I had the pleasure of attending Gartner’s Symposium and IT Expo in Orlando in October. Other than talking to a lot of customers and partners, I took time off between booth hours to attend sessions and I was especially interested in anything labeled “Cloud”.
Gartner defines Cloud computing as a style of computing, where elastically scalable IT services are delivered to customers using Internet technologies. This is one definition, and there are nuances between private cloud services (which corporate IT can build inside of companies to be more responsive to business needs) and public cloud services, which will enable companies to rid themselves of IT and consume services from providers – just like manufacturers stopped having their own on-premise power generators and are now consuming power from a utility. As a member of the Citrix Consulting organization, I was curious to see what the thoughts on a transition to the cloud would be. There is a lot of press and talk about the cloud itself at this time and it is not surprising that Gartner sees Cloud Computing on top of the Hype Curve with at least 2 yrs to wider spread adoption. Before that can happen though, we will have to move through the trough of disillusionment, but after we get over the mild hangover, we can talk shop.
Gartner looks primarily at three different types of cloud providers:

  • Infrastructure. Think providers of server on storage capacity a la Amazon EC2 and S3.
  • Middleware: Think providers of application developer platforms like Google Apps and force.com.
  • Applications: Think providers of applications that often run on the Middleware layer, such as salesforce.com, web-based email etc.

The piece that I was missing in the Gartner discussion was the Desktop in the Cloud. Given that the public cloud mantra is still a bit in the future, this is not surprising, but the thought raises some interesting questions.
Unlike moving a few apps playfully to a cloud provider in non-production environment, moving a desktop into a public cloud requires a bit more thought. For one thing, the desktop must deliver the business applications and those apps often times need to talk to databases and file shares to be useful. Companies may actually keep this portion on-premise for the time being, so long as the communication from the cloud back to the datacenter performs reasonably well and can be secured properly. Consulting hint: Test the end to end response time to assess if this is feasible for your specific scenario. Given multiple regulatory questions such as “Who owns the data in the cloud? Who ensures compliance?” I would expect a lot of the backend data to remain in the corporate datacenter initially, even as desktops move to the cloud. Over time, networks will continue to provide ever increasing capacity and reliability, so the application latency introduced by backend resources is probably not necessarily going to be a showstopper.
So, let me go out on a limb and predict the future for hosted virtual desktops (which are running on shared infrastructure, accessed by end-user over public networks, used as the primary means to do work):

  • they will first be adopted by small businesses or for desktops with a limited number of apps. Host a desktop with a web browser, office productivity software connected to a cloud-hosted web server (or entirely web-based email) and maybe include software such as Quickbooks and you have a repeatable, low cost desktop that can be used from the office or from home for a low monthly charge. Employees use their own personal PC or laptop to access this environment and gone are the days where everyone directs their PC troubles to the guy or gal in the office who happens play video games in the evenings.
  • Gartner stated in one session that ISVs will have to become good service providers to prepare for cloud computing. It reminds me of the days when software vendors aspired to be ASP’s and I believe this to play out a little bit differently. ISV’s will have to provide software and licensing that is conducive to a cloud model. The software licensing will have to change to allow for hosting in the cloud and a subscription-based pricing model. Software and data ownership will need to be figured out and the cloud provider with the most straight forward legal terms will have a leg up.
  • Desktops delivering a few critical apps will be next. Think call centers or the healthcare vertical. Those are fairly simple desktop implementations without a lot of application complexity or a requirement to let traveling users connect or work offline.
  • Enterprise Desktops (those delivering pretty much any app and connect to a myriad of complex application back-ends) will be the most challenging and probably take the longest to achieve widespread adoption in a cloud model. One can imagine the offline use case being solved by streaming an offline operating system to an endpoint, and some of the emerging file synchronization solutions in the cloud ensuring that all corporate data is properly synchronized between online and offline usage.

One of the items that the industry hasn’t figured out yet is a service level agreement (SLA) standard for virtual desktops. We have SLA’s for servers and applications, but not for desktops, whose users are a lot less forgiving for latency for basic desktop interactions or the inability to access them. To establish and enforce SLAs for the desktop, end-to-end monitoring solutions are key that allow both the provider and the customer to pull reports on response times and overall system performance.

I remember one additional line from the Gartner Symposium keynote. According to their surveys, some 60% of CEOs believe that IT is constraining their business. What that tells me is that business leaders will need to have more trust in their hosting provider than they have in their own IT. Therefore, I predict that the future service providers for hosted desktops will be the large system integrators. They are already trusted by many corporations to run IT end to end and have the expertise and backend capability to deliver hosted services with strong SLAs and security.

Florian Becker
Director, Worldwide Consulting Solutions
Follow me on twitter: @florianbecker