Tradeoffs in Desktop Virtualization: No Showstoppers.

27 September 2008

In a recent post on, Jason Hiner, says that the cloud is not ready for desktop virtualization.

I’m more confident in the success of virtualized desktops.  I have, along with many others, been using them for years as remote desktops.  First with GoToMyPC and later with Microsoft remote desktop.  I would leave my desktop computer running at work and then access the desktop remotely from home or on the road.  My primary access method was a laptop connected on my home’s wireless network or the hotel Internet.  Never needing to transfer a file or install software, after two years, my laptop was in the same condition it was when I bought it.

Yes there were limitations.  Editing a Power Point presentation was annoying and multimedia files were poorly displayed.  If the Internet was slow, the mouse and keyboard screen updates could be jerky.  If I didn’t have Internet, I couldn’t work.  But there were always work-arounds and compromises.  For Power Point, I learned to turn off the background graphics or use a different template altogether.  I spent more time on content than format.  For surfing, it was often better to do the surfing locally – but not always.  I read on the plane and worked in the airport terminal.

However, the benefits of a single working desktop, of not having to sync files, of always being able to get to the desktop no matter where I was or on what machine:  these things outweighed the reduction in the “user experience”.  I was willing to put up with less in order to get these benefits.  It was a classic cost-benefit trade-off that I think many people and companies will make in the cloud’s favor.

I’d also like to point out that many companies are not using state of the art multimedia machines as desktops.  A quick walk through some local offices shows 14″ monitors, e-mail and word processing, two-tone text based data entry screens that look like they were programmed in 1970, no multi-media capabilities – basically bare bones corporate only workstations.  These are also the targets for virtualization.

What I am looking forward to with the virtualized desktop approach is being able to get rid of the corporate desktop altogether.  Virtualization has been a key term in servers since it allows servers to be consolidated.  If I had 10 servers, I may be able to get away with five or three or even one with the appropriate virtualization technology.  If you can virtualize the desktop as well, consider the additional savings.  How many computers are there out there in total?  What is the ratio of desktop computers to servers?  Its a probably more than 2 to 1.  If employees have a desktop at work and a laptop for home or the road, the number of non-server computers is even higher.  Now consider that desktop virtualization can reduce the number of redundant computers by up to a 50:1 ratio (as claimed by Qumranet’s President Rami Tamir in April.)  Yes, there will still need to be terminals with screens and keyboards but these can be much cheaper than the multi-cpu, multi-core machine that currently sits on my desk.  In all, this means a dramatic reduction in the amount of desktop hardware out there with a concomitant reduction in the IT support requirements.  The savings are too hard to ignore.

I agree with Jason that the importance of latency in the network will be important.  But just as working with remote desktops in a hotel, it is still possible to do even with tardy connections.  In return, the bandwidth requirements are significantly reduced.  A terminal for a virtual desktop will only need a fraction of the Internet bandwidth since it handles no files, transfers no data and only displays updates to the graphics.  The server in the cloud, on the other hand, has access to the Internet backbone and can deal with files over a high-bandwidth link.  For many companies, the server may have access to more Internet bandwidth than their own servers.

Jason’s article also mentions a bridge approach from MokaFive.  I realize the appeal of MokaFive’s approach, but I have lost (and given away) more USB keys than I can count and would not want to be dependent on one in order to use my computer.  I want the freedom of the web even with its restrictions.

What would you be willing to sacrifice to implement virtual desktops in your company?