Virtualisation turns PCs into personal clouds

Desktops break free

Shifting shapes

"People are rethinking what a desktop is," says Tyler Rohrer, co-founder at Liquidware Labs.

The company makes a tool called Stratosphere UX, which assesses performance and helps with troubleshooting in VDI installations.

"I think we were all a little spoiled by Moore's Law in the PC, with predictably dropping costs and predictably increasing performance,” says Rohrer.

“Most of the time we had predictable refresh cycles and improved productivity because the machines had more power than the applications required. And everything about the end-user was locked up in that one device.

“It has taken a spark like server virtualisation to get us to think we don't have to have one OS tried to a device, and that we can do other things. And the reason we are all interested is that we know, almost instinctively like we did when PCs first came out, that some of this technology is really going to increase productivity."

At one end of the desktop virtualisation spectrum is Pano Logic, whose Pano System runs counter to Intel’s IDV architecture. Pano Logic has taken the original ClearCube idea to its logical conclusion by extending a virtual PC bus down an Ethernet wire to a box that has no state whatsoever because it has no CPU, no storage and no moving parts.

The virtual PC image runs atop VMware's ESXi, Microsoft's Hyper-V or Citrix's XenServer hypervisors and is managed by Pano Manager. And because it doesn't have any brains at the other end of the wire, it is perfect for security-conscious customers in banking, finance and government.

"If you steal the device, you can't even get a login," says Dana Loof, executive vice-president of marketing at Pano Logic.

But even more importantly, end-users working from Pano clients can't tell that they are not working from local PCs. They show in a recent side-by-side bakeoff the Pano Zero Clients beating out thin clients powered by VMware View and its PC over IP protocol and Citrix XenDesktop clients and their HDX protocol.

If security was a concern that drove some customers to zero-client VDI, the high cost of classic VDI desktop hosting setups from Microsoft, VMware and Citrix has kept many customers from adopting VDI to date.

Even if you give the VDI software away, you haven't solved the problem

Krishna Subramanian, vice-president in charge of the VDI-in-a-Box line that Citrix got through its acquisition of partner and rival Kaviza in May 2011, says Kaviza was attractive because its kMGR VDI stack, which originally ran atop VMware's ESXi hypervisor, was able to run on clusters of servers using local storage instead of SANs.

The kMGR setup also does not need the connection brokers, load balancers and management servers other VDI setups often require, which means Kaviza could radically reduce the cost of a VDI-based PC image.

"We made sure that a virtual desktop costs less than a real PC," says Subramanian, adding that depending on the configuration options a virtual PC costs $260 to $425.

"Customers get that there are soft dollar benefits down the road with VDI, but they must show return on investment for VDI projects in the first months after it is installed."

This is particularly acute, says Subramanian, when you realise that 70 per cent of the PCs in the corporate world enterprise are in small and medium businesses, and that 60 per cent of the cost of a VDI setup is not the software but the hardware back in the data centre to drive it.

"Even if you give the VDI software away, you haven't solved the problem,” she says.

Given this, you might expect for Citrix soon to rebrand VDI-in-a-Box as XenDesktop SMB Edition, or even go further and try to scale up kMGR underneath XenDesktop proper and get rid of the SAN requirement for XenDesktop altogether. Subramanian is mum on the subject.

Depending on who you ask, there are somewhere between 600 million and 800 million PCs in the corporate environment. And Raj Mallempati, director of product marketing for the desktop and application virtualisation group at VMware, does not think that enterprises will shift from real PCs to VDI-streamed PCs. Anymore than Citrix or Microsoft believe this, either.

Windows and the long tail

"The post-PC era has definitely arrived," says Mallempati. "But there is a long tail of Windows-based applications and they will use more traditional VDI. Over time, the penetration of View will increase, but it will still be a niche case."

That is why VMware has expanded from just PC image management to end-user application management with its Horizon App Manager, announced side by side with View 5.

Horizon App Manager is being pitched as a a sort of iTunes store for enterprise applications. It will allow use cloud-based applications as well as internal applications, and will also eventually be able to field up requests for applications streamed from ThinApp or virtual desktops streamed from View.

And here's the important part: Horizon will be able hook users working from devices such as iPads and iPhones into those Windows-based apps. That is exactly what Citrix is also doing with its Receiver universal client.

Mallempati cites two statistics that illustrate why VMware changed its focus from VDI to the broader issues of end-user application access management that Horizon is aimed at.

First, this will be the first year when half of all enterprise applications will be developed to be independent of any particular operating system. (That's another way of saying that more than half of the applications are not being coded specifically for Windows, essentially.)

Moreover, the fourth quarter of 2010 was the first time that the aggregate of smartphone and tablet shipments was larger than the number of PC shipments.

"Over time, people will start transitioning away from Windows-based desktops," says Mallempati.

He adds that over the next two to three years, people will being mixing classic VDI and application streaming with software-as-a-service and mobile applications.

This is also why VMware has launched Project Octopus, an enterprise-grade, file sharing service, and AppBlast, which can allow any browser that supports HTML 5 to run native, non-browser applications.

It is also why Citrix bought ShareFile in October to answer VMware's Project Octopus effort. If you want data to follow applications around and be available on any device, it is probably better to store that data on a cloud than somewhere on a C drive.

Citrix is not as pessimistic about classic VDI as VMware is, and that is probably thanks to the SMB-focus folks from Kaviza.

"If you have a weak lamp and look into a dark room, you can't see how large that room is," says Subramanian.

He believes that anywhere from 30 to 40 per cent of the enterprise market could convert their PCs to VDI images.

"You have to start thinking of a PC as a kind of container for your applications and your data, not a machine," he says.

Now here's the funny bit. Managing the PCs, whether they are physical devices or virtualised, and the applications, whether internal or running on a cloud, is not nearly as tough as managing the human beings who access them.

No one has come up with a technology yet that people can't somehow crash or mess up. And they never will. ®

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