Tablets, phones make desktop virtualization the revolution that never was

Virtual desktops continue to grow, but focus shifts to ultramobile computing

In mid-2009, as VMware and Microsoftfought as often about marketing gags as about technology, the assumption of both companies, most IT analysts and journalists and almost every IT vendor with anything to do with virtualization or the desktop, was that 2010 would be the year virtual desktops transformed traditional IT into something completely new.

It was a familiar position for most; they'd been waiting for the Year of Desktop Virtualization for three to five years, based on surveys that showed enthusiasm among senior IT executives for the potential benefits.

Not many of them ended up pulling the trigger, so the year of the virtual desktop would get put off another year.

This year was really supposed to be the one.

"Every IT executive I see talks about those 500 million desktops in the enterprise; they hate them.," according to Tod Nielsen, VMware's chief operating officer, speaking at VMworld in August of last year."They're hard to provision, hard to manage, hard to secure, and if they have to go touch every one of them to accomplish something, it's a big problem."

Only 13 percent of companies surveyed by architecture consultant Merv Adrian planned to install virtual desktops in 2009; that number jumped to 31 percent in 2010.

Gartner predicted at mid-year that hosted virtual desktops -- desktops in the cloud -- would grow ten-fold, from 500,000 in 2009 to 49 million in 2013.

Market leader Citrix marked $90 million in sales for its XenDesktop business during the quarter ended Sept. 30, compared to $180 million for the entire previous year.

New year, new "PC"

"Specialized form factors" such as netbooks, tablets, and smartphones will become an increasingly large percentage and more important part of enterprise computing, according to IDC. Tablets specifically may eat as much as a third of new-PC sales during 2011, according to Gartner.

The growth is so dramatic that Citrix, VMware and Microsoft -- and every other company making products for either mobile hardware or virtual desktops -- is pitching mobile virtualization as the primary answer to the consumerization of IT and strategies to manage it.

Virtualization for tablets and smartphones is easy to sell because it gives end users an essentially free way to use their favorite gadgets to work securely from wherever they are. It gives IT a way to keep from having to learn and manage every device and every operating system on a laptop, netbook, tablet or smartphone on the market.

If the "business" part of the device is virtual, all IT has to manage is the part on the server.

Not only that, but people love their new devices so much they'll jump through hoops and even spend their own money to get one they can use for work, then give IT much of the credit for making it possible, which leads to a more cooperative relationship between the two, according to Dave Bucholz, the Intel engineer who has overseen a popular and successful mobile virtualization project for Intel employees.

The future is mobile, and virtual

So which is going to have the faster growth rate and, more importantly, the greater impact on both new technology from vendors and new projects or strategies in end-user companies?

Mobile. No question.

Desktop and laptop PCs have the inertia, of course. There are millions more of them installed as full clients of business networks than there are tablets or smartphones.

Virtual desktops will certainly become a more important and more common part of enterprise computing, but isn't going to overturn 50 years of habit and infrastructure overnight, according to Gartner analyst Chris Wolf.

Fewer than 3 percent of current desktops are virtualized, though, according to IDC. Most of those used in call centers, banks and other places where the client hardware is one step above a dumb terminal.

That number will continue to grow, and will expand as more companies buy desktops in the cloud (desktops as a service) or expand their virtual infrastructures to make internal apps more available virtually (streaming apps inside the firewall, SAAS outside), or to get more control of their own data by keeping it virtualized on servers that can't be left in airports or taxis like laptops.

It is mobile computing that will become the major disruptive element in corporate computing, however.

Tablets and phones can't compare for power or storage capacity with even small laptops, of course. That doesn't matter as much if they're constantly talking to servers that supply their data through encrypted pipes, run whatever apps the end user needs and show the result on whatever screen is available to him or her.

Done right, and assuming the network links work fast enough not to enrage users more than delight them, virtualized apps are more secure and reliable -- and certainly cheaper -- than lightweight versions ported to quick-changing versions of at least four major operating systems and hundreds of actual devices, with most of the features deleted to accommodate weaker processors.

Tablet-processor maker ARM is increasing the power and efficiency of its chips quickly, however, and attracting important allies away from rival Intel.

Disrupting the enterprise

Sales of tablets and smartphones will explode during 2011 and 2012, disrupting enterprise IT at least as much as they do leaders and business models in the IT industry along the way.

Connecting them to the corporate network, virtualizing user environments so people can do more than email on iPhones, building, buying or adapting apps to run on tablets and phones and finding ways to secure the data people access using highly mobile devices will change the character of what IT used to call "The Edge."

The edge of the network, the edge of the enterprise, will no longer be a DMZ occupied by firewall servers, security appliances, access servers and sandboxes for business partners.

The edge will become the normal work environment for the most productive, influential end users in the enterprise -- top executives, sales and marketing, field operations -- people who work directly with customers and whose IT-enabled productivity directly affects the company's bottom line.

Combined -- the drive toward consumerized IT backed by better hardware, cellular and WiFi networks, and demands by influential end users for choose-your-own technology rights -- will push ultra-mobile form factors ahead of traditional PCs and laptops on IT agendas.

Because handhelds are so much less secure and reliable than traditional hardware when not backed by virtual versions of themselves, virtualization of mobile devices will move to the front of the agenda at many end-user organizations.

Most organizations that adopt or plan to adopt virtual desktops until now have done it gradually and tactically -- only where it makes sense and only to the extent they really need it, according to Gartner's Wolf and IDC's Ian Song.

That makes desktop virtualization a point product for most organizations -- implemented to relive a particular set of problems or point of pain -- not a strategic technology they implement everywhere unless there's a good reason not to. Virtual desktops will continue to increase in number and importance, but they won't become the kind of revolutionary, disruptive influence implied in expectations of a "Year of the Virtual Desktop."

Mobile-client virtualization looks very much like the opposite -- a virtualization technology that captured the imaginations of IT and end users as quickly as virtual servers did, and with nearly as clear a justification. Ultimately, rather than just a way to connect tablets, mobile virtualization may largely replace remote-access products for everyone, not just tablet and phone users.

Which would make 2011, like 2010, 2009 and 2008 another Year of the Virtual Desktop that never came. At least this time there will be a clear reason -- one you can read about on your phone riding in to work.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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