Praktijktest: Virtuele desktops shootout

Virtuele desktops beginnen makkelijker en beter te worden. De graphics doen het goed, de poort-virtualisatie werkt redelijk en er zijn goede beheertools. Bovendien kun je andere hosts kiezen dan Windows.

While Citrix XenDesktop/XenApp remains the one to beat, two other VDI platforms we tested, Ericom Connect Enterprise and Parallels Remote Application Server, can provide for the publishing of diverse applications to desktops, while following "the rules" regarding resource accessibility and security.

In testing, we found Citrix leads the pack in terms of overall flexibility, although its vast feature sets can increase support burdens. If price-be-damned and you really want the venerable Full Meal Deal, it's Citrix XenDesktop/XenApp Enterprise. We found it has almost everything you could ask for in a VDI product.

We found solid extensibility with Ericom Connect, which allows IT managers to create grids of connectivity with no additional licensing costs. This is good for multi-site/multi-tenant organizations.

The easiest entry point was found with Parallels RAS, which is a comparative breeze to install and integrate. It has most of the features found in both of its competitors and a few of its own.

The commonality of these three products is that they're capable of great depth, and in most cases, numerous gradients of feature options. Mostly, their documentation is inadequate, and neophyte admins will need to know something about Remote Access Services before starting.

Part of the problem is the enormous complexity of virtualizing apps plus desktops plus resources and getting everything to run smoothly on a myriad of remote devices, perhaps over a distributed complex network. This is made more difficult by language and international boundaries.

You need to be up to speed with remote access, Active Directory infrastructure, and certificate management. And you need to plan the resources necessary to support the virtualized infrastructure required to do the job.

Securing virtual resources across the open Internet requires more attention to detail, and each VDI package we tested has features that guard against rudimentary host-probing. Certificate infrastructure was most wholesome with Citrix, followed by Ericom Connect, then Parallels RAS.

We tried the full enterprise top-shelf versions of each product, and we caution IT execs that they'll need to understand the options thoroughly. While each product at its basic will do the basic job, you'll likely want more, and will need to pay more for the options you want. These options seemed to change over the months that we looked at each product. Enterprise organizations have become used to a somewhat dizzying array of possible options. Here, Parallels RAS and to a lesser extent, Ericom Enterprise Connect have the bliss of simplicity, if with scalability.

Remote roles

Not long ago, it was all you could do to get a remote virtual screen. Microsoft's RAS and its protocols allowed terminal-like sessions. Then multiple concurrent sessions could be managed, and with the advent of a 64-bit memory map and processor virtualization modes, hypervisor-like virtual sessions and operating system instantiations became possible.

Mobile devices impose new types of OS instantiations, and when publishing apps to mobile devices, session resources can become highly reduced. This reduction in resources, aided by running multiple apps within the same OS instance, then allows publishing apps without dragging a lot of app logic to a remote client/viewer. This also allows app usage on incompatible session devices - like Windows apps on Mac machinery.

Each of the three VDI platforms tested competes with cloud-based apps, made ever-more reliable by Microsoft specifically, as well as others, like Google. Hosted services are a direct competitor, but each of the VDI players has a "secret sauce" that hosted office apps can't do - yet.

The advent of specialized co-processing boards - GPU arrays that process complex graphics on the host side - enable remote sessions of highly complex graphics apps.

Given decent bandwidth between a session host and a remote client, modernized protocols permit CAD, GIS, and other graphics-intensive apps to be run at considerable distance with only nominal latencies. In the past, latencies made running such programs untenable at best.

The resources for publishing just the app have soared as well. App sources can be anything from traditional Linux and even Mac apps. Sometimes, the app can use added graphics or chipset co-processing, which aids in the remote device perceived response, we found. Other times there didn't seem to be much of a boost. Much is dependent on the platform, and a session manager's ability to expose chipset/co-processing resources to the app.

Speed perception can be very important for several reasons, one of which is the nature of support calls and complaints poised when the user doesn't know if network speed, device speed, or application speed is the crux of finger-drumming complaints. Faster is better.

Speed, along with peripheral integration between a viewing device and client also becomes very important. If there's a webcam (interactive video or just video viewing), sound indirection, mouse/pointing device movement, or other interactive peripheral device in a session, support for the device(s) becomes very important.

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