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IBM Launches Cloud-Based Desktop

IBM has begun taking desktop computing directly to the cloud. The company this week released a virtualized client computing offering it touts as a cloud-based desktop.

The new service will let business users login to their desktops from either a thin-client terminal or low-end PC. But rather than using the thin client to connect to data in an enterprise data center via IBM's Smart Business private cloud and CloudBurst offerings, both of which were launched in June, users will be accessing those same resources in the cloud hosted by IBM. The latter was also disclosed at the time.

Big Blue's new Smart Business Desktop on the Cloud is subscription-based and is intended for those that don't want to invest in the server, software and networking infrastructure, according to IBM.

"Our Smart Business Desktop on the IBM Cloud is the industry's first public desktop cloud offering," said Arthur Chiang, VP of end user services portfolio management for IBM Global Technology Services in an interview. "There's no upfront capital or one time expense, they can purchase it as a service." Customers still must acquire desktop clients, whether they are PCs configured as thin clients with software from Citrix or VMware or thin-client terminals from Desktone or Wyse. All four have partnered with IBM for the offering.

By virtualizing desktop computing resources, IBM said it is proving logical rather than physical access to data, compute resources and storage. "If Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing strategy can be thought of as software plus services, offerings such as IBM’s new desktop cloud can be seen as more like services minus software," said Michael Dortch, acting director of research at IT researcher Focus in an email.

The benefit of such a virtual desktop is ease of management, improved security and reliability, IBM said. Big Blue made a similar case for its initial foray into the virtual desktop in June, while the benefit of its newest iteration eliminates the need for server, storage, and network infrastructure, IBM said.

The service initially will be available with support for Microsoft Windows XP and Vista desktops running in the cloud. Chiang said Windows 7 support will be added shortly after launch, though he did not specify when. Customers will have to pay for the OS license and any software they would have to run on Windows. While Chiang wouldn't disclose pricing, he indicated there are no startup fees and users can sign up for a minimum of three months and 50 users. Another option will allow 36 month contracts with at least 200 users. "We will have different pricing for different models," Chiang said.

But price notwithstanding, thin client computing has always served niche customer bases. It remains to be seen whether enterprises will want to move their traditional PCs to the cloud. "The real challenge to widespread adoption is for vendors to prove that such solutions are seamlessly interoperable with the dominant incumbent desktop tools, notably Microsoft Office, and that they impose no additional complexity onto current environments," Dortch noted. "To the extent that IBM and its partners can offer credible reassurances in these key areas, they should do well with their desktop cloud, which is basically the 'old-school' concepts of 'thin-client computing' and 'network computing' in more contemporary packaging."

But others say old habits die hard. "Companies are attracted to the efficiencies and low costs of running anything in the cloud," said RedMonk analyst Michael Cote in an email. "But there's still work to calm down their freak-out at losing control and physical possession of their hardware, not to mention easily to pray-upon worries about security, regulations, and other fine-print driven FUD."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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