Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Coming to a Desktop Near You: Virtualization

Will desktop computers become an IT endangered species in 2011?Well, now you've really done it. You virtualized your storage, then turned to the servers and got rid of a bunch of them, too. Even the enterprise network has been virtualized and optimized, leaving applications running on who knows what, who knows where. And now, with a never-growing budget in hand, you turn your attention to the last bastion of "unvirtualized" IT goodness:  the desktop.
Well, it's certainly not like we haven't tried this before. Almost 20 years of thin-client goodness has been there as companies like Citrix emerged and moved from multiuser OS/2 (yes, started by recreating what Unix minis did great back in the day) to serving up remote Windows sessions from data center-based servers to thin-client devices on workers' desks.  I thought then that we had come full circle, back to the pre-PC days when every user had a dumb terminal. 
The truth is, I always was a huge believer in the benefits of this approach, and went so far as to become a marketing vice president for two very early blade server companies, although we called them "communications servers" at the time. But did I ever imagine that those served-up sessions would replace PCs? Nope.
So here we are, 2011 and I smell deja vu all over again. Yes, I understand the benefits of a virtualized client--enhanced security; limited ability to take corporate intellectual property away; and greatly reduced support and upgrade costs. But I see two big DANGER, WILL ROBINSON warnings coming down the path.
First, there's the client-device problem. Some organizations will take the Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD, approach, allowing remote or field users to access their desktops from their home PC, laptop, tablet or--heaven forbid--phone. Welcome to IT/telecom hell as the Blackberry/iPhone/Android/Linux/Windows issues grow a hundredfold, at least.
Second, and perhaps the larger issue, is the "Not MY Apps" factor.  We've become so hooked on our personal productivity (and time-wasting) applications that the lack of persistence when disconnected and the loss of ability to use local storage will lead to even more users bringing their own--productivity applications, that is, whether OpenOffice or Microsoft or who knows what--that will then become a further burden as IT tries to (1) figure out how to get the users' data integrated into the virtualized systems, and (2) determine how to keep the users' family photos from ending up on network storage in the data center.
Are Web-based applications a better way to go? Is there a different take on this that you've tried and gotten to work without a revolt? If so, I'd love to hear about it, so add your reply to the end of this story and let me know.  I expect we'll keep that conversation going for a while.
I still dream of the day when "the office" is encapsulated into a virtualized object and served up to our devices--whatever they may be.  And yes, there will be those early adopters who will get there this year, following decades of IT pioneers who have the arrows in their backs to prove they paved the way. Till then, be prepared to pry full-blown client PCs from many sets of dead, cold fingers that just aren't ready to let go.
Maybe next year?

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