The Dawn of Desktop Virtualization
Desktop virtualization is all the rage these days, with all the leading industry publications evangelizing its virtues day and night. We’ve tried our hand with numerous VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) products and find that the set of tools are now rapidly maturing. One of the products that’s particularly impressive is the Virtual Desktop Platform (VDP) by VDIworks. In this post, we’ll try to explain why.
One of the core challenges with desktop virtualization has been complexity. The complexity of deploying all the required components, the complexity of managing the environment, the complexity of changing existing desktop support models and workflows to account for the new infrastructure, and so on. One of the sorely missed features in VDI management technology has been integration. In other words, the ability for an administrator to quickly and simply visualize their environment and solve their problems from a single management console. Not everyone has the ability or time to install and monitor six or seven different management solutions just to support their VDI install, but yet, this is what most vendors push you towards. Let us give you some examples.
VMware is a leading virtualization provider and has definitely done a great job with their Hypervisor platform. Their desktop virtualization solution, however, has had a slightly rougher start. VMware View is a relatively young product but it has already been reinvented several times. It began life as VMware VDI, and has iterated through several versions under the “View” moniker now. Initially, the solution had lots of performance drawbacks as it only supported the RDP protocol. With the inclusion of PCoIP technology, that problem has been partially addressed. And we say, “partially” because while PCoIP works decently over a LAN, performance over the WAN is still a question mark. In particular, lack of support for WAN optimization appliances is an issue. And the quantum of resources consumed at the server to enable a PCoIP experience is still significant. That said, PCoIP is certainly an improvement over an RDP-only View solution, which, frankly, was a non-starter.
Despite having addressed some of the protocol limitations, the critical issues View is plagued with today have to do with complexity, expense, VMware-centricity and the siloed nature of the feature-set. Let us explain. First off, it takes quite a bit of time to properly configure the underlying infrastructure required by VMware View. To put it simply, the product is far more complex than what a typical Desktop admin has been required to deal with in the past. Additionally, the costs associated with VMware licenses are legendary for causing sticker shock. You could be looking at anything between $150-$300 a seat in most scenarios. When you think about that higher-end number and consider that you can buy a PC for the equivalent of the VMware View software licensing costs alone, the whole solution seems to appear lose lustre. And finally, View cares only about VMware. If you have a non-VMware Hypervisor in your environment, too bad, you can’t use it to host VMs. So no getting off inexpensively by using Xen for your task workers. You’ve got to use VMware ESXi alone, and you’ve got to pay a significant amount to do so. If you want to use protocols other than RDP or PCoIP, again, you’re out of luck. No support for HP’s RGS or Microsoft’s RemoteFX available here. And then, if you’re bold enough to want a single management console to cater to your servers, hypervisors, virtual machines, users and thin clients, once again, it’s a bridge-too-far. With VMware’s View, you’ll stay limited to dealing with users and VMs. If you want to manage your Thin clients, go do that with a dedicated Thin client management console. If you want to perform inventory of your desktops, go do that with Microsoft or Altiris tools. And if you want health or power management for your servers, try your hand with Tivoli. VMware View is not a complete VDI management solution. It manages the brokering and the VMs, and that’s it.
Citrix is the 800lb gorilla of desktop centric remote computing. With its Presentation Server product and its 20 year old partnership with Microsoft, many analysts believe it has a significant advantage over VMware. However, the shortcomings of VMware’s approach are exactly what customers suffer with Citrix too. Now, VMware and Citrix have been battling it out for a long time and if you look on YouTube, you’ll find videos posted by both companies tearing into each other’s products, or showing how a particular task that takes less time on one solution, takes a lot longer on the other. But zoom out and ignore the minutae for a moment. The underlying limitations of high cost, siloed management, vendor lock-in etc. are all the same.
For example, with XenDesktop, you don’t get to play or manage a VMware environment, just as VMware disallows you from managing a Xen instance. With XenDesktop, you don’t get support for a broad set of industry-accepted protocols. Yes, you get RDP and Citrix’s own ICA and HDX, but if you want PCoIP over the LAN, you’re out of luck once again. Just as you have fundamental limitations in what you can manage with VMware View, Citrix’ XenDesktop exposes you to similar challenges. Can you manage Thin clients with Citrix XenDesktop? No. Can you look into physical server performance, deal with power management, do out of band environmentals for servers running your VDI environment? No. Can you implement traditional desktop management with inventory, remote control, asset notes for helpdesk etc. with XenDesktop? No. And cost? You’re not going to do any better than VMware View. In fact, when all is said and done, you may do worse based on the features/capabilities you purchase.
