Final Years for the Desktop OS?

On my way to the Windows 7 launch conference I pondered over the future of the desktop OS. Yes, physical keyboards and mice will eventually be replaced by multi-touch and speech recognition interfaces. Motion- and gesture-based controls are also likely. But the thought that really intrigues me is the replacement of the desktop OS with something else, like say virtual desktops or Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).

VDI is a desktop delivery model. The client desktop (OS, applications and user data) reside on a server in the cloud or in a data center—not on client devices. Desktop images are pushed to client devices, so it appears as if it’s all there on the PC, but in reality it’s at the backend.

Microsoft and Apple may have independent views on desktop virtualization, and may dismiss my wild thoughts on the future of the desktop OS. But let me corroborate these with some facts.

* Firstly, companies and employees are already benefiting from desktop virtualization. NIIT for instance, is using desktop virtualization at its education centers.
Says Pankaj Dikshit, General Manager, NIIT, “Being an IT training operation we face a major challenge, which is the dynamic nature of the environment. In the evening we may teach Java but the next morning it is Dot Net and later Oracle. I can’t have a PC or server that does all this. We need to quickly switch between environments. The other issue is that the environment is becoming invasive—students want to install applications, change the configuration and customize the desktop.”

Dikshit says virtualization lets him achieve all of this using a single solution. He says virtual images provide different environments on the fly. It also helps him manage the dynamic environment very efficiently.

Desktop virtualization is also a boon for mobile workers. It let’s them access their desktops from any location in the world, using any client device. It’s a blessing in disguise for companies who fear the risk of data loss due to stolen notebooks. Also, the data always remains on the organization’s servers and is always accessible, regardless of whether an employee leaves the organization or goes on vacation.

* Secondly, Microsoft itself is gearing up for VDI. Windows Server 2008 R2 has Hyper-V and System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

After virtualizing servers, Citrix and VMware are set to do the same for desktops with products like XenDesktop 4 and VMware View respectively.

* Thirdly, consider the cost advantage. Since the OS runs off the server, you aren’t paying for thousands of client licenses. Ditto for applications that also reside on the server. With VDI, one is spared the chore of upgrading OSes and applications every few years, on desktops. The recurring costs of hardware upgrades or client device refreshes, every three or four years, goes away too.

There is another threat to desktop OSes. The Web browser can perform many of the functions of an OS. But there are doubts whether it will succeed in OS-intensive tasks such as managing devices and computing resources.

I am sure CIOs are aware about all this, but the question is, will VDI replace the desktop OS? And has Windows (client) reached the end of the line?

Personally, I believe that the two will co-exist. VDIs will be suitable for certain corporate environments, while desktop clients will continue to be used, especially with home devices.


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