Coming Soon: PC-as-a-Service over Broadband

Broadband service providers are looking to add higher-value services to their offerings, services that could soon include a virtual desktop for consumers. Indeed, the idea of a service provider offering a PC as a Service (PCaaS), essentially a PC in the cloud, may be coming to your broadband connection sooner than you might think. Here is how a virtual desktop would work: You’d have an access device at your location, called a thin client, which would connect your keyboard, video screen and mouse (KVM) to the service provider’s broadband network. (For more detail on thin clients, see Stacey’s recent post.)

The thin client could be a hardware device or it could be a piece of software running on your current PC. In either implementation, the thin client sends all of your KVM data from your location to a server hosted in the service provider’s network. All PC functions and applications would be running on the server in the network and the only data going between your location and the server would be KVM information.

That is the major benefit of a virtual desktop: All operating system files, applications, documents, security software and so on are located on the server. All you need at your location is the thin client and you get access to your full desktop. These benefits, however, also highlight the main drawback of a virtual desktop: lack of portability. Moving your data from one virtual desktop to another may not be a trivial task and some applications may not be portable into a virtual desktop at all.

The technology to offer a virtual desktop has been around for a number of years. Companies such as Citrix, VMware, Microsoft and others already provide software to virtualize user desktops and connect to thin clients. The main issue with these offerings has been their performance relative to local computers. I, for example, was subjected to the horrors of using a software-based thin client connected to a server in a remote location, and the performance was abysmal at best.

But two fundamental technologies that may solve the virtual desktop performance issues already exist. The first is the proliferation of broadband Internet. Using a thin client to connect to a remote virtual desktop server over a multimegabit link that is within the same metropolitan area can provide reasonable performance. The second technology is KVM enhanced by hardware. Companies such as Teradici and Pano Logic provide hardware acceleration and compression for the KVM data passing from a thin client to the server — to the point where the performance difference between a local computer desktop and a virtual desktop is nearly indistinguishable. Using these technologies, the performance of the virtual desktop could even provide a graphics-intensive experience, such as playing a 1080p HD movie in one window and playing an action-packed game in another.

Assuming that the technologies exist to enable service providers to offer virtual desktops for consumers, from a business perspective, PCaaS has numerous appealing qualities. Broadband customers that use a virtual desktop will more than likely pay for a higher-bandwidth broadband service. Given the portability issues around virtual desktops, this also provides a clever mechanism to lock the consumer onto a specific network, which would ostensibly result in lower churn. I can also envision different product bundles for consumer-focused virtual desktops: a basic desktop with a browser only, an enterprise desktop with Microsoft Office applications enabled and a gaming/HD desktop that comes bundled with a hardware-based thin client branded by the service provider (Here’s your AT&T desktop access device!). Additional options could be storage space, accessibility options (Do you want to access your desktop from any TV and your mobile phone? Please pay us $5 more per month) or peripheral device support (such as printers and webcams).

One question that needs to be answered is how service providers could offer virtual desktops in conjunction with their metered bandwidth services. If I am sending lots of KVM data to a virtual desktop hosted by my service provider, you can be darned sure I don’t want be billed on a bandwidth meter.

But perhaps the biggest unknown around the PCaaS business is the user support that would be required. Service provider support organizations are better known for frustrating their users than helping them. Extending these support organizations to answer a myriad of desktop, application and device peripheral issues might be too much for them. An alternative may be for service providers to outsource the application and peripheral support to someone like Microsoft, similar to today’s relationship between MSN and Qwest. [digg=]

With all of this to consider, are you ready to give up the hassles of managing your own desktop for a virtual desktop run by your service provider?