Wanova promises virtual desktop you can use
Wanova, which has just come out of stealth mode having landed its first batch of venture capital dough, has claimed a new - and more importantly, a usable - twist on virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI.
There are a lot of different approaches to VDI, but the basic idea is that you host virtualized instances of PC operating systems back in the data center and then stream them down to thin clients out on the network or linking in through virtual private networks.
This all sounds good, and relatively easy, until end users lose their network connection or have to work in offline mode - such as when they are traveling and on an airplane. Then, VDI basically turns your machine, be it a desktop PC or a laptop, into a very big paperweight.
There are other issues with VDI, such as the fact that the performance end users experience as they run their desktop applications depends in large measure on whatever else is going on in the corporate network.
Even with some clever engineering in some VDI setups to render multimedia files and graphics locally on the device - and not over a network link back on the servers - the desktop experience can be clunky.
And it can also be expensive, with maybe somewhere between 25 and 30 virtual Windows desktop images tops being packed onto a single server.
Issy Ben-Shaul, one of the founders at Wanova, was the chief technology officer at Cisco Systems' Application Delivery business unit, which sells stuff to accelerate applications delivered from data centers and which competes with products from Riverbed, Citrix Systems, NetEx, and others.
Cisco bought its way into the application acceleration biz when it acquired  Actona Technologies in 2004. Ben-Shaul was one of the co-founders of Actona, along with Ilan Kessler, who was a researcher at IBM and Qualcomm and who has joined Ben-Shaul again in founding Wanova. Kessler reprises his role as chief executive, and Ben-Shaul his role as chief technology officer at the new company.
The idea behind Wanova Mirage is simple enough: blend the best of the VDI approach with running a local copy of an operating system on a laptop or desktop PC client. Wanova will be demonstrating its Mirage product at the VMworld extravaganza in San Francisco, California, next week, and plans to do a formal product announcement sometime in the fourth quarter.
Ben-Shaul was willing to give a few hints about how the new product will work.
Instead of moving the desktop image back into the data center and trying to serve it over the network to end users, as VDI does, Mirage takes a gold image of a PC operating system configured for a user working from a laptop and stores it back in the data center.
The laptop doesn't try to run this image stored on the server, but rather a cache copy of this image that is disposable.
If laptop users lose their network link, they can keep on working with their applications because they were always running a cached copy of the gold image locally. That also means Windows runs at local speed and has the normal PC experience.
For now, Wanova is focusing on mobile users, but its software can be used to provision desktops and servers, too.
"We're often asked if we can support servers," says Ben-Shaul. "There is no distinction, technically, between a PC and a server as far as Mirage is concerned. We are positioned for the mobile workforce today only because we see more pain here."
It would be interesting to see a variant of Mirage for shared high-performance computing clusters where customers want to change operating systems and workloads frequently and quickly. And in fact, Wanova has a few customers monkeying around with Mirage to provision servers.
You don't have to install a hypervisor to use Mirage, although if companies want to plunk Windows images and run them inside hypervisors for security reasons, the software will run in conjunction with either bare-metal (type 1) or hosted (types 2) hypervisors.
Mirage doesn't care, since it is a collection of software that gets embedded inside Windows. Exactly what this software is, Ben-Shaul is not saying, but it is definitely using sophisticated file system tricks to keep the gold and local cache copies of the Windows stack running on a laptop in synch. It has taken 18 months to develop the product, and a handful of customers have been putting it through the beta paces.
None of this is going to get chief information officers terribly excited. But their ears may prick up when they hear that Wanova thinks it can get a 1,000 to one ratio of laptops to management servers with Mirage.
That 35 to 40 times as many PCs per server that you can get with VDI, and that means the economics of centrally controlled laptop images is in the same ballpark as not trying to control them at all. If Wanova keeps the price reasonable, it will perhaps be able to make it up in volume.
Here's another neat trick of the software that CIOs might find appealing. Say you lose your laptop. The system admin back in the data center can fire up a virtual machine on the Mirage servers using something called Centralized Virtual Desktop and plunk the gold image of your desktop inside that and let you access it from a thin client or any other machine you can get your hands on.
The image will only be as good as the last time you were on the network, but that is better than where you'd be without the Mirage tool. And because the gold images are stored back in the data center, backups can be done centrally off the Mirage servers, not over the networks - another plus.
Linux and Mac, too?
Wanova Mirage will support laptops running Windows XP and the forthcoming Windows 7, but is skipping Windows Vista. "We see such a small deployment rate for Vista," says Ben-Shaul, something under 10 per cent in the customers they surveyed while developing the product.
The company does have a Windows Vista version of the Mirage tool working in the labs, and can roll it out if need be. Ben-Shaul says: "Windows 7 is a surprisingly good operating system - it is fast and it is light."
And while Mirage doesn't support Linux or Mac OS, the fact that the Mirage tool works down at the file system level to do its magic means that there is no technical reason why it can't if there is customer demand for such support.
To get the Wanova ball rolling, Greylock Partners, Carmel Ventures, and Opus Capital, have kicked in $13m in Series A venture funding. ®