Desktop virtualisation: stretching budgets and cutting costs

It’s often said that everything in life is circular, and the world of IT is no exception. A few decades ago, it was common for multiple terminals to be connected to one central mainframe computer, which would handle most of the work and take it in turns to fulfil each terminal’s request. As the cost of hardware fell, the model shifted. More processing power was transferred to the desktop until we reached the setup we’re all familiar with today – a PC on nearly every desk.

In recent years, however, the trend has shifted back towards moving computing power away from the desktop and back into the server room through the use of desktop virtualisation. This, essentially, is the process of separating a user’s desktop from their physical PC and moving it onto a shared system.

It’s easy to see this as a corporate technology, good for companies with hundreds of seats to fill and rooms full of servers, but it doesn’t have to be. Desktop virtualisation can also work on a smaller scale. Modern desktop PCs, with their multicore, virtualisation-ready CPUs, can handle the workload of four, six or more virtual machines (VMs).

This is perfect for schools. Instead of each pupil in an ICT suite having an expensive computer to themselves, several can share a PC, but still have their own screen, mouse, monitor and Windows desktop. Although they all use one machine, they can work completely independently. In essence, this is what desktop virtualisation provides.

Benefits and drawbacks

When people talk about virtualisation, cost is nearly always seen as the main selling point. Userful, the company behind the popular Linux MultiSeat solution, claims you can save up to 80% on hardware costs. In reality, however, these figures can vary widely, and you’re unlikely to see them on that scale. With a multi-seat solution you buy one PC, generally to a higher specification than you would otherwise, and connect multiple monitors, keyboards and mice to it.

The number of clients you can connect to each server varies depending on the hardware and the software solution used; generally, the more you wish to attach, the higher the cost of the server. On the other hand, the more you spend on that, the fewer PCs you have to buy.

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