Users eye VDI but may wait for client hypervisors

VMware, Microsoft and Citrix are building virtual desktop portfolios, but IT pros suggest vendors refocus on client hypervisors.

Kroll Factual Data has embraced server virtualization, but virtual desktop infrastructure technology hasn't taken hold.

The company is an early adopter, participating in many beta programs. It's played with desktop virtualization technologies since 2007. The company has 1,700 server virtual machines so far. As far as its use of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), Citrix Systems Inc.'s XenDesktop is used sparingly.

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The next wave: Client virtualization

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In 2009, Kroll hopes to revisit VDI to assess the technology's progress, said Christopher Steffen, principal architect at one of the company's subsidiaries, based in Loveland, Colo. He said Kroll Factual Data is already leaning toward putting a hypervisor on the desktop, however.

"We plan to buy beefier 64-bit machines and just run Hyper-V on them for our developers," Steffen said. We want to create a virtualized image of a standardized desktop and have it run clean every time."

For those not as up to speed on Hyper-V and the work it will take to rejigger it for the desktop, Microsoft may have another option on the horizon.

VMware has already committed to developing a bare-metal hypervisor that will sit on the desktop and bypass the operating system, unlike existing client virtualization technologies like its ACE and Workstation desktop virtualization software and Microsoft's Virtual PC.

Some industry insiders have heard that Microsoft will develop its own client hypervisor, particularly after VMware put a foot into the game. Microsoft would not confirm whether this was the case, but released a statement that said it was currently focused on its investments within its Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), which includes Microsoft Application Virtualization (App-V) and Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V, formerly Kidaro).

Citrix is also considering the idea of a client hypervisor, although the company has been mum on the subject since posting and removing a blog item in September saying it was developing technology that integrates a client-side hypervisor with application and desktop streaming and end user profiles.

There is a free open source client-side hypervisor out there developed by Xen.org, the group that manages the Xen project, called the Xen Client Initiative. XenSource, which made technology based on Xen, was bought by Citrix in September 2007.

Client hypervisors would eliminate some of the drawbacks of VDI. It would give users offline access and the ability to use graphics-intensive applications that are bogged down by bandwidth problems using VDI. For IT, it could offer a better balance between desktop management and flexibility for users in their choice of devices and applications.

Cheaper alternatives to desktop virtualization

For independent consultant Anil Desai, VDI presents a dilemma. It promises to address security problems such as lost laptops and give IT better control over remote workforces. But he doesn't see virtual desktop technology as the best way to solve these and other business problems.

He said there are more cost-effective ways to reduce security risks and gain control over user devices with existing technologies. There is the ability in Windows to restrict access to the USB drive or to improve manageability with remote management tools that lets IT cut physical visits to desktops and use the Remote Desktop Protocol, just as VDI uses.

Another example is the alternative of Windows Server 2008 Terminal Services for resource, hardware and management consolidation versus using VDI. Terminal Services in Windows Server 2008 lets IT run a single application in a virtual environment, in turn centralizing application management, he said.

Then there's the overall cost for a virtual desktop infrastructure versus buying desktops. "When you see how much infrastructure, power and server resources go into a VDI solution versus getting desktops that have come down so much in price, I just don't see the justification for that kind of investment," Desai said.

Desai said he is backing the concept of a client hypervisor and is waiting to see what the big three -- VMware, Microsoft and Citrix -- will do in this area. "It can reduce potential application conflicts and speed up deployments on many operating system platforms," he said.

Citrix sells more VDI than VMware

Integrator Inacom Information Systems' customers choose Citrix virtual desktop technology over VMware virtual desktop technology about 60% of the time, according to Bob Menning, application delivery team practice lead at Inacom, based in Appleton, Wis. Menning said he is unsure what impact VMware's new VDI suite will have on that split.

VMware recently released View 3, which is a rebranding of its Virtual Desktop Infrastructure moniker. It includes VMware Infrastructure Enterprise Edition and View Manager 3, which lets IT host desktop images in the data center.

A Premiere Edition also has ThinApp, the technology VMware acquired when it bought Thinstall, that isolates applications and the files, libraries, codes and scripts needed to run the application in an executable file.

New features in VMware's View 3 include the View Composer that lets IT create and manage multiple virtual desktops from a master image and Offline Desktop, which moves virtual desktops between the data center and a client device, although this technology is still in an experimental stage. Another feature, Unified Access, lets administrators manage multiple user sessions from one platform.

Menning, who has installed both Citrix and VMware products, said they do similar jobs but have different moving parts.

The debate right now is how IT develops the "gold' or standard image that is delivered to users. "With a static desktop [image], that [image] is mine all the time, I go to it and that's my desktop; or there's the Citrix approach, which makes it dynamic, or brand new every time," he said.

The trick for IT is figuring out what exactly should be installed and not installed on that image to meet both manageability needs and user preferences, said Menning. "Customers want to have a shared gold image, but all the time you hear from users, 'Where's my kitty wallpaper?' 'Where's my Amazon.com cache cookie to buy stuff?' It sounds funny, but that's what you run into every day with VDI."

Before getting started on a VDI project, Active Directory must play a front and center role, Menning said. "You need to pay attention and automate AD as much as possible for control over that VDI device -- really AD and Group Policy. Otherwise you've gained nothing. Well, actually, you'll gain something ... more headaches in your data center."

Looking out, Menning said he predicts that client hypervisors will dominate by 2010. "You won't have to worry about interactions with the OS, and it's a better solution than trying to run a bunch of desktops on a server," he said.

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