Why Hasn’t Desktop Virtualization Taken Off?

ethan-stark by

Up to this point, desktop virtualization has struggled to gain traction, but with new technology and increasing demand, that outlook may be changing. In fact, it could be the next big thing.

It’s been a month since I started as an intern here at OpenView. Just one month in, and I’ve already seen and learned so much about what it takes to make a SaaS company work. The problems are perpetual, and the answers almost always complex. Still, the companies in OpenView’s portfolio and the teams that are building them bounce from one problem to the next, relying on the strength of their ideas and the technology around them.

But what happens when you have an idea that never completely takes off? That is the problem that has plagued desktop virtualization for nearly a decade.

The technology is there. So is the infrastructure. But aside from a few niche products selling to a few specific companies, the trend has yet to fully catch on. I find that interesting since there doesn’t seem to be a clear reason why, but before we go further, let’s back up and quickly define what desktop virtualization is.

A Seemingly Perfect Solution

Desktop virtualization has many sub-categories based on specifically what it is you’re doing, but most people have experienced it in its simplest form at libraries and Internet cafes. Essentially, desktop virtualization is exactly what you’d expect — the separation of a computer’s user interface from its physical hardware. This can be anything from logging in from a regular computer to a centralized network (as is common in schools and libraries) to true virtual desktops, where all you have at your desk is a screen with an Internet connection.

For the purposes of this post, the latter of the two is what we’re interested in. To the average consumer, a virtual desktop might not seem particularly useful, but to companies that have employees handling terabytes of sensitive data, or who need to be traveling constantly yet still retain access to powerful computers, desktop virtualization is a perfect solution. It’s secure, easy, and often more efficient to service and maintain (think one big server network in the basement vs. hundreds or thousands of individual machines). This type of desktop virtualization is often referred to VDI, or Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. It started to gain some traction towards the end of the last decade because it was a great way for financial institutions to maintain control over sensitive data.

More recently though, a new version of desktop virtualization has started to replace VDI. It’s called DaaS, or Desktop-as-a-Service (because the world needed another buzzword). DaaS relies on offsite servers (also known as “the Cloud”) to power virtual desktops to the user through zero-clients or thin-clients. Zero-clients are the aforementioned screens with Internet access, and have limited to no processing power of their own — they simply display a computer that’s thousands of miles away. Thin-clients are very basic computers that can handle small processing tasks, but mostly act as a speedier connection to the server much like zero-clients.

This is all powered by a new technology called PCoIP, or PC over Internet Protocol. PCoIP works the same way as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services like Skype, except instead of your voice it transfers the entire interface of a PC over the Internet. One of the coolest things about DaaS is because it’s cloud based, it’s both immensely secure and almost infinitely scalable. You can have one machine or 1,000, as much storage space as you need, and as much processing power as you need up to the limit of the server network. You can do this with any computer network though; what makes DaaS cool is you can upgrade virtual machine as needed with the click of a button and a pay-as-you-go model.

Why DaaS and BYOD Could Change the Game

The technology is definitely promising, and the use cases legitimate, so why hasn’t desktop virtualization taken off? The two biggest VDI and DaaS providers are VMware (which runs DaaS through Desktone, a company it recently acquired) and Citrix. There are a few other players in the space, mostly small companies with similar technologies, but these two have been able to dominate the market by offering other services and infrastructure to go with it.

Still, companies that use desktop virtualization represent a vast minority of companies that rely on IT infrastructure. Over the past decade, this has predominantly been for two reasons:

  1. VDI was slow compared to regular machines
  2. The cost of converting to VDI made no sense

These two reasons made the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits unless a company was considering its IT options very early on, but with new technologies things are starting to change. For one, DaaS is better than old desktop virtualization. Because of its scalability, and the advent of gigabit (or close) internet, speed is no longer an issue, and total cost of ownership and operating expenses are even lower when you don’t have to maintain your own servers. But what may really change the desktop virtualization market is the advent of BYOD.

BYOD, or “Bring Your Own Device,” is the growing trend among big corporations to let employees use their own devices for work. It’s a great movement, as people often spend a lot of time deciding what technology they want to invest in and picking what works for them, and with BYOD employees wouldn’t get stuck with two phones, two laptops, and entirely separate digital lives. But there is considerable risk to companies, the obvious ones being security and control over what employees have and do. With DaaS, companies have the ability to let employees use their own computers and mobile devices to run company virtual machines, eliminating these risks while keeping all the benefits of BYOD. This, combined with a growing trust in offsite data centers, means that desktop virtualization may have a future yet.

Photo by: Taichiro Ueki

Intern, Space Systems Group/ Advanced Mission Systems Division