So the true cost of deploying a solution with either of these solutions ends up being pretty significant. You have to have a helpdesk staffed by clones of Clark Kent himself, who can run six different management consoles to solve lowly desktop issues. You need to invest serious amounts of money into commercial per-seat/per-processor-socket licensed Hypervisor solutions and you need to change your support workflows and your user expectations. So, how is this kind of VDI better than a traditional PC again? If the centralized location of data is the only thing I gain, why wouldn’t I just PXE boot my $300 PCs from a centralized image?
And so we come to the reason why we feel there’s quite a bit of value in the VDIworks VDP product line…
VDIworks Virtual Desktop Platform
Now that we’ve walked you through the beef we have with VMware and Citrix, it will be easier to explain why we find VDP to be a good option. First off, it supports all of the infrastructure you need to deploy virtual desktops. That includes the servers, the hypervisors, the VMs themselves all the way through to Active Directory users and the Thin client devices. So, if I’m a helpdesk tech working a large VDI install in a big company, at least I have a single place to go to in order to get a complete picture of what’s going on in my environment. In a nutshell, I’m spared the Management Console Merry Go’round!
Second, VDIworks isn’t a Hypervisor vendor so they don’t particularly care about locking you in to one brand of Hypervisor. VDP supports Xen, Hyper-V and VMware ESX/ESXi. Actually, they support VMware’s free Server product as well, as they do Microsoft’s Virtual Server product. Now, why is this important? For numerous reasons. If you’re a large diversified company that has business units with some independence in their IT decisions, you will likely have more than one Hypervisor in your environment. If you’re a company that has grown by acquisition, you’ll likely have more than one Hypervisor in your environment. And if you’re a smart IT guy who is not blindly wanting to implement a single solution for every user’s needs, you might be looking at open source Xen as a free alternative for task workers, while investing in VMware with HA and FT options for your higher end users, perhaps. In this case, too, you will have multiple types of Hypervisors. It’s also nice to know that you can opt to change out your infrastructure without changing the implementation (or middleware) on top. For example, if, a year down the road, you decide that Hyper-V/RemoteFX are the perfect fit for you, how easy can you make the transition? If you’re on VMware View, the answer is “Incredibly Difficult!”. With a tool that works with many Hypervisors, you could save yourself a lot of money and prevent the onset of a monumental migraine.
Third, because you can leverage numerous free components in conjunction with VDIworks VDP, such as MySQL databases back-ending the server, or Open Source Xen Hypervisors, you can cut down the cost of the solution by quite a bit.
Fourth, VDP doesn’t seem to lose sight of the fact that it is first and foremost, a management solution for a desktop environment. Yes, Virtual Machines, VDI, Connection Brokering etc. are all handled, but ultimately what’s being enabled and managed is a complete end-user desktop environment. So, traditional management functions like inventory, health, remote control, delivery of updates, alerts, SNMP, reporting or power management are still important. It’s not good enough to dump this set of responsibilities on yet another management product that needs to be run in parallel. And VDP doesn’t do that. It provides all the traditional systems management functions most desktop admins have grown accustomed to using over the years. In this respect, it is not a siloed or a point product, but rather a solution to an overall problem. The problem being the management of a more efficient desktop delivery paradigm; Virtual Desktops. It’s fine and well being a point Connection Brokering product, or a siloed VM management product, but what truly differentiates VDP is its integrated approach to management and the consequent simplification of the task at hand for IT.
There’s no one-size-fits-all panacea solution in IT. Period. And that is the precise reason why you want to invest in infrastructure that works with other vendors’ products, that’s open, that’s malleable, that’s interchangeable. Not stuff that locks you in. For this reason alone, we remain hesitant about a Big Company solution that causes nothing other than pretty tight vendor lock-in. If you’re considering Desktop Virtualization, check out VDP. You may like what you see.