Try not to roll your eyes at this statement: Virtual desktops for enterprises large and small are now a ready-for-prime-time alternative to conventional client-server networks.
Yes, you undoubtedly have heard that one before-about every year since 1998, or perhaps even earlier than that. But thanks to widespread broadband availability, vastly improved networking hardware and software from competing vendors, and the fact that many C-level executives frankly are up to here with upward-spiraling licensing fees, VDIs (virtual desktop infrastructures) in several forms are getting closer looks from more potential users than ever.
The idea of deploying processor-less terminals connected to a central enterprise computer system goes way back to the dawn of digital IT. The benefits of a virtual desktop system have long been apparent: faster deployment and disconnection of employee desktops as needed, lower licensing costs, less complexity, automatic software updates and security patches, easier and more efficient policy enforcement, and so on. All of those features are gold for most enterprises.
Although VDI often can require a non-trivial up-front investment in hardware, software and training, market competition is helping bring pricing down. Also, the inherent problems that shackled VDI for a long time-latency and security issues-are being solved by improvements as each new-generation system becomes available.
VDI deployments still have limitations involving the number of users and geographic locations of clients. However, with market demand on the rise, it is a given that there is more innovation to come that will solve those issues.
A subsector of VDI that is earning the most attention at this time is client-side VDI; it differs from server-based VDI in that each actual client, as well as the server, holds a VDI agent-whether it be a hypervisor-like one or a simpler connector to the server.
A big advantage to this: When an Internet connection is cut off, it doesn’t affect a file in process, as it would with a standard VDI deployment. The user can keep working on the file on the client as usual, and when the connection is restored, the client and server automatically sync up both versions to result in the most recent version of the file.
Here’s a look at several virtual desktop providers that are innovating on VDI’s client side. These company/product snapshots are in no particular order.
Virtual Computer, based in Westford, Mass., calls its client-side hypervisor Distributed Desktop Virtualization. To learn more, read the related review.
“We’re working on a deal now with Lenovo that will have our hypervisor running on a whole different class of machine, everything from laptops down to desktops,” CEO Dan McCall told eWEEK. “Lenovo is seeing a convergence between the thin client and the desktop PC. Taking laptops aside-because that’s a different segment of the market [since they are not “tethered” machines]-there’s actual overlap between the high end of the thin-client line and the low end of the desktop line, with the low end of desktops probably getting more performance than thin clients.”
Both those segments, however, can now run client-side virtualization, McCall said, indicating that previous laptop generations didn’t have the horsepower to run a local client plus the virtualization agent at the same time.
Virtual Computer gives users some choices within deployments, which could include a mix of desktops, laptops and other mobile devices. For example, McCall said, a NxTop-powered laptop could be running Windows 7 locally on the client while at the same time providing a separate window into a server-based deployment of something else, such as Linux or another Windows version.
“We try not to get too religious about how you want to run virtualization,” McCall said. “We allow you to lay down our product, NxTop, at the base layer for all these devices-which are all essentially personal computers. Then you make the choice about whether you want to run your workload in the data center on VMware ESX or a Citrix XenServer environment, or run your virtual machine locally.
“That’s really the innovation we’re providing to this market right now,” he said.
VC’s NxTop (pronounced Nextop) 3.1 RC1 will become available for download April 19.
MokaFive, which has been trying to put the VDI pieces together at the right time and right place for six years, now may finally be at the correct convergence coordinates. The company, based in Redwood City, Calif., is taking the concept of “local management, remote execution” to a new level.
“We take the simple idea of ‘How do we allow the end-user to use any device he or she wants, and at the same time protect the whole corporation-with no changes, no adds or anything,'” CEO Dale Fuller told eWEEK. The client-side MokaFive v3.0 “lets me have, as a corporation, my entire container of my image, safe and secure, controlled by me, from the cloud; however, my user gets to execute it locally.
“And he or she gets to run it on a Mac, if they want to. Or a Windows machine, or a Linux machine. That becomes the interesting thing.”
This is especially gratifying for Fuller, who put in two tenures of employment at Apple and managed its PowerBook PC division for the enterprise at one point. “We were an abysmal failure at that. We couldn’t give them away to the enterprise. Windows was too entrenched,” Fuller said.
Now he’s got a product that can go a long way to getting the Mac OS into the enterprise, albeit by a back door-desktop virtualization.
MokaFive is now available for iPads and iPhones, and the Android version isn’t far behind. The company’s MyLivePC can run Windows on iPads (Flash supporters reading this are probably celebrating) and MacOS on Windows.
Kaviza, with its VDI-in-Box product, was one of the first to provide VDI support for iPads, iPhones and Android smartphones running on a data center hypervisor-Citrix Xen or VMware ESX 4.1.
Now it, too, has a new remote-client version, Kaviza Remote, coming out in April 2011. Citrix XenDesktop is providing the virtual desktop connector, and Kaviza the distribution method.
Kaviza VDI-in-a-Box is a plug-and-play virtual desktop system that basically anyone can get up and running for a small and midsize business. It truly is an automated, turnkey way to do it; you install the software on a commodity server, and it just finds all the nodes automatically. When Kaviza is running, the virtual desktop runs in its own browser-type window with all the application functionality needed. Little or no latency is apparent. Users can continue to use their local applications as normal.
With the new client-side version, automatic sync-up will be available if the connectivity is cut off.
“One of the biggest differentiators for Kaviza is that we can do all this for about one-third the cost of most of the others, because we plug right into inexpensive servers, and you can use any type of existing device as the client,” Krishna Subramanian, Kaviza’s chief operating officer, told eWEEK.
Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Kaviza and Citrix, headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif., are striving to keep all VDI deployments under $500 per seat.