The workplace of the future – how virtual desktops can cut costs AND improve security

Virtual desktops have had something of a rough ride in recent years. On one hand hyped as the next big thing by the tech industry while on the other remaining pretty niche in the grand scheme of things. That could all be about to change, however.

Before 2012 the analyst Gartner estimated virtual desktop infrastructure penetration was as low as 1.5 per cent but this is predicted to rise sharply to up to 15 per cent by this year, while another analyst IDC is predicting the market will grow at a CAGR of 7.5 per cent between 2013 and 2018.

And those figures are backed up by what I’m seeing at the coalface when I talk to customers. They are expressing an increased appetite for this kind of virtual infrastructure, especially in big organisations with 50,000 and more end users and workstations where there are some large scale pilot projects going on.

Clearly the parallel shifts towards cloud computing, the rise of powerful mobile devices and the demand for a more flexible work environment where employees can access information when they want from any device and from any location will further drive this move to a more virtual workspace.

When it comes to the business case there are some very clear benefits of moving from a traditional client-server PC-based setup to a virtual desktop environment. When you’re talking about an infrastructure with tens of thousands of PCs and endpoints that requires a lot of resources to manage, support and patch. Going virtual can reduce this overhead and actually improve security.

One study shows the primary reasons organisations adopt desktop virtualisation are to reduce IT management costs, enhance security and improve availability, with 95 per cent of respondents saying they had achieved measurable cost savings since the introduction of a desktop virtualisation platform.

My own view is this trend will continue and become even more in tune with the way we work today with end users being able to seamlessly switch and handover tasks between the many computing and mobile devices they use. Advances with HTML5 mean it is now even possible to access a virtual desktop through a browser on any internet-connected device.

The only limiting factor in all of this is likely to be connectivity and even that’s becoming less of an issue with high-speed fixed line broadband and cellular 4G (and in the not too distant future 5G).

From a security standpoint a virtual desktop infrastructure means it is far easier and cheaper for IT departments to ensure everyone is patched and up to date, with all that done server-side instead of having to be rolled out each time to every individual workstation.

There is also the advantage that while data is more accessible for employees that information doesn’t physically reside on the device, reducing the potential for it to be compromised.

The key security issue in all of this of course is ensuring only employees are able to login and access their information in this virtual environment. That means two-factor (and in some cases multi-factor) authentication. That could, for example, be a smartphone is needed to get an SMS in conjunction with a second input screen to enter the code sent by SMS.

In some situations that kind of two-factor authentication, while very secure, can be cumbersome and not very user-friendly and I predict that we’ll quickly start to see improvements around this. Here at Intel Security, for example, we’re looking at a tool to enable organisations to use a Bluetooth connection from a certificate on a smartphone for proximity-based authentication. In practice that would mean an employee physically sat at their workstation would be authenticated by their smartphone and if they got up and walked away that desktop would be automatically locked. Watch this space for more on that soon.

My main message here is that this is a rapidly growing trend across the IT industry and in addition to the cost and agility benefits a virtual desktop environment can also provide CIOs and IT departments with the means to improve information security in an always-on, any time, any place, any device work culture.

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