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Like many midmarket IT executives this year, CIO Ivan Imana is wrestling with how best to make the move from Windows XP to Windows 7. In the mix at the Milwaukee, Wis.-based Adelman Travel Group: 250 desktops with 1 GB of memory, a workforce that does most of its work on a Web-enabled online application, and zero appetite for running an operating system on unsupported software.
With $350 million in revenue, a total IT budget of $1.5 million and another potentially tough year on the horizon, Adelman Travel also doesn't have much margin for error. The cost of migration is important. Imana considered desktop virtualization, but a quick analysis appeared to yield a lower ROI than a traditional forklift migration, scary as that is.
As Burton Group Inc. analyst Simon Bramfitt noted, companies have been running XP for as long as eight years and now, because of the current financial uncertainty, don't have an easy way to migrate.
We asked experts to provide some perspective on the pros and cons of desktop virtualization versus traditional desktop migrations, as companies like Imana's grapple with the move from XP to Windows 7. They offered plenty of tips -- if not consensus -- about which path to take and, even better, some overlooked options.
Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash.-based consulting firm, was not surprised by Imana's ROI projections on desktop virtualization. "Virtualization is always more expensive than you would think," he said. Depending on existing resources, costs can include servers, substantial storage infrastructure, a virtualization expert on staff and the cost of the "dumb" devices on the desktops.
If the agency's five-year refresh cycle means replacing one-fifth of its computers each year, Cherry was surprised that the IT department would still be buying new I GB machines, knowing that Vista requirements for memory are higher. But even if all 250 of the agency's computers currently have only 1 GB, Imana may have more choices than he thinks, Cherry said. "I run Windows 7 Professional on a netbook that has a gig of memory, and it runs pretty well."
Cherry's first piece of advice for CIOs in Imana's situation is that they should get a copy of Windows 7 Professional and put it on a 1 GB machine that is either representative of or worse than their current fleet of computers, and see how it runs.
Second, Cherry doesn't believe all employees need to be on the same release of the operating system. "I don't think it is realistic to do a wholesale upgrade of everybody in the company," he said. "Even with 250 desktops, it is a lot of work and a lot of out-of-pocket expense at one time."
At a company the size of Adelman Travel, probably the best approach is to acquire new PCs with an OEM version of the operating system preinstalled, and phase in the migration, Cherry said.
"I am gambling that there is no security problem that gets found in XP that makes [Imana] have to rush it," Cherry said. "If something goes wrong with XP, you have to be prepared to take the remainder and do the wholesale forklift, because then you don't have a choice."
As for adding memory to the existing machines, Cherry "would have difficulty" with sinking more dollars into an aging machine, even with the price of RAM. "Memory is not expensive, but what is expensive is going to each machine, taking out the old memory, throwing that away, putting the new memory in and restarting the machine," he said.
A case for desktop virtualization
Consultant Nelson Ruest, a senior enterprise architect with more than 25 years of experience in migration planning, said that Imana might not want to throw away that memory, depending on how his 250 PCs are configured.
"A lot of computers have four slots for memory, so he might be able to take three from three computers and put all four in another computer," said Ruest, a principal at consulting firm Resolutions Enterprises Ltd., in Victoria, British Columbia.
But Ruest, who has written extensively about virtualization, argued strongly for Imana to take another look at desktop virtualization.
If Imana deploys new PCs in his data center through virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), he doesn't have to replace his endpoint computers, or add more RAM or memory. "All he needs at the endpoint is a device that allows him to do what is called Remote Desktop Connection. But he will need more servers so that he can run PCs as virtual machines inside his data center," Ruest said.
According to Ruest, the Windows licensing for virtual Windows 7 is the same as licensing for PCs. With 250 computers, Imana would probably need to get an enterprise license for Windows 7, Ruest said. With that enterprise license Imana gets Microsoft Virtual Enterprise Centralized Desktop, which allows IT staff to put as many as four users on one physical device that runs four virtual machines. Licensing for VDI, on the other hand, is an investment Imana would have to make, if he hasn't already, Ruest said.
Where to spend the money
Microsoft expert Cherry agreed that the cost of desktop virtualization versus a wholesale PC refresh was perhaps not the right way to frame the question. Both will cost X amount of money. The question is, how does a CIO want to distribute that money?
Managing 250 desktops would probably require two full-time IT people. On the other hand, salaries for desktop managers are fairly reasonable, they know the ins and outs of the desktop configurations, and if one machine has a problem, it is highly unlikely all 250 will go kaput, Cherry argued.
Virtualize those PCs in a data center, and Imana needs only one person to manage the desktops. But that person "needs to know virtualization inside out, because if that server goes down everybody is out," Cherry said. Then there is the need to pay for servers powerful enough to support those 250 users, plus the substantial storage infrastructure that goes along with it.
"One last thing on desktop virtualization. These pioneers pay a hell of a price for being first. If I were an IT guy in a small firm, I would not be one of the first to try it," Cherry said.
Eureka! What about Remote Desktop Services aka Terminal Services?
Microsoft does have a tried and tested form of virtualization that could serve Imana well: Remote Desktop Services, formerly known as Terminal Services. For companies with a lot of "task-oriented" employees who depend on a single application for most of their work, it makes sense to buy less expensive thin computers to run some programs on Terminal Services. "It is a well-tested technology and it is available from [Citrix Systems Inc.] as well as Microsoft," Cherry said
Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.