It's been an interesting few decades since Oracle and Sun Microsystems argued that we should shift computing from the desktop to servers and first created somewhat-viable thin clients — when I say "interesting," I mean the solutions. From the standpoint of the user and in terms of cost, generally stunk.
However, just like it took a few decades for tablets to reach the iPad stage, when they were accepted with the right technology, backing and execution, the idea of the thin client was actually a good one. We were just waiting for the right offering.
Well, it just emerged, driven by VMware and Nvidia. It blends PC and server architectures with some new technologies to create something amazing. Let's talk about what was wrong with the early efforts and why this VMware/Nvidia move, Horizon View 5.3, has the right stuff.
Thin Clients Never Lived Up to Their Promise
The promise of thin client architecture was compelling: The performance of a PC with the security of a mainframe and the reliability of an appliance. The initial problem was that the two guys making the big push, Scott McNealy of Sun and Larry Ellison of Oracle, though they clearly understood the security and reliability aspects of the solution, couldn't spell PC. They also disagreed on cost.
Meeting a bunch of European CIOs back in the day, the Sun executives in the room (who were supposed to be silent observers) suddenly jumped in with outspoken criticism of Microsoft. The CIO tore them a new rear one, saying that, as bad as Microsoft was, a traditional Windows solution was massively better than what Sun proposed, largely because it was both cheaper and better aligned with what users wanted. Sun did deploy its Sun Ray solution internally, which I believe contributed materially to Sun's collapse. Oracle, meanwhile, didn't deploy its solution broadly and ended up buying what was left of Sun.
Over time, two camps emerged: One led by Clear Cube, which makes blade PCs, and another eventually led by Dell and HP, who use a server backend to provide their version of a thin client increasingly wrapped with Citrix XenDesktop. The former wouldn't scale but provided PC-like performance and cost; the latter was less expensive in hardware and scaled well, but it was more expensive in software and lagged in performance. Oh, and neither solution covered mobile employees well.
[ Related: Has Dell Created the Perfect Thin Client? ]
What was needed wasn't a PC-based solution packaged like a server or a server-based solution packaged like a hosted PC but, rather, an attractively priced new architecture. My contention: The entire solution needed to be rethought — not by server guys, but by PC guys, because it had to be as good as or better than PCs to be successful. Few seemed eager to buy a compromised solution that never threatened the PC market model.
VMware Horizon View 5.3, Nvidia Grid Ready to Make Music Together
VMware is run by Pat Gelsinger, who was extensively groomed to run Intel. More importantly, he drove Intel's efforts for innovative new PCs. Gelsinger had a passion for the products; if there's anyone who could create a viable thin client/virtualized desktop solution, I'd put Gelsinger at the top of the list.
This effort still requires a viable enterprise class company, though. In software, VMware is not only one of the few that makes this list, it's one of the newest and, with the backing of EMC and a place at the VCE table, one of the strongest. VMware's latest example in this space, Horizon View 5.3, is impressively competitive.
[ Commentary: Dell, EMC, Cisco Tackle BYOD With Desktop Virtualization ]
Given the importance of performance and innovation, this solution also requires a hardware technology vendor that understands PC performance and could blend server and PC concepts into something new. Nvidia has always driven top PC performance — and, with its efforts to enable the movie industry and huge render farms, it has learned how to get performance to scale. Nvidia Grid is currently unmatched when it comes to providing scalable appliance-like workstation performance.
This week, VMware and Nvidia announced a strategic alliance. It should result in the first truly viable alternative to the PC computing model since the Apple II — and it couldn't be better timed.
With Good Virtualized Solution, IT Stops Playing Whac-a-Mole
Timing matters because people don't like change. As long as what they're doing is "good enough," they're unlikely to switch. Apple had to show user something "amazing" to get them away from the desktop and onto iPhones and iPads.
There's one huge problem with technology today: Security. From companies bleeding intellectual property to competitors (including Apple, by the way), to government entities, to individuals afraid of losing their identities, to retailers such as Target, users and CIOs are increasingly scared to death about theft.
A virtualized solution offers one huge advantage. The files don't move to the client; they stay where they can best be protected and can be better wrapped with both physical and electronic protection. If you only look at a file, and not download it, then you massively mitigate the ability to have an Edward Snowden moment or a Target breach. IT can stop playing Whac-a-Mole with an ever-increasing number of BYOD devices and focus more on data protection.
Users, meanwhile, get the performance and appliance-like experience they want on smartphones, tablets and laptops with a reduced risk that losing any of them will result in a career-limiting event. (Massive improvements to both wired and wireless networks in most developed parts of the world admittedly help here.)
Rethinking What a Client Looks Like
With the Nvidia-VMware alliance, we're seeing the birth of something amazing. This is one of two shoes that will drop this year. The other? This kind of cloud performance should make us rethink what a client looks like.
If you can scale smartphone performance to that of a high-end workstation, you might want to think more about configuration (and device accessories) to better embrace a performance level they haven't been able to approach before.
There will come a time when you do all of your computing from a mobile device. I'm willing to bet that device won't look like an iPhone or any other kind of phone now on the market. I expect that Gelsinger and Nvidia's charismatic Jen-Hsun Huang have some ideas — and that key partners HP and Dell will likely contribute.
We're at the beginning of one of the most massive changes in the history of the personal computer: The decoupling of performance from the device. This will result in some incredible things that few, even inside VMware and Nvidia, can imagine.
Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.