By: Frank Ohlhorst dnu
Virtual desktop infrastructure products are marketed on the promise that they will eliminate many of the desktop deployment and management headaches administrators struggle with on a daily basis. However, VDI comes with its own set of challenges, often proving to be expensive, complex to deploy and hard to manage-all of which threatens to eliminate the technology’s anticipated benefits.
Kaviza is seeking to bring VDI benefits to fruition with Version 3.1 of its VDI-in-a-Box applicance, which it says greatly simplifies the installation and provisioning of VDI without harming the inherent flexibility of VDI-powered desktops. I took Kaviza’s VDI-in-a-Box product for a test drive to see if it could deliver on the original promise of VDI, making things simpler for administrators, while still providing an acceptable end-user experience and ultimately saving money.
Kaviza does an excellent job of covering the basics of VDI, making it easy for administrators to deploy and end users to access. However, there is room for improvement-better real-time monitoring, for example, would benefit administrators by eliminating the need for third-party asset management tools.
Also, the licensing of operating systems and applications can be somewhat complicated, but that is more a reflection of software vendors’ antiquated licensing policies than a problem with Kaviza. For those looking to deploy VDI in manageable stages over time, Kaviza may prove to be the right answer, thanks to the product’s dynamic grid and ease of template management.
Testing Kaviza VDI
The first step with Kaviza’s VDI-in-a-Box comes down to planning: planning what equipment to use, the size of your deployment, what hypervisor to use and what operating systems to deliver as virtual PCs to the users. The planning process with Kaviza proves to be much simplier than with other VDI solutions because Kaviza differs greatly from traditional VDI. Kaviza uses a consolidated virtual software appliance and direct-attached storage as opposed to requiring connection brokers, load balancers, management and compute servers, and shared storage.
Kaviza offers a great deal of support and documentation that helps with planning. The primary starting point comes down to a major decision on what hypervisor to use: VMware’s ESX/ESXi or Citrix’s XenServer (Hyper-V support is expected in the near future). Kaviza takes an agnostic approach to the hypervisor, so you can use one that best suits your needs. In my case, I went with XenServer, simply because the free version of XenServer proved to have a little more management flexibility than VMware’s ESXi. However, if I were paying for the hypervisor, I would have probably picked VMware to take advantage of many of the advanced management capabilities packed into ESX.
Another important choice is the server hardware, which has to accommodate the number of active users on the system. Kaviza supports dynamic scaling, allowing you to add more servers to the Kaviza environment-the company calls that a “grid,” where a grid comprises multiple servers that can allocate users based upon server availability, load balancing rules and physical user assignments.
For my test environment, I used an HP ProLiant ML300 series server that was equipped with a pair of quad-core Xeon processors and 16GB of RAM. I planned to test Kaviza with a total of six virtual desktops, four running Windows XP and two running Windows 7 Ultimate Edition. Although that was a rather small test deployment (Kaviza is designed to scale to hundreds of users), it did allow me to exercise the primary features of the product.
Kaviza in Action
The installation and setup process for Kaviza VDI-in-a-Box involves importing the appliance into a virtual machine, configuring the Kaviza grid, setting up the user database (standing alone or linked to Active Directory or LDAP), defining templates, creating virtual machines and deploying virtual desktops.
One of the first things I was impressed by was the ease of initial deployment-The main Kaviza management element runs as a virtual appliance on Citrix XenServer and proved to be very easy to set up and configure. Only some basic chores had to be performed, such as creating a storage pool and assigning an IP address.
The Kaviza virtual appliance is managed via a browser-based console called kMGR. kMGR is easy to navigate and offers a wizard-style experience. From kMGR I was able to select what hypervisor to use, configure my grid, create users and start building virtual desktop templates, as well as create system images.
With the initial planning behind me, the next step in the setup process involved creating templates for virtual desktops. To create those templates, I had to start with a base operating system to run on the yet-to-be-defined virtual machines. Creating the images to build templates is a straightforward process that involved running the host operating system inside a virtual machine. For example, I was able to create basic templates by launching a wizard and inserting my original Windows XP CD and my Windows 7 DVD.
Basically, all you are doing during this stage is building a virtual desktop using the OS of your choice. The real magic begins once you start creating templates to deploy those virtual desktops to users. Templates offer a great deal of flexibility: I was able to create templates that contained a primary operating system, line-of-business applications and some custom settings quite easily. A template can then be associated with particular users, allowing you to quickly supply them with customized virtual desktops.
You can also modify templates as needed to add applications, apply patches and make other changes. Ultimately, templates become the most important part of a Kaviza deployment. Kaviza includes some basic settings to speed up creation of templates; however, I found that there are several options available for designing a template, covering aspects such as disk usage and allocated memory.
Once I had my templates created, the next step was to move on to a deployment experiment with some desktop PCs. Arguably, the most important element of VDI is the end-user experience (although I don’t know who would argue against a good end-user experience). Creating an acceptable experience has been a challenge for many VDI vendors, simply because of the complexity of managing connection brokers, balancing loads, countering latency and scaling on demand.
Kaviza eliminates many of those issues by eschewing connection brokers and incorporating other technologies directly into the Kaviza appliance. While that makes deployment and management easier, does it actually benefit the end user? In Kaviza’s case, it does-Kaviza incorporates Citrix Systems’ HDX technology, a display protocol (with associated elements) that delivers what Citrix refers to as a high-definition experience for users of VDI desktops.
Simply put, HDX incorporates advanced algorithms and compression techniques to reduce latency, increase throughput and manage I/O, which the company says gives a desktop virtualization user the best possible experience. I found that to be true during my tests: The virtual desktops I ran from my client PCs performed very well, perhaps as well as a local virtual machine would on the desktops I tested.
Kaviza offers multiple paths by which an endpoint can connect to a virtual desktop. You can connect your physical PCs via a browser session or by downloading and installing a small Java client application. For those who will be using a virtual desktop consistently from the same PC, I recommend going the Java client route. When first accessing the Kaviza appliance from a PC, users are given the option to install the Java application-sort of a self-serve approach to VDI. However, it may prove to be beneficial to push the application down to the desktop using a policy, removing the end user from the equation as much as possible.