In mid-2010, as the number of Windows 7 betas spread and the clock ticked down to October, when the long-awaited replacement for XP would officially ship, computer vendors and analysts painted expected that a major new operating system would revive spending on x86-based PCs and servers, which had taken a hit since the recession began in 2008.
Among the most-anticipated effects was that companies eager to move to Windows 7 but loath to spend money to replace all the PCs required to run it, would instead invest heavily in virtual desktops. The potential savings in hardware combined with the reduction in maintenance and security costs often associated with virtual desktops were anticipated to make 2011 the Year of the Virtual Desktop, even if 2010 was supposed to be that year.
But it didn't happen. Yet again.
No Sea Change
More virtual desktop technology is being used in big companies, but there has been no wholesale change in how companies think about virtualization on the client side, according to Sean Hackett, Research Director at The 451 Group.
"A lot of the industry has been waiting with bated breath to see virtual desktops really show they're catching on, but I don't see anything in our surveys, in our interviews with CIOs, or in our research pointing to any broad adoption of virtual desktops in the near future," Hackett says. "Right now we just don't see the drivers pushing CIOs toward virtual desktops. Mostly they're still working out their server virtualization infrastructures."
A 2010 survey on IT spending, for example, estimated that in 2009 only 40 percent of companies in the U.S. had virtualized any of their desktop hardware--including dumb-terminal apps in call centers, banks and other traditional locations.
By 2011 85 percent of companies would have virtualized some of their PCs, a Goldman Sachs report predicted, though barriers still included the cost of both the VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) systems and storage to support them and more pressing budget priorities.
There has been growth in the use of various desktop virtualization technologies--which range from VDI to streaming applications and remote access from mobile devices--but not nearly enough to say it represents a fundamental shift in the market, according to Ian Song, research analyst at IDC.
"The technology is getting a lot more mature and the performance has improved a lot, especially Citrix's and VMware's, with its shift to the PC-over-IP protocol," Song says. "The product offerings are still pretty scattered, so there's no standard way to go about building a virtual desktop infrastructure. And the major vendors are still a year or two from introducing really well unified management systems that can handle desktops, mobile, cloud and virtual servers."
An IDC marketshare report Song co-wrote predicts more growth in both the use of virtual desktops and management apps from VMware, Microsoft, Citrix, and from less well-known players including Desktone, Kaviza, MokaFive and Quest Software.
Tough ROI Equation
Windows 7 turned out to be a minor catalyst for VDI sales, not the catapult vendors and analysts expected.
The cost involved in upgrading both PCs and the OS turned out to be not that much different than the cost of building the server and network infrastructure to support virtual desktops. Virtual desktops have a far lower ROI than virtual servers because of the amount of staff time it takes to configure so many machines and accounts. Whats more, licensing policies from Microsoft encourage users to stick with one particular desktop or laptop machine rather than a virtual one, although Song says we may see changes on that front in a couple of months.
"The ROI from desktop is just so much lower than for server [virtualization] that it puts a lot of people off, especially as you scale up and have 20 or 30 or more PCs running off every server," Song says. "With Windows 7 you probably had to upgrade hardware anyway, even if you were going to virtualize, because a lot of those hardware refreshes had been pushed back a year or two and the hardware was getting kind of rough."
Windows 8, despite having the Hyper-V hypervisor built into it, will probably not boost virtual desktop sales by itself, either, Hackett says.
"There are a lot of companies already using it for various things, but we don't hear much eagerness to spread it across the whole company," Song says.
Slow and Steady
Part of the issue with the desktop is that it's what end users touch directly, which makes it almost sacrosanct. It therefore takes compelling financial and organizational drivers for conservative CIOs to make expensive, extensive changes to the desktop, and those drivers are so far simply not strong enough, Hackett says.
"If you talk to the CIOs, most companies are far, far behind where people think they are," Hackett says. "Most are still wrestling with how to build the most effective virtualization infrastructure. Once they get a handle on that, they want to get good management and automation layers on top so they can control it. Then they'll look at hybrid clouds and try to take advantage of some of the potential benefits there. After that, maybe, they'll look at desktop-as-a-service or VDI, but it's not a high priority for companies that aren't already using it extensively," Hackett says.
It's possible, even likely, that the theoretical year in which virtual desktops will take an equal place with real ones may never happen, or may happen using mobile devices connecting through the cloud, not traditional VDI, Song says.
"Desktop [virtualization] really serves a need in certain parts of the corporation, and it does a good job, a good job that's getting better," Song says. "Between the costs, complexity, lingering issues about performance of graphics and resistance from a lot of end users, it looks as if there will be slow, steady growth than a real explosion."