Virtual Desktops Are Hot Again

There is a resurgence of activity taking place around virtual desktops — where enterprises take their desktop compute environments, and make them configurable, deployable and manageable from a central location. The idea has been hanging around the fringes of IT for years, but I think the time may be right for businesses to actually deploy virtual desktops, for a variety of reasons. And since I think the time is right, I’ve also taken a look at some of the smaller companies that will challenge Citrix and VMware in this emerging sector.

The time is now

Virtualization is better understood and more widely implemented every day. The low-hanging fruit was in the data center, where the impact was less direct to end users and more about cutting excessive server spending and driving up overall server utilization. Now it’s time to find more opportunities to cut costs through virtualization elsewhere in the enterprise.

Devices, operating systems and connectivity are proliferating. Remember when you just had a desktop and a mobile phone that only made calls? For many, those days are long gone, and companies find themselves having to support desktops, laptops and mobile devices across a range of operating systems and a widely dispersed geographic reach. Getting away from hardware dependence and moving to a software-based virtual desktop model simplifies maintenance and reduces costs, helping companies handle device proliferation.

Enterprises are always looking at ways to reduce costs. Virtual desktops promise a host of management and infrastructure savings, including simpler deployment, less storage, and more robust security and compliance. For example, when many similar desktops are created, there is a huge opportunity to consolidate those common operating system images through de-duplication.

Hosted Virtual Desktops promise a massive buying change for enterprise infrastructure. Gartner estimates that the worldwide hosted virtual desktop (HVD) market will accelerate through 2013 to reach 49 million units, up from more than 500,000 units in 2009. Imagine the opportunity for a large company to have the entire desktop infrastructure for thousands of employees hosted externally as a service. The slashing of capital expenses and migration to a subscription-based model is compelling for most businesses.

Who might win?

Many large technology companies have significant product offerings targeting this space, in particular Citrix (s CTXS), Microsoft (s MSFT), VMware (s VMW), NetApp (s NTAP), Cisco (s CSCO) and others. But there’s plenty of interesting startup activity to follow, as well. So, with that in mind, let’s see who’s making waves around virtual desktop infrastructure.

Atlantis Computing offers its ILIO appliance, which it claims can shrink the storage footprint for virtual desktops by 20 times while increasing performance by a factor of 10. The company has an extensive partner list and does not attempt to offer a complete VDI solution itself.

Desktone offers the Virtual-D platform that allows enterprises to offer virtual desktops internally, as well as for service providers to host desktops off-site. The Desktone Access Fabric links these two worlds when needed. Desktone counts Citrix as an investor.

Viewfinity provides systems management, priviledge management, and user migration using an underlying virtualization technology that encapsulates existing OSes and applications to facilitate these functions. The company needs to tighten its messaging around virtual desktops.

Virtual Computer claims that its NxTop product is the industry’s first “bare metal” client hypervisor that provides true isolation and great performance, two issues that can be tricky for enterprises adopting virtual desktops.

Neocleus also uses a bare metal hypervisor to create separate instances of Windows on a single machine so applications can be contained to a single operating systems. The company did a partnership deal with Big Fix earlier this year, and Big Fix was acquired by IBM in June.

Unidesk helps customers manage virtual desktops in VMware and Citrix environments. The company’s Composite Virtualization technology separates the operating system from the application and user personalization layers for easier management. Unlike many others in this roundup, Unidesk lists a few customers on its website.

Leostream has a Connection Broker product that leverages the infrastructure of virtualization providers like VMware, Citrix, Microsoft and IBM. Delivered as a virtual appliance, it manages the connection between end users and their virtual desktops and applications. Leostream also has a long customer list on its site.

Pano Logic offers a range of products and software tools that it bundles within the Pano System, including the Pano Device, a small network-connected “zero client” that has no CPU or operating system and simply connects to a Windows desktop image on a central server.

MokaFive which was founded in 2005 with a lot of noise around the concept of a LivePC has now focused squarely on the virtual desktop market. LivePCs are hosted locally, though they can be created, deployed and managed from a central location.

RingCube offers their vDesk solution which creates personalized workspaces. These workspaces can be hosted directly on a PC, a USB drive, a network drive, or through a virtual desktop hosted on a set of virtualized servers.

With enterprises looking to reign in the complexity and cost of managing employee computer workspaces, and the availability of on-premise and cloud solutions, it is only a matter of time before a few strong leaders emerge around virtual desktop infrastructure.

Gary Orenstein is the host of The Cloud Computing Show.