IBM makes it easier to cut back on end-user support

Cheaper, easier VDI could make virtualization work for SMBs

IBM has launched a Third Way in the complex and competitive market for virtual desktops by using third-party software to give companies too small to manage or pay for complex infrastructures some of the benefits of the technology for as little as $150 per seat.

Desktop virtualization is actually a range of technologies -- implementations as narrow as one that streams a single application to any user who wants it, to back-end servers that run "PCs" as virtual machines used by only one person at a time.

Traditionally virtual desktops have been networks of PCs or dumb terminals that all log in to one server to share a single operating system and set of applications.

Desktop virtualization -- full-bore virtual desktop infrastrucutre (VDI) specifically, which is complex and expensive -- grew quickly during 2010, but not nearly to the degree analysts expected.

Much of the holdup, according to Chris Wolf of Gartner and Ian Song of IDC, is that virtual desktops don't save nearly the amount of money virtual servers do, and are more complex to roll out because of the much higher number of machines to be virtualized.

There has been a fight in the computer industry over the past two or three years to see whether virtualization leader VMware or the potent, multi-dimensioned team of Microsoft and Citrix will dominate what was supposed to be an exploding market for virtual desktops during 2010.

That competition has focused primarily on large companies and complex infrastructures that let employers run half a dozen varieties of virtual-desktop technologies across their networks.

Small- and mid-sized companies are the perfect candidates for virtual desktops because the unavoidably manual and labor-intensive end-user support requirement eats up so much larger a percentage of their time and budgets.

The same limitations make it less likely they'll want to invest in VDI, however.

They're also less likely than enterprises to be able to invest in real enterprise-quality applications, which is why they're adopting cloud computing and SAAS products at a level equal to or higher than bigger companies, a demand to which more vendors are responding.

IBM, rarely one to effectively cater to the low end of the market, is releasing a package of server, virtualization software, client software and management tools to give SMBs a drop-in infrastructure for virtual desktops.

It's not a turnkey VDI system; you still have to do all the configuration, design and installation. You don't have to buy all the pieces separately and figure out how to get them to work together, however.

It runs on an IBM System X server running Suse Linux and a Kernel-based virtual machine from Virtual Bridges, a combination IBM says can support as many as 200 desktops on a single server.

Rather than sell it through the blue-suit network, the IBM package will be available through resellers, who do most of the work for SMBs anyway.

It will also be available as a hosted service so SMBs don't even have to have the server on the premises if they don't want to, and their bandwidth is high and reliable enough to support remote-hosted VDI.

It's not the first VDI offering aimed at SMBs, but seeing IBM offer it not only to SMBs, but offered through the reseller channel using software from companies other than IBM or the market-leading VDI vendors should open up the market.

It will allow companies to dabble in VDI that could never afford it before, and boost a third VDI server application to compete with VMware, Citrix and Microsoft.

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

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