Whither Virtual Desktops?

The enterprise popularity of tablets and smartphones at the expense of PCs and other desktop devices is also sinking desktop virtualization. In addition to the clear link that tablets and smartphones are cannibalizing PC sales, mobility and changing device economics is also impacting corporate desktop virtualization or VDI.

The heyday of virtual desktop infrastructure came around 2008 to 2010, as companies sought to cut their desktop computing costs — VDI promised savings from 10% to as much as 40%. Those savings were possible despite the additional engineering and server investments required to implement the VDI stack. Some companies even anticipated replacing up to 90% of their PCs with VDI alternatives. Companies sought to reduce desktop costs and address specific issues not well-served by local PCs (e.g., smaller overseas sites with local software licensing and security complexities).

But something happened on the way to VDI dominance. The market changed faster than the maturing of VDI. Employee demand for mobile devices, in line with the BYOD phenomenon, has refocused IT shops on delivering mobile device management capabilities, not VDI. On-the-go employees are gravitating toward new lightweight laptops, a variety of tablets and other non-desktop innovations that aren’t VDI-friendly. Mobile employees want to use multiple devices; they don’t want to be tied down to a single VDI-based interface. And enterprise IT shops have refocused on delivering mobile device management capabilities so company employees can securely use their smartphones for their work. Given the VDI interface is at best cumbersome on a touch interface with a different OS than Windows, there will be less and less demand for VDI as the way to interconnect.  Given the dominance of these highly mobile smartphones and tablets will only increase in the next few years as the client device war between Apple, Android, and Microsoft (Nokia) heats up further (and they continue to produce better and cheaper products) VDI’s appeal will fall even farther.

Meantime, PC prices, both desktop and laptop, which have had a steady decline in the past 4 years, dropping 30-40% (other than Apple’s products, of course), will accelerate their price drop.  With the decline in shipments these past 18 months, the entire industry is overcapacity and the only way to out of the situation is to spur demand and better consumer interest in PCs is through further cost reductions. (Note that the answer is not that Windows 8 will spur demand). Already Dell and Lenovo are using lower prices to try to hold their volumes steady. And with other devices entering the market (e.g. Smart TVs, smart game stations, etc), it will become a very bloody marketplace. The end result for IT shops will be $300 laptops that are pretty slick that come fully with Windows (perhaps even Office). At those prices, VDI will have minimal or no cost advantage especially taking into account the backend VDI engineering costs.  And if you can buy a $300 laptop or tablet fully equipped that is preferred by most employees, IT shops will be hard pressed to pass that up and impose VDI. In fact, by late 2014, corporate IT shops in 2014 could be faced with their VDI solutions costing more than traditional client devices (e.g., that $300 laptop). This is because the major components of VDI costs (servers and engineering work and support) will not drop nearly as quickly as the distressed market PC costs. 

There is no escaping the additional engineering time and attention VDI requires. The complex stack (either Citrix or VMware) still requires more engineering than a traditional solution. And with this complexity, there will still be bugs between the various client and VDI and server layers that impact user experience. Recent implementations still show far too many defects between the layers. At Allstate, we have had more than our share of defects in our recent rollout between the virtualization layer, Windows, and third party products. And this is for what should be by now, a mature technology.

Faced with greater costs, greater engineering resources (which are scarce) and employee demand for the latest mobile client devices, organizations will begin to throw in the towel on VDI. Some companies now deploying will reduce the scope of current VDI deployments. Some now looking at VDI will jump instead to mobile-only alternatives more focused on tablets and smartphones. And those with extensive deployments will allow significant erosion of their VDI footprint as internal teams opt for other solutions, employee demand moves to smartphones and tablets or lifecycle events occur. This is a long fall from the lofty goals of 90% deployment from a few years ago. IT shops do not want to be faced with both supporting VDI for an employee who also has a tablet, laptop or desktop solution because it essentially doubles the cost of the client technology environment. In an era of very tight IT budgets, excess VDI deployments will be shed.

One of the more interesting phenomenon in the rapidly changing world of technology is when a technology wave gets overtaken well before it peaks. This occurred many times before (think optical disk storage in the data center) but perhaps most recently with netbooks where their primary advantages of cost and simplicity where overwhelmed by smartphones (from below) and ultra-books from above. Carving out a sustainable market niche on cost alone in the technology world is a very difficult task, especially when you consider that you are reversing long term industry trends.

Over the past 50 years of computing history, the intelligence and capability has been drawn either to the center or to the very edge. In the 60s, mainframes were the ‘smart’ center and 3270 terminals were the ‘dumb’ edge device. In the 90s, client computing took hold and the ‘edge’ became much smarter with PCs but there was a bulging middle tier of the three tier client compute structure. This middle tier disappeared as hybrid data centers and cloud computing re-centralized computing. And the ‘smart’ edge moved out even farther with smartphones and tablets. While VDI has a ‘smart’ center, it assumes a ‘dumb’ edge, which goes against the grain of long term compute trends. Thus the VDI wave, a viable alternative for a time, will be dissipated in the next few years as the long term compute trends overtake it fully.

I am sure there will still be niche applications, like offshore centers (especially where VDI also enables better control of software licensing) and there will still be small segments of the user population that will swear by the flexibility to access their device from anywhere they can log in without carrying anything, but these are ling term niches. Long term, VDI solutions will have a smaller and smaller portion of the device share, perhaps 10%, maybe even 20%, but not more.

What is your company’s experience with VDI? Where do you see its future?

Best, Jim Ditmore

 This post was first published in InformationWeek on September 13, 2013 and has been slightly revised and updated.

About Jim D

Jim has worked in the IT field for over 25 years and as a senior leader for over 15 years. He has successfully turned around a number of IT shops to become high performing teams and a competitive advantage for their companies.
This entry was posted in Best Practices, Efficiency and Cost Reduction, Looking Ahead, Mobile. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Whither Virtual Desktops?

  1. Courtenay K. says:

    Great post. These are industry trends that all customers are experiencing regardless of size or industry. The key will be to find a platform that addresses all use cases – physical, virtual, PC, Tablet, yours or mine……

  2. Dan A says:

    Hello Jim,

    First of all I would like to say great post as always and thank you for creating it. At my previous company, I used the Citrix solution which was in place. I found the VDI solution to be ideal at the time due to its flexibility across devices as well as having the ability to choose my preferred device. I am in agreement with you that VDI is headed towards the back burner, with the exceptions of the scenarios that you outlined.

    My main point of concern with the tides turning to tablets without VDI (specifically iPad) is how difficult they are to manage in the field, authenticate, & the restraints placed upon our IT Help Desk due to the restrictions set by Apple’s terms and conditions which does not allow screen sharing / mobile control of the device. My current company primarily utilizes Microsoft technologies AD, SharePoint, Office, etc. so I am befuddled to why we moved so quickly to try and integrate the iPad rather than utilizing devices which are on the same platform. All in all though, you composed a great article and my final thought would be to incorporate a tablet utilizing the same platform or implement a VDI solution if your company needs the flexibility of multiple devices.

    Thanks Again,
    Dan A

    • Jim D says:

      Dan,

      Thanks for the feedback and very good points. I think you identify a key weakness for the iPad in the workplace – its ability to work with most companies productivity suites. In fact, based on Apple’s announcement this week, where their productivity suite is FREE with any Mac or iOS device, you could say they realize Microsoft as a primary competitor and they are throwing down the gauntlet. This is going to get very interesting with Microsoft in the device business in an area they must come from behind.

      Best, Jim Ditmore

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