Corporate PC Strategies – Time To Go Virtual?

Corporate Client Strategy Highlights

  • PC sales have declined more in larger companies during the recession
  • Cloud Computing is highly connected to virtual client developments
  • Users want access to corporate applications – not just email – via Smart Phones
  • ITCandor defines four types of client device – laptop, desktop, thin client and smart phone
  • ITCandor defines four types of virtual client – local VM, streaming, internal hosted and external hosted
  • PCs can be used as thin clients, but thin clients can’t be used as PCs
  • Users hate being asked to use anything other than a fully functional PC
  • VMWare’s lead in x86 server virtualisation doesn’t necessarily make it the winner in client virtualisation
  • There will be an increasing uptake of virtual clients which will suppress some hardware spending
  • There will be many interesting supplier announcements coming up

I have been talking to a number of senior supplier executives in the last couple of weeks about the enterprise PC market. In particular about what’s going to happen later in the year when they have to consider PC refreshments once more. In the last couple of years they have tended to put upgrade and new purchases on hold for a number of reasons. In particular:

  • The Credit Crunch forced cost control actions – PC refreshment cycles were suspended as one of the first.
  • Organisations have often made large numbers of staff redundant and redeployed their PCs among retained employees.
  • The shift towards browser-based corporate applications made fully specified PCs less important.

While PC replacements have been on hold the industry has been trumpeting the advantages of – and investing in –Cloud Computing, making it one of the few positive movements during the downturn. There have also been a lot of associated debates about Virtual Desktop Interfaces (VDI), accessing corporate applications via Smart Phones and virtualisation from servers to desktops.

I thought it was a good time to look at whether it’s time for large enterprises to ‘go virtual’ with their client devices strategy, what the technical choices are and what the likely effect on PC purchases will be over the next few years.

Virtualisation Choices For Client Devices

There are at least four Client Device candidates/platforms to think about when planning virtualisation – the laptop and desktop PC, thin client and smart phone. You could add gaming consoles and set top boxes, but they’re probably not encouraged in big business. I’ve captured the four types in Figure 2. The smart phone is too small to run a full desktop experience of course (unless you count Apple’s iPad), but their users are increasingly asking for access to corporate applications.

In addition to the physical devices we also have to consider the types of virtual client session running on them, which I’ve included on the right hand side of Figure 2. Leaving aside the operating systems and applications running locally on laptops and desktops, I count four different categories mainly dependent on where server from which the virtual client is run. A local virtual machine runs on the PC itself for instance, while an external hosted virtual client will form part of a managed service offering; streamed virtual clients are typically run to thin clients from internal data centres, but can run on PCs as well – the same is true of internal hosted virtual clients, which typically involve the use of PC blades in the data centre.

The pros and cons of alternative hardware and virtual clients must be fully understood for any organisation considering new-style client computing. I thought I’d add a few (perhaps obvious) comments. In particular:

  • Thin clients have been around for a long time and have never been fully successful; they continue to ship a few million a year compared with the hundreds of millions of PCs sold; they have advantages in lasting longer, security, easer software upgrades, lower power and cheaper maintenance, however they have disadvantages in typically lacking the ability to attach local peripherals via USB and adequate graphics; also connections via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) have often been inconsistent in the past
  • Laptops often get lost or stolen and lead to embarrassing and sometimes expensive data loss for businesses; running virtual client sessions on them from remote data centres can help to avoid such problems if sensitive data is excluded from being saved locally; running virtual machine sessions on laptops or desktops has security advantages for applications such as home banking; the mobility of the laptop makes it a good platform for virtual desktop provisioning, although connection speeds may be significantly less than office-bound desktops; the disadvantages of laptops and desktops as platforms for virtual client sessions is that they have many duplicate functions, leading to higher spend on storage, software, memory.
  • Desktop PCs are cheaper than laptops for the same specification; surprisingly they are often also cheaper than thin clients; they have the advantage of a massive installed base in medium and large companies and being used as platforms for virtual client sessions can extend their lives.
  • PCs can be used as thin clients, but thin clients can’t be used as PCs.
  • There have been many attempts to fit the style of virtualisation to different types of employee – thin clients for call centres for instance;
  • On the whole PC users – constantly fed the aspirational values and freedom by suppliers – complain like mad when given anything they consider to less than a fully functional PC

Virtualisation can be used to cut down on PC hardware spending, but will almost certainly spend extra on software and services. Just as with server consolidation of ten years ago, the auditing of your current PC users and devices – necessary to adopt a new style of use – may throw up some interesting surprises.

Vendor Choices For Virtualisation Software

I’ve been tracking the leading virtualisation vendors for many years, but while server virtualisation is now a fully mature subject, desktop virtualisation is still in the development stage. I’ve shown a number of selected suppliers and their offerings in each of the presentation, desktop, application and server virtualisation areas in Figure 3.

VMWare is by far the most important server virtualisation supplier in the x86 space (I’d argue that IBM is still the leader overall due to the fantastically rich virtualisation of System z and Power servers); in comparison Microsoft remains in a very poor second place despite its massive revenues. I believe there is plenty of scope for other vendors to succeed in the client virtualisation space. I believe Citrix’s strategy is particularly suited to the client space, although that may be because I know it better than the others.

Some Conclusions – Plenty Of Fun In The Corporate PC Market Ahead

Large and medium enterprises reduced their spending on PCs more than small business or consumers in the last 18 months. While cost cutting in the recession mainly caused this, I believe it was also connected with a growing disaffection with the product. The adoption of virtual clients has so far failed to catch on as an alternative partially because there are too many alternatives, partially because there are no clear cost advantages and partially because large companies have been allergic to implementing new systems in a recession. Of course with traditional PC deployment there has been a lot of overspending on unused software, but if individual organisations knew that was the case they could fix it without having to ‘go virtual’.

I’ll be watching the take up of client virtualisation closely in the next year and looking at its effect on the physical client device market. Overall I believe client virtualisation will catch on strongly by the end of the year in a similar way to the growth of server virtualisation after the last recession around 2002. It will have a less negative effect on hardware sales because each user will still need at least one hardware device to connect.

Are you a user of virtual desktops? How do they compare with the real thing? Let me know by commenting on this article.

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