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Still talking about desktops ... haven't we moved on?

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The desktop computer remains a fixture in just about every business – a fixture that still needs to be maintained, secured and eventually, refreshed. At the same time, the pressures to provide more flexible, cost-effective access to corporate systems is leading organisations to look at mobile and cloud computing desktop alternatives.

So why are we still talking about desktops?

Simply swapping old desktop hardware for new without looking at the latest technology options may miss out on potential benefits of desktop virtualisation. Indeed, analysts at IDC suggest that 34 per cent of corporate desktop delivery had been virtualised by the end of 2010.

However, deciding to virtualise PC environments is not as easy as installing new kit and flicking a switch, where everyone wakes up to a brave new computing world. Users still need access to their corporate desktop systems and data, which is why we still talk about them, despite a growing interest in fully virtual, cut-down mobile or remote access in a number of businesses.

Most employees rely on access to corporate desktops to carry out their daily tasks, so application virtualisation can be a good place to start. This allows IT to deploy applications to clients from centralised application servers.

Separating the hardware layer from the application layer in this way can help preserve existing desktop investments, and widen hardware and operating system options by streaming desktop applications on demand over the Internet or via the corporate network to PCs, terminal servers, laptops and even mobile devices.

Centralising IT management functions through application virtualisation also reduces the need to disrupt end-user access when carrying out upgrades, patching, and terminations, for example. The IT department can standardise security, identity and access management policy enforcement, as well as improve back-up and disaster recovery capabilities. Rationalising the software estate like this can also save on software licensing and other compliance costs.

The application of virtualisation

Microsoft, for example, claims that customers using its application virtualisation solution, App-V, achieved a 27 per cent labour saving, and equivalent cost savings of £51 per PC per year in application lifecycle management, compared with those not using application virtualisation. And its latest version, App-V 4.6, can also be deployed as part of Microsoft Application Virtualisation for Terminal Services .

Many organisations are also deploying virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technologies from the likes of Microsoft and its partners, including Citrix, so users can access personalised desktops running in the data centre.

This can extend savings already realised from application and server virtualisation, and provide more flexible desktop deployment and delivery opportunities on a wider variety of computing devices. Existing PCs can be reused, while ‘thin client’ desktops with no hard drive, fan or other moving parts can also lengthen refresh lifecycles and lower running costs.

The downside is that you'll need a robust server infrastructure to handle processing requirements that have been pushed to the data centre, coupled with strong network and security management capabilities. Together, these can offset any savings realised from desktop delivery.

Session virtualisation, where applications run on the server, can require less hardware and server management as well as more cost-effective desktop delivery than VDI. As it can potentially scale to more users per server than VDI, it can also enable a high user density with a limited degree of personalisation, making it more suitable for low complexity or task worker scenarios.

Finally, installing virtualisation on the desktop can ensure that incompatible or unsupported applications continue to run in a virtual environment, detached from hardware dependencies.

Whichever desktop optimisation technologies you deploy, it is important to finely match end-user access requirements with a clear understanding of the merits and demerits of the different desktop delivery options. 7reg;

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