By: Frank Ohlhorst dnu
Version 1.0 of Unidesk’s self-named VDI management tool enables organizations deploying virtual desktop infrastructure to take advantage of the centralized management perks of VDI without sacrificing the individual desktop flexibility that users have come to expect from traditional, locally installed operating systems.
With Unidesk 1.0, administrators can dynamically provision virtual desktops upon user request using a layering methodology to build a virtual desktop that incorporates an operating system, applications and user personalization settings. The personalization settings allow users to not only preserve their settings but also install local applications, store .pst files and keep registry changes.
In the past, typical VDI deployments forced users to share a common OS image, eliminating the ability to personalize their desktops. To offer personalization, administrators would have to maintain every virtual machine separately, requiring massive amounts of storage. Worse yet, each of those virtual desktops would have to be managed separately, meaning that upgrades, patches and other changes would have to be applied to hundreds of different desktops, eliminating one of the primary advantages of VDI-simplified OS maintenance.
By layering the OS and application levels, Unidesk makes it so only master images of the OS and applications need to be stored, which significantly reduces storage requirements and allows administrators to patch or upgrade hundreds of virtual PCs by just working with those master images. The personalization layer for each user is stored in a relatively small file, which further reduces storage needs. The net result is a VDI implementation that requires a fraction of the storage space used by a traditional VDI installation that offers personalization. Unidesk claims that organizations will see a reduction in storage needs exceeding 70 percent in most cases.
Unidesk’s ability to solve the major problems associated with VDI, while improving management capabilities, the end-user experience and protecting applications from corruption, makes Unidesk a useful product for administrators dealing with balky VDI implementations or looking to regain control of personalized virtual desktops.
Beyond these storage savings, I was impressed by the way Unidesk’s image layering approach worked to simplify VDI deployment and management. I could deal with OS or application upgrades by simply creating new or modified images, which I could then distribute to multiple machines, right away or in a scheduled rollout. That gives administrators the ability to stagger deployments, which can help to keep service calls at a manageable number, further removing much of the administrative burden associated with help desk requests.
Unidesk 1.0 is sold through the company’s network of solution partners, with pricing that starts at $150 per named user and decreases with volume.
Testing Unidesk 1.0
Unidesk in the lab
I chose to go the Citrix XenDesktop route (Unidesk also works with VMware View, Pano Logic and other options) to test Unidesk’s personalization and management capabilities. Citrix XenDesktop seems to have a smaller ecosystem of add-ons and companion products than VMware, and Citrix administrators have had to deal with personalization issues for some time, dating back to the days of Citrix’s server-based computing products. For those administrators, Unidesk might very well be the answer to their largest problems.
Installation of Unidesk is straightforward and offers no surprises, as long as you plan the installation accordingly, which basically means being familiar with your current VDI configuration and having the appropriate resources available to install the CacheCloud virtual appliance. CacheCloud is Unidesk’s storage infrastructure, offering a centralized point at which to store and manage the various OS images and layers used for your VDI implementation. CacheCloud also stores snapshots of the files that make up the layers of a Unidesk virtual desktop, giving administrators powerful rollback capabilities for OSes, applications and user settings. Those snapshots are created automatically and can be scheduled to happen as frequently as an administrator desires.
Unidesk is managed via a Web-based console, which I could access through any major browser. The management console organizes information into three major categories: users, layers and desktops. For example, the layers menu shows all of the defined layers and indicates the associations of those layers and their historic information. I was able to drill down further into each layer to uncover a rollback menu and assign those layers to users or groups. Layers rely on images, and images contain the data that was originally stored on a hard drive for OSes, applications and settings.
The desktops menu reveals all of the information associated with a constructed desktop, such as the layers used, the user assigned and the rollback information needed to return a desktop to a previous state. The users menu sums up user account information and is used to define what each user has delivered to his or her virtual machine and to assign users to various layers. All in all, the three-category management approach proves to be an easy paradigm to understand.
In practice, Unidesk offers a streamlined approach to creating the foundation needed for virtual desktop deployment. First, administrators will create base OS images (sometimes referred to as gold images), then create application layers, which are used in conjunction with the OS images to assemble the virtual desktops. OS layers and application layers are assigned to users, and upon first use, a user will have a personalization layer created, which will store any changes the user makes to the virtual desktop, such as creating bookmarks, changing backgrounds and installing applications. Whenever the user makes changes to the personalized desktop, a snapshot event can be executed, which preserves previous versions of the desktop. That allows user customization while also allowing administrators to return the desktop to a previous state if one of the user’s changes creates a problem.
The basis for those capabilities comes from Unidesk’s ability to store the delta file differences between the base O/S layer and whatever changes are made once the layer creation process starts. For example, to deploy a VPN client to a sample user desktop, I started in Unidesk with a plain Windows 7 virtual desktop, installed the VPN application as I would on a physical PC and then hit the Finalize button when the install was finished. Unidesk captured all the delta differences in my new VPN application layer.
Unidesk’s approach eliminates two of the biggest problems associated with application virtualization. First, Unidesk can package VPN, antivirus protection and all the other applications that require boot-time drivers (normally a problem for application virtualization solutions), and second, Unidesk’s virtualized applications have no difficulty communicating with each other and sharing data, unlike traditional virtualized applications. Unidesk can also package, deliver and roll back applications virtualized by VMware ThinApp, Citrix XenApp and other popular application virtualization tools.
Also available in Unidesk’s Web management console were a series of wizard-style utilities for handling common management and deployment chores, such as creating images and assigning those images to specific virtual machines.
Although the overall concept may seem complicated, end users are effectively insulated from that complexity. Once Unidesk is deployed most users will not even realize they are running a virtual desktop infrastructure-the Unidesk-delivered desktop looks and feels the same as a local physical desktop. The only difference is that users will find that their problems can be resolved more quickly and administrators will find their desktop infrastructure easier to manage.