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Virtualization: Article

Is the Corporate Desktop the Next Frontier for Virtualization?

Solving real desktop problems is exciting and compelling for corporate enterprises

Virtualization is perhaps the sexiest word in the IT industry today. The benefits of virtualizing servers are widely recognized, and the market for server virtualization software is growing rapidly. This growth rate has caught the attention of many competitors from small startups to giants like Microsoft. At the last count, there were 43 companies directly involved in platform virtualization (Virtualization Industry Radar).

The popularity of server virtualization is easy to explain. At its most basic level, server virtualization allows a single server to partition itself into multiple servers, each of which has access to a full set of virtualized resources. Each of these virtual machines runs its own operating system and its own applications, encapsulated in a set of files, completely unaware of the virtualized resources. The immediate benefit of doing this is that a single server can replace multiple low-utilized servers, resulting in significant savings on capital outlay. Reducing the number of servers also eases power and cooling constraints, which are becoming increasingly problematic in today's crowded data centers. Typically, server consolidation benefits are realized almost immediately, thus making it easy for many companies to adopt server virtualization technology. The technology, however, behind virtual machines goes beyond server consolidation savings. For example, file-based encapsulation virtual machines can be quickly and easily created, copied, executed, and moved around, which facilitates other use cases such as testing, backup, and disaster recovery.

While server virtualization appears to have gone mainstream, the case for desktop virtualization is often less clear. However, the potential opportunity is significant with the number of client devices far exceeding the number of servers (PC shipments are projected to be 311 million units worldwide[1] versus 8 million units for x86-based servers). Primary reasons why organizations will embrace desktop virtualization include:

  • Securing desktop and laptops computers, isolating them from malware and viruses, and preventing important company data from falling into wrong hands
  • Manageability, to simplify and reduce the management costs of PC desktops by centrally managing these desktops
  • Cost reductions due to desktop consolidation

Two well-known types of desktop virtualization solutions exist today:

  1. In its simplest form, virtualization enables users to run multiple simultaneous operating systems on a single PC
  2. For networked corporate users, virtualization software allows users' desktops to be hosted on a central server, simplifying administration and enabling PCs to be replaced by thin clients.

One solution is a desktop virtualization approach where desktops and applications are encapsulated as a virtual environment and delivered dynamically, independent of each other, to be run locally, directly on bare-metal PC hardware, providing enhanced security and centralized management while preserving the flexibility of local PC capabilities.

Unlike existing solutions, which primarily focus on task-oriented workers, this solution is capable of supporting a wide range of scenarios, including:

  • Full support for mobile workers including disconnected operation
  • Isolating the use of corporate and personal computing environments on single PC
  • Securely and inexpensively supporting employee-owned hardware
  • Providing a secure, remote-access environment to corporate resources for contractors or field-based employees
  • Running concurrent Windows XP and Vista environments for application compatibility and ease-of-migration

In this system, typically the PC system administrators are responsible for the creation and maintenance of the corporate desktop environments. These virtual desktop environments usually include the operating system, various applications and end-user specific data. They are packaged and encapsulated as virtual machines and distributed in a standard, portable format that describes the virtual machine, virtual hardware, virtual disks, and the rest of the user execution environment. These virtual desktops can be pre-generated or built dynamically on-demand.

The system management virtual environments are typically created and distributed by PC software management vendors to provide important management functions, such as PC monitoring, backup, anti-virus detection, root-kit detection and many others.

The model of directly executing multiple virtual environments on the same physical PC in full isolation from each other enables many important PC management functions, including but not limited to:

  • System updates
  • Backup
  • Recovery from errors
  • Root-kit detection
  • Malware and software virus detection
  • Machine lockdown
  • Full support for mobility and disconnect use

These capabilities are provided for all desktop operating environments running on PC architecture, while remaining protected from each other and their security vulnerabilities. This model of desktop virtualization is suitable for devices that are always connected to the network, such as stationary desktop PCs connected via a persistent network connection, and mobile notebooks that can be occasionally disconnected from the corporate networks.

Desktop virtualization technology is useful to organizations with multiple remote locations or branch offices or single remote workers logging in from the road, where consolidating the management of these desktops back to a single location is more efficient from a labor and cost perspective. Imagine the ability to securely isolate the users' personal environments from the corporate networks, while letting them have complete freedom with their PCs when they're gone from the office without changing or modifying their corporate Windows environments.

The future of desktop virtualization has yet to be determined - yet the basic idea of using virtualization technology to solve real desktop problems is very exciting and compelling for corporate enterprises. Moreover, while desktop virtualization is not the end-all cure to desktop issues - it is a great beginning.


1. IDC: PC Market Continues To Resist Economic Pressures With A Boost From Low Cost Portable PCs, Sept 10, 2008.

More Stories By Alex Vasilevsky

Alex Vasilevsky is Co-Founder and CTO of Virtual Computer. Before that he was the founder and CTO of Virtual Iron Software, held senior engineering and management roles at Ucentric Systems, Omtool, Avid Technology, and Thinking Machines. He is an industry-recognized expert in virtualization, open source, parallel processing, video systems, and advanced optimizing compilers. Prior to Virtual Computer, he was founder and CTO of Virtual Iron Software. He has authored numerous papers and patents (6 granted and 16 pending) on datacenter and networking topics including security, network and server virtualization, resource optimization, and performance. Listed in The History of the Development of Parallel Computing, Alex is the winner of three IEEE Gordon Bell Awards for practical applications of parallel processing research. He has a BS in computer engineering from Syracuse University, and an MS in computer science from Boston University.

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