Say the word "virtualization" and people usually think of servers -- and it's not hard to figure out why. In June 2007, the Canada-based market-research firm Strategic Counsel surveyed 969 public and private organizations worldwide with a minimum of 500 employees. The survey, sponsored by Computer Associates, revealed that at least 39 percent of respondents had adopted server virtualization technology. It also projected that the number of organizations using the technology would grow by 19 percent over the next 18 months.
Server virtualization's popularity is widespread and its benefits are well known. Virtualization allows multiple operating systems to run on a single hardware platform, which reduces the amount of equipment needed, cuts energy consumption and frees data center floor space. Now the IT world's goodwill toward virtualization has grown significant enough for people to start embracing the technology's other manifestation: virtualization of the desktop.
Imagine sitting down at a Mac and running Windows or logging onto a PC and choosing from Windows or Linux -- without changing machines. Furthermore, when you change machines you can access the same customized workspace no matter what machine you're on, whether it's a notebook, PC or something else. Multiple computers or end-user devices share the resources of one central computer or server. Since these resources are centrally hosted, a user doesn't necessarily have to use the same device each time to gain access. Desktop virtualization gives this convenience and flexibility with a minimum of end-user fuss.
There are two ways desktop virtualization typically works: In the client-side method, the software, and sometimes additional hardware, is installed on one computer, which allows it to run more than one operating system or deliver these systems virtually to other devices. With the server-side method -- the more common choice -- a server hosts virtual machines that people access remotely on end-user devices. In this scenario, an end-user accesses a virtual desktop by logging in on a device, then the server delivers an "image," or virtual desktop workspace, to the end-user device. This image is the operating system people use just as they would a "normal" operating system.
Virtualization can take place with PCs, laptops and thin clients -- machines with little processing and storage capacity of their own. Thin clients have a few noticeable advantages over their "thick" cousins. For one, since they can be configured to not house any application data of their own, network managers need only go to the server to handle spyware or other malicious threats. And if data is stored on the server instead of the thin client, no data is lost if the thin client is lost, damaged or stolen.
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