Near the end of almost every year, dramatic reductions in the size and weight of typical business laptops and PCs spark a series of blogs and media stories about how drastically different "your computer" will be next year.
The way it looks so far for 2011, much of the power, data and abilities of "your computer" will have less to do with the hardware on your shoulder than with the data centres and virtualisation capabilities of both internal IT organisations and external service providers.
"The industry has been delivering technology to users based on the physical model of the computer, which doesn't fit the way they want to consume the technology," says Chris Wolf, analyst at The Burton Group. "The future really is convergence of virtualisation technologies and services that include client VMs, server hosted VMs, SaaS, PaaS and other services, so what users think of as 'their' computer is more about resources than the box."
2011: The Year SaaS and PaaS take off?
The increasing variety of ways in which desktop virtualisation technologies can supplement or safeguard the end-user's computing experience makes virtual desktops much more attractive than in years past, especially with recent enhancements in the ability of thin clients to support graphics and web browsing, according to Mark Bowker, analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.
Consumers who flocked to free online email and social media sites and then absorbed increasingly complex business-oriented services including CRM, ERP and accounting have helped push corporate IT into accepting the idea that relatively generic online services such as those and the platform-as-a-service offerings of cloud vendors could play legitimate and critical roles in IT infrastructures, Bowker says.
"In a survey we did of corporate Gmail users, 17 percent said they'd also be interested in a hosted desktop model using some third party to supply desktops for their enterprises," Bowker says. "That's a big change from a few years ago."
Laptops, nettops and handhelds will make up more than 60 percent of all PC shipments during 2010, but fully 10 percent of new enterprise desktop clients will be virtual, according to analyst firm International Data Corporation's report, "Personal Computing Top 10 predictions for 2010."
"We're expecting consumer and commercial PC buyers alike to be more experimental with new types of PCs," lead analyst Bob O'Donnell said in the report. But anything that squeezes more productivity out of existing hardware will find an audience waiting for it, Bowker says.
Desktop virtualisation battle heats up
Among the rush of new products trying to take advantage of that are Microsoft and Citrix, which enhanced Citrix' graphics-enabling HDX technology for remote session computing and the addition of virtual-PC-friendly touches like licences that explicitly allow customers to use licences for apps running on virtual hardware, adding dynamic memory management to Windows Server 2008, and incorporating Microsoft's RemoteFX new-generation terminal-services protocol in both Citrix products and Windows 7.
Thin-client competitors Pano Logic and NComputing are also waving the flag. Ncomputing released barebones versions of its thin client unit that cost between $70 and $150. Pano Logic announced a deal under which Fujitsu would ship flat panel monitors equipped with Pano Logic clients to make the monitor itself the computer.
Citrix and VMware both promise bare metal versions of their client hypervisors that could improve performance of virtual clients and potentially make non-standard devices such as the iPad into VDI clients.
More interesting is that entire classes of vendors like AppSense, LiquidWare, RingCube, Unideks, Infinity and others are springing up to add personalisation and greater capabilities to thin clients by containerising the drivers, profiles, DLLs and other data to improve both the user experience and effectiveness of the virtual client, Bowker says.
Many companies like the idea of reducing both capital and operational expenses by giving end users 'desktops' hosted in a data centre, but the cost of doing it themselves or outsourcing the service is often too high to make it viable, Wolf says.
One user's story
Even relatively conservative end user constituencies like doctor's offices are happy to offload even functions critical to their own operation if it means not having to take time or resources away from clinical practice to focus on IT integration, according to Bill Gillis, clinical applications manager for Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston.
Gillis built a VMware virtual server cluster, and then a cloud structure as a platform on which to run the applications doctor offices use to connect with the hospital. The response among physicians was so strong BIDMC had to expand the programme, which required securely configured clients on the PCs at each physician's office, to be entirely virtual to the practices.
"We were worried we'd build this big thing and no one would come, but we're up to not quite twofold the enrollment we were planning for and we're still expanding it," Gillis says. "Ideally we would even remove the client component in the practice so when they're using the clinical applications they could be doing it with anything that supports a browser."
Few, if any businesses are talking about virtualising or partially virtualising their whole user base, Wolf says, but most of them seem to be considering doing it in significant chunks.