Wider options on the desktop

If there has been one area of IT that for the past 20 years has been noted for its vanilla flavour, it has been the desktop.

The ubiquity of Microsoft’s operating software and applications has made desktop provisioning a foregone conclusion for the vast majority of organisations. However, while that may have made IT managers’ lives easier, it has also limited their ability to match the desktop platform to the precise requirements of the business. One size rarely fits all.

Today, Microsoft’s hegemony over the end-user device is weakening. Ironically, given its fierce protection of that install base, this loosened grip is arguably of its own doing.

As of December 2007, a little over a year after its release, few enterprises have yet migrated wholesale to Vista (the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows OS), according to analyst Forrester. Operating system migrations are multi-year projects for large organisations, however, and Forrester’s Benjamin Gray predicts that as many as a third will begin migration by mid 2008.

Nevertheless, this chink in Microsoft’s armour has helped many IT managers realise that there is more to life than Windows. “Will desktop managers continue down the path of standardisation on the Windows platform?” asks Gray. “Not a chance.”

Systems management appliance vendor Kace surveyed over 900 North American IT professionals. It found that 44% of respondents had at least considered deploying a non-Windows operating system to avoid the Vista migration, with Apple’s MacOS and RedHat Linux being the two most popular alternatives.

The survey also revealed another factor threatening to upturn Windows’ long reign as the de facto OS: virtualisation. Over two-thirds of respondents said that virtualisation was a key enabling technology for the adoption of a non-Windows OS.

This can work in two ways. Firstly, desktop virtualisation products such as Parallels (from the company formerly known as SWsoft and recently renamed after its flagship product) allow multiple operating systems to run on a single machine, although Apple has to date resisted the temptation to allow MacOS to run on a PC.

Secondly, and more appropriately in the enterprise, the benefits to server utilisation and manageability that virtualisation provides can be applied to the thin-client computing model.

By using whatever server resources are available to support an estate of virtual desktops – rather than keeping a blade PC corresponding to each desktop in the data centre – centralised desktop management can be made cheaper, simpler and more energy efficient.

Forrester research has found that over half of IT leaders in Europe and the US are interested in deploying client virtualisation technology, with 18% already having done so.

Meanwhile, a survey by investment bank Goldman Sachs found that 36% of those IT managers interested in pursuing desktop virtualisation were attracted to the improvements in desktop manageability that it provides.

The second most popular driver of desktop virtualisation was the enhanced security. By limiting the control that the end-user has over the input to their desktop environment, organisations can greatly reduce the risk of malware being introduced to the system.

There are, of course, some constraints on desktop virtualisation: currently, virtualisation protocols do not handle multimedia data well, which may preclude companies that regularly use different kinds of media file from adopting the approach. And servers that are optimised for desktop virtualisation are currently at the high end of the price range.

Both those situations are likely to improve, however, and – along with the proliferation of alternative operating systems – the desktop is destined to become an even more varied environment.

Further reading

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Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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