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Enterprise desktop virtualization may increase costs

Enterprise desktop virtualization can solve difficult security, compliance and other problems, but at a price.

Making a business case for server virtualization is pretty straightforward: consolidate servers, and the ROI is immediate. With enterprise desktop virtualization? The ROI isn't so clear-cut.

Aside from the lowered costs that can result from desktops being swapped out for thin clients and simplified desktop management, the savings are hard to pinpoint. The technology can bolster security, meet a regulatory requirement or lower the number of hours billed back to the business. But CIOs will find themselves having to justify new capital expenditures for enterprise desktop virtualization, as well as the cost of retraining or hiring the talent needed to support it. An enterprise-wide virtual desktop infrastructure could mean spending money on heavy-duty servers, network components and storage, as well as paying more for licensing, and potentially for data center cooling and power. It also could result in a company having to retrain its current IT staff or hire additional staff.

A hosted desktop will cost an enterprise 1.4 to 1.7 times more to support than a desktop PC, in terms of infrastructure and skills, estimates Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc. "Buying desktop PCs is a whole lot less expensive than building out an infrastructure to support desktop virtualization on an enterprise scale," said Mark Margevicius, Gartner research vice president in charge of end-user computing with Gartner.

Hosting desktop images in the data center for thousands of users, if not tens of thousands, will also create a significant paradigm shift for IT.

CIOs will need to develop cross-functional IT departments, not a common practice even in the largest of companies. Such titles as server admin or desktop manager will be replaced by virtualization specialists who understand how to build a virtual machine, dynamically reprovision virtual desktops or handle storage allocation.

Such jacks-of-all-trades are hard to come by, but larger companies are beginning to build virtualization centers of excellence, in which IT is pooling not only technology resources but skill sets as well, experts said.

A survey of 419 senior IT professionals found that 14% believed they had a problematic shortage of staff and or skills for virtualization deployments and administration; another 47% said they had adequate skills in this area but they needed to improve or augment such skills, according to a January 2010 survey conducted by Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), in Milford, Mass.

"The most successful [desktop virtualization] clients are the ones that pull together a broad set of disciplines," Gartner's Margevicius said. "The server engineers, the network admins and storage admins work together to correctly size network bandwidth and latency, and there's a lot of retraining on the desktop and server side going on."

Buying desktop PCs is a whole lot less expensive than building out an infrastructure to support desktop virtualization on an enterprise scale.

Mark Margevicius, research vice president, Gartner Inc.

Consolidating talent, which most experts said is necessary for a successful desktop virtualization deployment, is easier said than done. "We've worked on hundreds of projects, and actually getting the desktop guys to work with the server team is like trying to get the Unix guys to work with the Windows guys," said Kevin Vogl, vice president of virtualization with systems integrator Champion Solutions Group Corp., in Boca Raton, Fla.

There are places where desktop virtualization is eliminating costs rather than increasing them, however. For example, instead of building data centers closer to offshore development partners, some enterprises are opting to install desktop virtualization in their own data centers, in turn eliminating new data center builds, said Mark Bowker, analyst with ESG.

In addition, if an enterprise desktop virtualization deployment is done right at the design stage, the up-front investment in the necessary skill sets and infrastructure is well worth it, experts said. Aside from gaining desktop backups -- which many companies don't have in place -- and establishing and reinforcing existing disaster recovery, business continuity and security strategies, the enterprise also simplifies desktop refreshes and security updates.

But getting there is a journey. Currently most businesses are not migrating to desktop virtualization on an enterprise scale. It may take a company as long as five years to move thousands of users to desktop virtualization, experts estimate. For the time being, many companies are starting with deployments as small as 50 desktops and topping out, typically, at 1,000.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, News Director.

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