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Virtual desktops and storage

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Server virtualization has had a profound impact on storage infrastructures, but the coming wave of desktop virtualization will place new demands on storage environments.

Desktop and laptop computers are among the most difficult IT assets to manage. Because they reside with users, and are numerous and distributed by nature, many companies simply defer critical desktop management tasks, such as data protection and patching, to users. That may seem like a practical strategy to some organizations, but it poses great risks in the areas of compliance, security and IT governance in general. Products to address these issues are plentiful -- from expensive desktop management applications to client-side backup and security tools -- but they're mainly point solutions and can be costly.

For storage managers, virtualizing desktops should be a real concern as all of the operating systems, applications and data currently residing on desktop and laptop PCs will need to find a new home in the data center storage environment. The required storage resources, as well as their ongoing management and administration, could be staggering.

VDI promise and challenges

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) -- Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. categorizes it as hosted virtual desktops -- has the potential to cure this ongoing IT ailment by moving desktops into the data center. Instead of booting a local client-side operating system (OS), users connect via

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a browser or thin client to a virtual desktop that runs as a virtual machine (VM) on a server in the data center. Consequently, ownership of the desktop transfers from the user to IT and, by centralizing desktops, the long list of daunting desktop management tasks is greatly reduced.

Wide adoption of VDI beyond a limited number of use cases has been stifled thus far by its lack of mobility and the need to stay connected. But that's about to change. Citrix Systems Inc. and VMware Inc. have been developing offline VDI technologies that enable users to take virtualized desktops on the road while remaining secure and compliant with centrally managed policies. Offline capabilities have the potential to catapult virtual desktop infrastructure from a niche application to mainstream deployment. While Citrix Systems has partnered with Intel Corp. to develop the bare-metal Citrix Thin Client client-side hypervisor, which runs the virtual desktop on the client while disconnected from the server, VMware has released an experimental version of its Offline Desktop software, which enables users to check out their desktop and take it on the road.

"For VDI to become widely adopted in the enterprise, mobility and the ability to take desktops offline are instrumental, and we should see offline VDI production deployments by 2010," said Mark Bowker, an analyst at Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG).

A second key requirement for VDI to prevail is user experience. Virtual desktops need to have the look-and-feel and flexibility of traditional thick clients. Unless audio, video and graphics capabilities, and peripheral support is comparable to (or at least close to) traditional desktops and laptops, virtual desktop infrastructure is likely to continue its niche existence and share the fate of the very thin, but relatively static, terminal server-based computing approach. But great efforts have been put into the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to close the user experience gap between thick clients and VDI clients. Citrix Systems, with its Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) protocol and High Definition Experience (HDX) extensions, currently has the most comprehensive multimedia and peripheral support. Comparably, VMware has partnered with Teradici Corp. to develop a software-only version of PC-over-IP to deliver multimedia to VDI clients beyond the rudimentary capabilities of the standard RDP protocol.

This was first published in August 2009

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