The end of the three-year PC refresh cycle

In breaking the link between desktop hardware and software, desktop virtualisation pushes PC purchasing, management and ownership into unchartered territory

Tags: Citrix Systems Incorporation
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The end of the three-year PC refresh cycle
By  Aaron White Published  May 23, 2011

In breaking the link between desktop hardware and software, desktop virtualisation pushes PC purchasing, management and ownership into unchartered territory, writes Aaron White, Regional Director, Citrix Middle East & Africa (MEA).

One of the pillars of the IT budget is the PC refresh cycle. Technology industry analysts, vendors and the stock market closely track the way that enterprises plan PC purchases. The cycle is driven by the interrelation between hardware, most specifically the power of the processor inside the PC, and the operating system and applications. Beyond the hardware itself simply aging, advances in the operating system and the core applications PCs run make greater demands on the hardware. Faster processers encourage software developers to create software that takes advantage of improved processing power.

Throughout the personal computing era, hardware and software have been locked in a symbiotic relationship. Enterprises have either embraced or adopted the model, using the same depreciation-based budgeting models as it uses for other commodity purchases such as company vehicles. The average lifespan is calculated and the assets are replaced on a pre-scheduled basis to keep costs as steady as possible. For PCs, the typical assumed lifespan is three years and therefore every year enterprises replace the oldest one third of their PCs.

In practice, of course, mergers and acquisitions will impact a particular organisation’s spread of computers. Strong organic growth may command additional purchases, poor performance may lead to a temporary hold on purchasing or a large downsizing could see PCs sold off. External factors, such as the economic environment, or a forthcoming major software launch, can also impact the exact timing of purchases. An organisation switching the management of its PC estate to a managed service provider might see a step-change in PCs rather than the steady replacement of older machines. However, even allowing for a wide range of differences, the industry still revolves around the notion of a three year PC refresh cycle as a result of ever-improving, tightly entwined, hardware and software.

The virtualisation of the desktop is changing the PC refresh model because it decouples PC hardware and software. Using desktop virtualisation, desktop software is able to operate independently from the desktop’s hardware. The exact technologies used to deliver desktop virtualisation will vary; from Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and application virtualisation (through hosting or streaming) for task-worker oriented PCs, to streamed desktops and local virtual machine based desktops (which take advantage of type 1 hypervisors) for more mobile workers that need the flexibility of local processing power. However the user’s desktop or applications are executed (client or server side), the key point is that the computing environment is wholly managed and delivered from the data centre.

The liberating impact of desktop virtualisation

At first glance, the consequences of decoupling PC hardware and software seem straight forward; the purchase of a new PC and the software to run on it need not happen simultaneously. However the consequences soon become more fundamental. Perhaps of most significance is that the latest desktop software – and currently that means Microsoft Windows 7 – can be delivered from the datacentre to an old PC repurposed as a thin client. It provides a perfect solution for office-based workers, slashing the cost of PC procurement while allowing the organisation to sweat their desktop PC assets. Longer term, the biggest benefit is a substantial reduction in the resources needed to manage a large estate of PCs as they can all be managed centrally from the data centre.

The savings derived from extending the useful life of PCs, combined with much lower desktop management costs, means the initial investment in desktop virtualisation is usually recouped in just 12-24 months. The decoupling of PC hardware and software also has a considerable impact on the actual desktop migration process. The obvious benefit is that the centralised management afforded by desktop virtualisation makes the actual migration itself easier, with images built once and used many times, and subsequent upgrades manage more efficiently.

However just as important for many organisations is that Windows 7 will not automatically support all the applications already being used on machines running Vista or, in particular, Windows XP. Virtualisation allows an organisation to run incompatible applications from a remote terminal server and deliver them to a Windows 7 desktop. Towards the end of 2010 Citrix surveyed over 20% of its solution partners across Europe, capturing one of the most comprehensive views of desktop virtualisation in the region. It showed that around 24% of desktop virtualisation initiatives were being deployed to support a Windows 7 refresh strategy.

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