VMware gives desktop virtualization a new View

Thinking about moving to desktop virtualization next year? If so, you have a lot to consider.

Just two weeks after Citrix released its XenDesktop 4 desktop virtualization suite, VMware fired back this morning with VMware View 4, a PC virtualization presentation and delivery system built on top of VMware's vSphere back end hosting platform.

It's faster. It's cheaper. But will IT - and their desktop users - buy in?

Virtual limitations and liabilities

Like Citrix, VMware thinks it has a lot of the problems associated with desktop virtualization licked, and hopes for a major push into the enterprise in 2010 that goes beyond the traditional niches for virtualization: Those always online task workers in places like call centers, where cookie cutter desktop and application sets are good enough - or where tightly controlled desktop environments are required due to security concerns (think financial services, health care).

Objections to moving virtualization to the masses have been numerous. Major implementations require careful assessment - and possible reconfiguation of - local and wide area networks based on anticipated loads (and possible need for optimization appliances in some offices). Then there's the cost of getting started, which requires a major initial outlay for back end servers and virtualization software - as well as learning the nuances of configuring and managing a virtualized desktop population. That's a big nut that adds up to more than the cost to simply refresh all of those desktops - and higher capital expenses are something no CFO wants to see right now.

Other objections raised over the years include the potential for responsiveness and latency issues when interacting with the host, strains on the network when everyone tries to log in in the morning, lack of support for offline operation, lack of personalization, poor performance for graphics intensive applications, the need for dedicated hardware for high performance computing, and perhaps most significantly, cultural resistance.

View 4 focuses on two classic problems: The inability of virtualized systems, which rely on the network to deliver screen and keystroke updates between the PC and host systems, to work well with graphics intensive applications, and the high cost of building a back end infrastructure to support virtualized desktop and application delivery.

"We want to increase use case coverage and reduce acquisition cost," Patrick Harr, vice president of enterprise desktop marketing told me during a visit last week.

VMware's evolution

VMware has come a long way since it introduced VMware Workstation many years ago. First users ran virtual machines on each desktop. Then they began to host those virtual machines (VDI) on back-end systems running ESX, just as they were doing with virtual servers. That centralized system management, but you still had one virtual machine for every PC. Then, with vSphere, VMware allowed administrators to gain economies of scale by creating one or more shared master images for delivery to multiple desktop clients.

To these it has added a "personalization" layer so that users can maintain their own environment settings, such as desktop icon placements, wallpaper and so on. To further add to the confusing array of options, administrators can use VMware's ThinApp technology, which "streams" applications or an entire desktop in real time to the desktop for local execution - or to a hosted desktop on vSphere (the latter looks a bit like the Terminal Services or XenApp model). Those environments, when cached locally, can allow the client device to continue to operate in offline mode.

Faster, more responsive experience

View 4 introduces a new version of partner Teradichi's client protocol, PC over IP (PCoIP) to optimize network performance, and added a feature built on top of that that allows graphics intensive applications run on the back-end vSphere platform while some graphics execute on the local PC's graphics adapter. "[Teradichi] built a hardware implementation of PCoIP. We built a software implementation of it," Harr said. The software, similar to Citrix's HDX, uses tricks such as delivering text first and lowering the resolution of graphics images to speed load times when sufficient bandwidth is unavailable. Graphics intensive applications should work better over the network, although workstations with intense computing needs may still need to run in their own, dedicated virtual machine executing on dedicated hardware on the back end.

A lower cost per seat

VMware claims that scalability improvements in View 4 cut the cost for back end supporting infrastructure from about $1,400 per client to just $700 per client, versus $600 to $800 to replace the typical desktop PC. The operating expense savings of client virtualization were a difficult sell with such a high up front capital expenditure. Now View is more on par with desktop refreshes. "We've been able to do that through advancements that drive more virtual machines per single vSphere platform and per physical server," Harr said.

Of course, that's just your back-end costs. Any changes to the front end client or your network to accommodate a large scale virtualization roll out would be on top of that.

Coming soon: Offline support

Another limitation of most virtualization schemes is that when you lose network dial tone you're dead in the water. VMware currently offers an experimental technology called Offline Desktop that allows users to check out a virtual machine image and run it on the local machine in offline mode. When the user checks in again, changes to the user image and data are synchronized with the back end. Harr says the feature will be formally introduced some time in the first half of next year.

Better than Citrix?

Claiming an installed base of 1.5 million virtual desktops, VMware dismisses Citrix as an also ran. But Citrix is certainly a viable alternative to VMware. It has a wide range of virtualization offerings, recently introduced an integrated front end, XenDesktop 4, to manage six different PC virtualization deliver models, and has a mature and sophisticated set of policy tools for managing its Terminal Services-based XenApp virtual application delivery offerings. "On application delivery they are strong on the policy side. They have more policies than we can put in at this juncture," Harr admits.

But Harr is quick to say that VMware's "ecosystem" of third party providers fills in any blanks. And, he says, the installed base for VMware-based desktops is 10 times that of Citrix. The Burton Group gives VMware a smaller quantity advantage in total deployed seats, with about a 2:1 lead over its nearest competitor. However, it's important to understand that many of those instances may be standalone virtual machines running locally or hosted virtual machines that map one virtual machine to every PC in an environment. This race is about providing a consolidated back-end offering based on a more manageable, single shared master image, along with the ability to offer some personalization to each user's environment. The question is who  does that best - not who has more virtual machines out there.

VMware also likes to point out that the back end servers that deliver virtual services to clients - including Citrix's - often run within virtual servers, usually on VMware's ESX platform. Harr argues that VMware can provide a common tool set that spans both the virtual server and virtual PC environments.

With so many desktops unvirtualized, however, the pie is plenty big enough for both vendors. The question is whether IT organizations will take the leap beyond those traditional niches, and risk the wrath of users, in 2010.

Users like having their own local Windows PC that they can customize and mess up. If the latest technology is as seamless and VMware and Citrix claim, then users might be transitioned and never know the difference. But users have opposed such moves before, and this time, as in the past, it's not the vendors' necks that will be on the line.

IT may dip its toe in the water in 2010. But I suspect that a broader transition, if and when it comes, will extend well beyond next year.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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