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Desktop virtualisation: Yes, it's cheaper

PCs burn through the money

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Opinion Yes, a virtualised desktop environment can save you money - and trouble - if you do it right. Get it wrong and it can cost you more, so it's worth planning properly before jumping in feet-first.

A PC can burn its way through $5,867 a year, according to Gartner.

You don't have to be a genius to reduce that headline figure a bit, but one of the smarter tactics is to get rid of the PC altogether.

Don't pursue virtualisation as an end in itself: it's just a technique and full virtualisation costs a lot.

Do a proper audit of user needs. Who are the true power users who need a real PC, who just needs word processing, email and web, who needs something in between?

If you can get the bulk of your users onto a 64-bit Windows Terminal Services platform (now called remote desktop service), you can dispense with lot of horsepower and licensing costs at the server end.

Go fully virtualised and you will see the licensing, server and storage costs balloon. Sadly some rogue applications don't virtualise well - isolate those early. If you aren't sure, it may be wise to plan a pilot to tease those details out. Get some good advice on what works and what doesn't.

Energy savings

When it's done right, there are some serious savings to be made.

Capital and energy costs are an obvious place: replacing PCs with desktop equipment that lasts twice to three times as long and consumes a fraction of the power should be easy to figure out.

The upfront cost may be about the same as one PC refresh, but it's spread over many more years. A lot depends on the detail but our experience of systems around the 1,000 PC scale is that replacing PCs or going virtual has similar costs. Fancy virtualization that uses big servers and storage can cost a lot more that so keep it simple if you can.

If you previously got three years life out of a £300 PC, your £100 a year capital cost drops to £33 over nine years. You should also be saving about 70 watts per device as a rule of thumb - so unless your energy prices are unusually low, saving 70 kilowatts is not to be sneezed at.

When it's done right, there are some serious savings to be made"

Let's say your devices are on eight hours a day, 50 weeks of the year. That's 140,000 Kw/h a year, or at 10p a unit, £14,000 a year. If the devices are left on 24x7 as many are, that's nearly £62,000 a year.

An even bigger win usually comes from administration. As a rule of thumb, a well-designed system should occupy one support specialist per 2,000 desktops. Compare that with the 200-400 that's typical for a PC desktop setup. Salaries vary a lot, but your 1,000 desktop set-up has just dropped from 2.5 to 0.5 technical support headcount - you can do the sums on that for yourself.

You can save substantial amounts on capital, administration and power. Your users get something that feels just like a PC but with less to go wrong with it. The trick is not to think that one size fits all or that you have to virtualise everything in sight. Being smart can make a big difference. ®

Currently Chairman of Cutter Project Ltd, which specialises in thin client and virtualization solutions, Mike has been in the IT industry for 30 some years, acting in roles involving academia, consultancy, standardisation and management. His seminal work "Unix The Book" is still remembered with affection by some.

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