizations, employees are still coming in through the firewall and connecting to their local PC using Remote Desktop Protocol, and affixing sticky notes to their PCs asking that the machine not be shut off. It’s a primitive workaround, and one that becomes unnecessary in organizations that adopt user virtualization.
"User virtualization tools that allow you to recreate all of the things that make the user's environment the user's environment," said Phelan. "This includes all the aspects of profile in a provisioned infrastructure so you can provision those elements to iPads, home PC, and notebook PCs at Starbucks. It's a huge inflection point for what we can do with virtual desktops."
User virtualization can also improve a company's security posture. RES Software, a Plymouth Meeting, Pa.-based vendor, has a product called Workspace Manager that extracts all user settings and stores them outside of Windows user profiles. The software can detect the context of the user, presenting a certain set of corporate applications and network shares while they're working from home or in the office, and a more limited set when they're in a coffee shop or airport.
By abstracting user state, Workspace Manager gives mobile workers consistency, said Jeff Fisher, vice president of business development at RES. "For anything that considered an environmental setting, we can control and secure or expose or hide based on dozens of contextual elements," he said. "This allows us to get very granular about when settings are applied. We can load setting on a per-application basis if needed."
The future looks bright for the user virtualization market, as Windows 7 migrations are steadily ramping up and the growth of the mobile enterprise shows no sign of slowing down. It's unclear at this point whether "user virtualization" will end up coalescing as the de facto name for this type of technology, but as long as it continues to handle heavy lifting for IT departments, no one's going to be complaining about what label it carries.