So-called "fat clients" are here for the foreseeable future. But is it possible-and cost-effective-for organizations to transition from far-flung and historically hard-to-maintain desktops to virtual desktops stored in a central data center?
The technology is advancing that enables once-powerful and now-weak desktop systems to be repurposed to host virtual desktop systems running modern operating systems. My review of the Leostream Connection Broker shows that it is possible to put desktops on everything from thin clients to elderly PCs. So the question of physical client connectivity is just about moot.
As long as fat clients are in the workforce-already licensed and with a myriad of system tools in place to keep them in relatively good working order-I think the idea of using desktop virtualization holds some promise for medium and large organizations. For one thing, if users were doing their butchery-I mean conducting their daily business-on virtual systems that are easily returned to a pristine state at the end of the day, then a large chunk of fat-client system maintenance is moved to the positive side of the scale.
In addition, there are the traditional benefits of VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) to be considered. Central management of desktop and application configuration and deployment means an end to a reliance on applying delicate patches in what are basically uncontrolled user environments. User systems play a much-reduced role in a VDI world, to the extent that thin clients or AOPOE (Any Old Piece of Equipment) can be swapped in for a failed user client. Since it is conceivable that old spare systems could be stockpiled close at hand, client-machine failure could be reduced from many hours or a day to likely just an hour or two.
From my use of thin clients in my VMware View 4 and Leostream Connection Broker reviews, it is readily apparent that VDI works and works in important ways to satisfy users. When properly configured, virtual desktops are already up and running when users ask for them, making the startup time a startlingly quick experience. Desktop performance is, for the most part, in keeping with how applications work when they are hosted on a local system. In many cases, because my infrastructure is running on 15K drives, with beefy amounts of RAM and speedy Intel Xeon 5500-series processors, applications tend to perform much better when compared to the embarrassingly old, yet strangely durable Dell desktop systems in eWEEK Labs.
Cost comparison between VDI and real desktops are notoriously difficult and I don't have a magic formula to offer here. The technology that enables desktops to move into the data center is here and if desktop managers can see a way to preserve their position even with a shift to the data center, then I'm sure the cost-benefit analysis will follow.
There is another technology to be taken into account when considering desktop strategies, and that is a fully virtual move to the cloud. As business applications are increasingly available in multitenant, always-on, maintained-and-secured-by-someone-else hosting centers, it seems that a third viable option for cost-effective business computing is on the table.
What is clear to me is that an automatic hardware refresh with yet another fat client is not the automatic right answer for large enterprises today. Good options are now available for putting that client on a virtual desktop inside the data center for regulatory and security purposes. There are also increasing opportunities to put applications in the cloud. And in many cases, there are still good reasons to put a piece of hardware with a full operating system and a collection of applications at a user's desk.
In the case of VDI specifically, desktop managers should pay close attention to advances in moving high value workloads into a virtual setting. Although still in its infancy, VDI is pushing to extend multimonitor support to users who need landscape and portrait mode screens. VDI also is being pushed to support four-monitor configurations with a variety of screen resolutions. And as noted earlier, compute advances on the server side are making it increasingly likely that a more powerful, multicore system with fast RAM and disk resources is as likely to be running the virtual desktop. The best thing about placing these high-power resources in the data center is that they can be quickly repurposed for other workloads through the day and night, a task that is much more difficult to do with desk-side compute resources.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated. An earlier version indicated that Leostream Connect suppoted only Internet Explorer.