Client virtualisation could become more widespread as organisations use Windows 7 migration planning processes as an opportunity to evaluate alternative ways of delivering a corporate desktop to workers.
But companies must take care to understand which technologies best suit their business requirements, rather than simply rushing to deploy the coolest new technology.
These were the chief highlights of a live webcast with executives from Intel, Citrix and Atos Origin, which generated more heat than light on the subject of client virtualisation, but did raise a few significant issues.
The topic is less well understood than server virtualisation, not just because it has previously been little seen outside specialised niches, but because it is an umbrella term that includes a number of technologies.
These include virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), whereby clients are reduced to virtual machines running in a datacentre, but can also refer to remotely accessed blade workstations, operating system streaming to diskless workstations, and even traditional server-hosted Citrix sessions.
If customers are confused by all this, it is not surprising. The thing to remember is that virtualisation does not simply refer to virtual machines, but to a decoupling of software from the hardware. In client virtualisation, this typically means that the desktop is separated from the endpoint device the worker is using to access it, such as a blade workstation accessed via a remote screen.
Guy Lidbetter, chief technology officer for managed operations at IT services firm Atos Origin, believes that interest in client virtualisation is growing as businesses take stock of their infrastructure while planning a migration to Microsoft's latest operating system.
"Windows 7 is becoming an inflexion point. Companies are saying that now is the time to move, but do we just upgrade, or change the way the desktop is delivered?" he said.
New workers now entering employment are also more familiar with other client devices such as smartphones, Lidbetter added.
Ian Pratt, vice president of advanced virtualisation at Citrix, suggested that many of the technologies outlined above are best suited to specific categories of worker within an organisation.
"Shared or hosted desktops, like Citrix has offered for 20 years, are the most mature and a good technology for task-based workers. But the most hype is around VDI, which enables delivery to knowledge workers who need a full-featured desktop," he said.
However, the latter category might be equally well served by streaming the desktop to a diskless workstation (such as PXE booting), or blade PCs, Pratt observed.
Freeform Dynamics analyst Martin Atherton, who hosted the event, argued that this complexity of client virtualisation is one reason why it has not been widely adopted so far.
In response, Lidbetter pointed out that there is a need to first understand the business requirements.
"For example, are there regulatory compliance restrictions that mean you have to keep data stored centrally? Unless you understand the issues, you risk choosing what only sounds best," he said.
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