Virtual desktops ripe for deployment, hindered by cost

One in five companies call desktop virtualization a "critical priority"

Desktop virtualization, with its promises of improved security, manageability and flexibility, may be on the verge of huge adoption, some experts are predicting.

But as with many new technologies, there is a catch. ROI is one of the main selling points, but desktop virtualization requires significant upfront costs and it can easily take three or four years to realize financial rewards.

"I see huge interest right now, for many reasons," says Forrester analyst Natalie Lambert. "But the challenge is that desktop virtualization is a very costly endeavor. I don't care what people tell you otherwise, they're wrong."

Gartner's latest numbers released this month predict that hosted virtual desktop revenue will quadruple this year, going from US$74.1 million worldwide in 2008 to nearly US$300 million in 2009.

Meanwhile, a survey of 340 IT managers found that 41 percent are already investing in desktop virtualization, and that the technology is a "critical priority" for 22 percent, according to IDG Research Services Group.

Respondents were virtualizing 6 percent of desktops at the time of the survey, and expected to virtualize one-third by 2010. But the survey was conducted in April 2008, so recent economic changes could affect those numbers.

"Is [desktop virtualization] going to break out in 2009? I don't see any reason it would," IDC analyst Michael Rose says. "Frankly, the current economic environment is going to be a significant barrier for adoption of virtual desktops in the data center."

True ubiquity could take another five years, given current financial problems and the nature of PC refresh cycles, he says.

Nonetheless some early adopters are reporting success, with users embracing the notion of being able to access desktops from multiple locations and multiple devices.

"[Virtualizing desktops] is going to save us US$250,000 per year that we were spending on desktop refreshes. There were some upfront costs, but we figure there will be a two-year ROI," says Dustin Fennell, CIO of Scottsdale Community College in the US.

Additionally, vendors such as VMware and Citrix are working on new ways of providing virtual desktops, which they believe will spur greater adoption.

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