Microsoft faces eight desktop virtualization challenges

Although initially reluctant, Microsoft has started to embrace virtual desktops. But it still has several challenges to overcome.

Like it or not, desktop virtualization is catching on. This poses some interesting challenges for Microsoft because it has built a huge business around desktops not being virtualized. Over the past few years, Microsoft has started to come around to support (and in some cases openly embrace) desktop virtualization. But the company has a rough road ahead of it.

So here are eight challenges that Microsoft faces in the realm of desktop virtualization.

Windows XP Mode will mislead people
One of the new features of Windows 7 is something called Windows XP Mode. Windows XP Mode isn't even an operating mode per se; it's a full copy of Windows XP running in a virtual PC-based virtual machine (VM) used to run applications that aren't compatible with Windows 7. This is great for traditionally installed Windows 7 environments on full-blown PCs, but incorporating a second copy of Windows for enterprise users is going to be a tough sell. Microsoft pitches XP Mode as the way to solve application-compatibility problems with Windows 7. How will corporations resolve this?

Windows 7 is hardware-hungry
Microsoft did a great job with Windows 7, and the company takes every opportunity to show how much more efficient it is than Vista. However, Windows 7 requires a lot more hardware to deliver a user experience that similar in quality to that of Windows XP. This is also true when Windows is running on a local or a remote VM.

So as enterprises finally move toward desktop virtualization, if they move from Windows XP to Windows 7, they're going to have to either drop their user density or lower the users' expectations of what the Windows experience should be like.

Virtualizing Windows means that Microsoft is not in control
Windows was conceived, designed and built to be run natively on desktop hardware. But when you virtualize it, you install a shim between the operating system and the hardware device, which means that Windows no longer "owns" the hardware.

On the one hand, Microsoft is still getting paid for the instance of Windows. On the other, Microsoft is ceding control to the hypervisor for functions that used to be done by Windows. Today that includes low-level functions such as kernel scheduling and peripheral access. But the more that hypervisors do, the less control Windows (and by extension, Microsoft) has.

VECD is a confusing mess
No one thinks that Microsoft should give away its products for free. But Microsoft's Virtual Enterprise Centralized Desktop (VECD) license, which is required to virtualize desktop copies of Windows, is an arcane mess. It's almost as if Microsoft is daring people to virtualize Windows, saying, "You want to virtualize Windows? Fine! But you have to navigate this mess."

No one has even seen VECD and thought, "Hey, this is great!" The headaches that VECD introduces just fuel the belief that Microsoft is out of touch about the wishes of its customers. VECD will continue to drive people to look for ways to avoid it -- and if that means they'll also avoid Windows, then so be it.

Microsoft's applications are notoriously difficult to virtualize
Microsoft bought Softricity four years ago and evolved the product into App-V, an application virtualization platform that integrates with System Center Configuration Manager and Terminal Server. Unfortunately, Microsoft's own applications (like Office and its financial software) are some of the most complex apps to package for the App-V environment. And if Microsoft's own apps are this hard, what does that say about those from other vendors?

Microsoft's real goal is to push Hyper-V sockets
Microsoft's stated goal for its virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) suite is to push Hyper-V sockets. (In other words, the company wants Hyper-V to be the platform for Windows in the data center. See the point above about Microsoft losing control.) This means that Microsoft's main efforts in this market aren't going to be around what's best for the customer, but what's best for Microsoft.

We've always said that competition is a good thing. (This is still mostly true.) But a downside is that the competitive goals are focused on beating other vendors rather than on satisfying customers.

Microsoft has a weird 'co-opetition' with Citrix
For the past decade, Citrix has enabled Microsoft in the desktop virtualization space. This situation worked well for Microsoft as it has allowed it to sell hundreds of millions of dollars of Terminal Services licenses without having to work too hard.

But now Microsoft is at a weird crossroad. Should it continue to let Citrix drive the experience and own the customer relationship in a world where Microsoft is fighting for the future of Windows? Or does it take the reins itself, possibly isolating Citrix and losing free sales and customer goodwill?

Microsoft needs Windows apps to stay relevant
In the past 20 years, Windows applications have become the de facto standard for business apps. But now Microsoft is getting pressure from Web apps, cloud apps, rich Internet apps and Apple App Store apps. And unlike non-Windows application options in the past, in 2010, we're seeing real business apps moving to these non-Windows platforms.

If Microsoft isn't careful, the whole concept of a Windows app -- and therefore Windows -- could be relegated to a kind of "Windows XP mode" where Windows only exists in the background to service old-school apps.

Can Microsoft rise to these eight challenges? It has certainly done so in the past, and time will tell how it fares this time around. But Microsoft has some work ahead of it.


Brian Maddenis an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as an opinionated, supertechnical desktop virtualization expert. He has written several books and more than 1,000 articles about desktop and application virtualization. Madden's blog,, receives millions of visitors per year and is a leading source for conversation, debate and discourse about the application and desktop virtualization industry. He is also the creator of BriForum, the premier independent application delivery technical conference.

Dig Deeper on Virtual desktop management

Enterprise Desktop
Cloud Computing