Virtualisation – the process by which software is executed in an environment separated from its underlying hardware environment – is becoming widely accepted. In fact, according to a recent Gartner survey (Q4,2009), virtualisation is at the top of the CIO’s agenda.

For what is predominantly happening in the data centre, there are many cost advantages as well as operational and environmental benefits. Furthermore, businesses can reap the full benefits that virtualisation delivers well beyond consolidation and cost reduction, to enable greater agility and flexibility for their business.
The next big thing which is likely to be seen is the move from a PC environment to virtualisation on the desktop, which offers just as many opportunities for the business. But what will trigger the strategic decision to embrace this new technology approach – and how can CIOs justify the cost of implementing a fully virtualised desktop environment?
At the moment, if someone works in a virtualised environment, there are a number of elements that still constrain them. If they are working on a document then the application that created the document is likely to be on their PC, so it is an advantage to have their own computer available.
In other words, the data can be transferred very easily – but the applications and the environment in which it was created is less easy to duplicate.
Full desktop virtualisation does away with this – and it’s growing. IDC predicts the market will be worth $1,8-billion by 2012, and that in the next three to five years the vast majority of enterprise IT organisations will have in place extensive proof of concept implementations or have full-blown desktop virtualisation throughout the organisation.
Business continuity
If a business or public sector entity were starting their IT right now, they would be unlikely to do it as it was done in the past. Distributing the technology and the consequent support needs around an enterprise, indeed on every individual desktop, makes neither logistical nor economic sense.
Companies that deploy full desktop virtualisation are able to encourage their employees to work from home – to VPN into the network and have their entire office computer accessible on their home system.
Not a representation of it, not a synched duplicate (although this is certainly an option and appropriate in some circumstances) but their computer, as they would use it at work, delivered down the network pipe to whichever system they were working on. There was no increased cost to the organisation or employee but the staff members were able to continue as normal.
The conclusion is obvious: if tasks can be performed from a computer using its browser to act as a terminal, then nobody needs a fully-functioning “fat” computer on their desk. They need a much less expensive and easier to support “thin client” to run the browser and allow a central computer to take on the main computing overhead.
Overall the cost benefits for desktop virtualisation are compelling, with PCs virtualised and hosted on servers in the data centre reducing costs by up to 70%.
Support issues
One of the more elegant things about a well-provisioned and planned desktop virtualisation strategy is that no PC is resident on the user’s computer –  but is at the heart of whichever server the IT department needs it to be.
This means desktops can be powered down when not in use so the computing power can be diverted elsewhere, and also that whichever industrial-strength security applies to one desktop will apply to them all automatically.
Time consuming helpdesk issues that would require a personal visit from an IT advisor are eliminated because the desktop can simply be fired up where the help department actually is, fixed and sent back to the employee.
Desktop virtualisation has been described as the “polyfilla” of the virtualisation industry – if users are using 80% or 90% of their servers as virtualised storage, it might not require any additional physical servers to fill the rest with desktops. These can then be activated remotely as and when people need them.
It also overcomes the concerns many IT managers have due to the increased trend towards people using their own computers at work. This is a popular new phenomenon which allows employees new levels of autonomy in deciding how they work, but if it is done less than proficiently it opens businesses to the risk of virus infection, data loss and security compromises.
As long as the deployment and implementation is thoroughly professional – and this is where an experienced organisation like VMware can help enormously – the connection will be completely secure and fully agnostic about which piece of hardware it appears on.
This makes compliance much simpler than it is in an environment in which the computing power and assets are distributed throughout an organisation. An organisation could choose to completely "lock down" desktops in a bid to secure data, which would be held centrally. Restoring a system from a traditional backup is complex and time consuming. With desktop virtualisation, this is practically eliminated.
Protection of investment
Another area in which a virtual desktop strategy – and it does need to be a thought-out strategy – will help is when an upgrade takes place. As this article is being written, many companies around the world are going through their upgrade to Windows 7 on the desktop. Several are going through this machine by machine, and others are having to replace their hardware because it’s not up to the job.
If they had a browser and nothing else then this would be less of an issue, of course. It would be dishonest to say they would never need to upgrade but the only technological concern would be whether a set of computers works with the browser.
Meanwhile the people who have opted for a virtual desktop strategy are able to control and manage the roll-out of the new system centrally, saving money and quite frankly hassle in the process.
VMware figures suggest that the lifetime cost of a PC is ten times its purchase price at least. VMware View saves about $610 per end-user in IT support costs and downtime, and over time due to technical support issues it offers a return on investment of 367%.
Virtualisation strategy
Desktop virtualisation works alongside server virtualisation and a strategy combining the two will deliver the maximum management benefits.
The ability to fire up either a server, or enable an application on different computers (meaning payment only for the licenses in use rather than a full license for something which is used only once every other week), is a clear advantage to recession-strapped corporates who want to stretch their existing assets rather than buy more.
The desktop is as yet the unexplored area of virtualisation for many organisations, which is a pity because the ease of management and pain-free cost reductions are very considerable. And coupled with server virtualisation the opportunities are endless.
From cost-savings and security right through to compliance and a tighter support structure, a full virtualisation strategy can significantly reduce IT complexity – and ease a significant amount of pressure across the CIO community.