Why Are Companies Pumping Brakes On Desktop Virtualization?

There's evidence in the channel that organizations are growing increasingly gun-shy about following through on desktop virtualization pilots and deployments. Their uneasiness, according to virtualization experts, stems from higher than expected infrastructure costs, technical complexity and a return on investment that's typically slower to materialize compared to server virtualization.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Desktop virtualization goes hand-in-hand with mobility, and the arrival of Windows 7 and Apple's iPad were expected to be catalysts for the technology. Centralized management and simplified security are also attractive features. But while interest in desktop virtualization remains high, organizations are hesitant to pull the trigger.

"Our customers are asking a lot of questions about desktop virtualization, but we have not seen a tremendous amount of traction," said Dan Weiss, CEO and co-founder of Varrow, a Greensboro, N.C.-based solution provider. "We have a lot of proof-of-concepts, but not many full-blown implementations."

Cost and complexity aren't the only factors stalling the desktop virtualization market. Chris Minnis, virtualization services manager at Mainline Information Systems in Tallahassee, Fla., says the growth of tablet usage in the workplace, coupled with the emergence of HTML5 as a mobile application delivery mechanism, have caused organizations to freeze desktop virtualization projects.

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Their fears are understandable if one subscribes to the idea, often raised by Apple, Google and VMware, that we're already living in the post-PC era. "Customers are trying to figure out whether to use desktop virtualization as a conduit to their applications, or whether HTML5 is going to change application delivery and completely overhaul their reliance on the OS on end user devices," Minnis said.

When Mainline Information Systems launched its virtualization practice in 2006, most of its desktop virtualization revenue came from deploying the infrastructure to support remote connectivity. But since then, Mainline's desktop virtualization revenue has failed to grow at the rate it had anticipated, Minnis said.

While the bumpy economy has been a factor, Minnis says customers are waiting to see how things play out in mobility before placing their bets on a specific technology. "We're starting to question the viability of our desktop virtualization practice," he said. "Customers are seeing potential for the desktop -- both as a device and as a role -- being potentially replaced by something else."

Another aspect of the desktop market has been a whirlwind of marketing hype around virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), a term that vendors have stretched to the point of being synonymous with desktop virtualization -- at least in customers' minds.

The reality is VDI is one method of implementing desktop virtualization, but not the only one. And for many potential customers, it may not be the best one, said Simon Bramfitt, founder and research director at Entelechy Associates, a Concord, Calif.-based virtualization consultancy.

Bramfitt says VDI works well in call centers, healthcare, and financial services organizations that have large numbers of task workers requiring very high availability at the endpoint. Organizations that have very tight control of their desktop environment and a well defined application portfolio with minimal variation would be also be candidates, he said.

While VDI is a fit for certain scenarios, some virtualization experts feel that vendor marketing glosses over the associated cost and complexity of the technology. And down the road, this often leads to disillusioned customers.

Simon Crosby, former CTO of Citrix's Data Center and Cloud division and co-founder of security startup Bromium, says vendors are pushing VDI as mature, when in fact it's "very immature."

"People have to learn about how to manage hypervisors, buy servers, buy storage, and buy networking equipment. And they have to get comfortable with managing all this stuff prior to getting VDI up and running," Crosby said.

NEXT: Cutting Through The VDI Hype

Like Bramfitt, Crosby also believes that VDI is sometimes deployed in environments where a different type of desktop virtualization would have been a better fit. "If the goal is access to multiple client devices, primary devices and tablets, Terminal Services does this just fine -- and it's already well understood," Crosby said.

As is often the case, it often falls on solution providers to wave away the smokescreen. "A lot of time customers hear the marketing song and dance and are convinced that desktop virtualization will help them. But it may just be a fit for a percentage of their users, and it doesn't have to be 100 percent," Scott Miller, director of business development for virtualization and cloud at World Wide Technology (WWT), a Maryland Heights, Mo.-based based solution provider.

At WWT, Miller leads a national team of experts focused on virtualization and cloud technology whose includes holding desktop virtualization workshops with customers. These aren't sales discussions; in fact, no products are mentioned at all.

Instead, the WWT team explains the different types of desktop virtualization and where it would make sense for customers to deploy the technology. Instruction on the various flavors of server-based computing -- and their limitations -- is also included.

As a customer, "You need to first determine whether it makes sense to do it at all. We've been doing this long enough that it's refreshing for us to tell them no," Miller said. "We can quickly determine from what application stacks customers are using which ones are candidates and which are not."

Varrow's Weiss also finds himself playing defense for customers that have starry eyed notions of what benefits desktop virtualization will bring.

"We've had customers tell us they wanted to roll out 1,000 desktops on VDI, and we said 'Whoa, hold on, you need to know what that means," he said. "In reality, desktop virtualization increases management efficiency, but it doesn't reduce cost."

The careful, deliberate approach to desktop virtualization appears to be working for WWT. Its VMware View sales rose 100 percent from 2009 to 2010, and this year-to-date sales are up 400 percent. Meanwhile, XenDesktop sales rose 150 percent from 2009 to 2010 and are up 200 percent this year, Miller said.

"We're seeing growth in this market," Miller said. "For new opportunities, it's still the fastest growing solution."

While the desktop virtualization party will probably never achieve the same level of raucousness as server virtualization, most solution providers agree that it'll always play a role in some industry segments. Whether the technology becomes more widespread than it is today remains to be seen, but for now, the industry's migration to desktop virtualization is happening with tentative steps.