Why a Virtual Desktop? I want my apps!

Years ago, in the stone age of computing (~1990), I used to access an X-Window environment on my Sun Sparc5. Pretty cosmic stuff for the time, and gave a lot more control over the UNIX operating system than if a non-systems person like me would have through the command line. The applications, such as Asterisk (an old office suite for UNIX), were ahead of the times, giving us a very good idea of what the future held in a client-server world.

The UNIX environment allowed us to operate our workstations either in stand-alone mode, or fully networked into a mesh of other workstations. Any of the workstations interconnected in our “Internet” could operate as an application server for any other workstation on the network. All you needed to know was the IP address (or later domain name) of the workstation, and be able to pass the security check.

This accomplished a number of objectives. It ensured that losing one work station would never kill the entire network of applications. It allowed a certain level of efficiency to better utilize available resources (e.g., unused resources on workstations were used by server applications). And it allowed individual users to log in from any workstation and execute the applications they needed to do their work – location independent from their home workstation.

The PC Comes to Town

Personal computers started showing up in numbers in the mid-1980s. The PC was originally designed to stand alone, running applications stored on either “floppy disks” or hard drives (~10Mbytes). If you wanted to share files with others, you would save your file on a “floppy,” and use the “sneaker net” or “snail mail” to get your files to another location.

Portable computers and early laptops allowed a new level of mobility for data files, but still rarely had access to a network. The exception was for some of us in the military who had dial or some dedicated access to the MilNet, through a series of TAC Access points scattered around a global network military bases and other locations. Even then, passing a file to another person was generally a process of using the “File Transfer Protocol/FTP” or “TelNet” to upload or download a file of data from one personal or location to another.

This model continues for the most part today, with the exception data files are much easier to transfer via email attachments, or shared file areas than in the past.

Desktop computers and laptop computers still have individual copies of software such as Microsoft Office loaded on individual computers. When we use an application it is loaded off a local or attached hard drive, and files are created and saved locally. At some point the files may be synchronized with a central file server, however about 90% + of files created on a local machine retain an image of that file on the local machine.

The Virtual Desktop Environment

We are finally starting to complete the full circle back to individual workstations becoming clients of central servers housing applications. This “thin client” includes accessing applications that you may not even think of as client server or virtual desktop. You might use Yahoo mail, Gmail, or Hotmail. You can access those mail applications from anywhere in the world (that does not censor or restrict access to applications), and the individual messages and attached files remain on a server located, well located someplace out there in the clouds of Ether.

remoteSo we are already getting mentally prepared to start weaning ourselves off the need for having dedicated applications on all our desktop computers and laptop computers. With Microsoft Office 2010, and other virtual environments such as Google Apps, the need for local images is starting to fade.

On the corporate LAN, using a server-based office suite may render local desktop computers obsolete. If the processing is done on a central server, or in a distributed cloud environment, then all you may need is a good keyboard, mouse, sound system, and monitor. If your Internet access at home or in remote locations from the office LAN is adequate, then you will get the same performance out of your central application server.

And imagine not having to worry about virus and spyware monitoring or management. Imagine not being responsible for software patches, security updates, version updates… Imagine as a user that you can now contrite your efforts on creating value for your business, and not if your MS Outlook application is losing messages… IT worries about the applications and data integrity, you worry about working and creating value.

This is of course in a fully connected world. However, as a frequent traveler, it is also clear to me you are never far from being connected. In the US nearly all carriers offer “air cards” to their subscribers allowing Internet access from nearly any location with a wireless or mobile telephone signal. Every coffee house in America has wireless access. Most city areas have public WiFi access available either free (Yeah Long Beach!), or through subscription.

Yes, we do live in a connected world. And exceptions are exceptions. If I am using my computer on top of a mountain to help calculate environmental trends or impact, then yes. I will need to have a full suite of powerful applications located on my laptop computer.

You Still Have Your Apps

As I sit today, I can remotely access any application residing on my home computer via my network-connected laptop. Of course this is a micro-version of what we’ll see in the future. With the power of virtualization and cloud computing, even my desktop computer will no longer need to serve the purpose of supplying applications to my remote NetBook.

Questions remain with users, including myself, on how we will be able to ensure privacy, data integrity and security, ease of adding additional applications, hundreds of questions about the future.

Then I send a message to a friend via Twitter or a mail message from my company Outlook Webmail interface, and I realize it has already started, and we are taking baby steps to the virtual desktop. Learning to walk before running the virtual marathon.


John Savageau, Long Beach

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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