Desktop Virtualization: Vendors Fight But Users Still Happy on Sidelines

Cisco, Citrix, Microsoft and a host of others keep dialing up the desktop virtualization talk, but most users are in no rush. Here's a look behind the latest wave of announcements and what's slowing down rollouts.

There is so much competition for what computer companies perceive as a tremendous growth opportunity in desktop virtualization that the leading virtual desktop vendors have taken to re-announcing packages and products to highlight small improvements and garner some attention.

Brian Madden, an analyst who blogs on desktop virtualization at BrianMadden.com called yesterday's announcement of a Cisco/Citrix package deal the "new leader in the 'most press for the least actual product' race."

Cisco's Virtualization Experience Infrastructure (VXI), which Cisco and Citrix jointly announced yesterday, is essentially the same product set the two announced in September as the Cisco Desktop Virtualization Solution with Citrix XenDesktop. The only new additions are two new thin clients designed in conjunction with Wyse , another that can take the place of a Cisco IP phone and a greater facility with videoconferencing using Cisco videophones, according to Cisco press materials.

[ For more background on what's holding up desktop virtualization, see CIO.com's "Year of the Virtual Desktop a Flop So Far". ]

VXI sells with a version of Citrix XenDesktop 5 configured to work well with Cisco's Unified Computing System, a combination of server, network and storage hardware designed as a modular building block for networks running resource-intensive, latency-averse applications like VoIP, video and virtual desktops.

Cisco is referring to the thin clients as its Cisco Virtualization Experience Clients.

Customers have to buy the Cisco and Citrix products separately, but Citrix includes templates and reference architecture to help create and manage profiles for the 300 or so users the VXI starter package supports, according to Natalie Lambert, director of product marketing for XenDesktop.

VMware Joins the Party

A day after the Cisco/Citrix re-announcement, VMware re-announced the pairing of its VMware View virtual desktop product set with another Cisco SKU consisting of essentially the same product set as Citrix.

"The advantage is if you buy direct you get either Cisco or Citrix, or if you buy from a reseller we each commit to supporting the solution without the finger pointing, and with most of the hard work already done on the backend and the reference and networking architecture," Lambert says.

The package comes with templates to create the two most common kind of users, Lambert says: full VDI, or shared-OS on a shared host.

The thin clients also operate with Receiver, Citrix' virtual client for smartphones and other non-PC devices.

On the same day, Microsoft detailed its three-part view of client virtualization — isolating the user data and settings from the hardware by storing them elsewhere; isolating applications from the operating system by streaming them from the server; and isolating the user's whole OS by supplying a separate one to support incompatible legacy software.

All three versions come either in Microsoft operating systems, its VirtualPC, or in addons such as Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) and Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V.)

Other vendors also leaped into the desktop virtualization market in the past two weeks, some unexpectedly:

• The Virtual Computing Environment — a vendor group formed by Cisco, EMC, Intel and VMware — released a set of applications and the Cisco server/networking hardware to run them and called Vblocks, which come with applications configured and ready to run when the hardware is plugged in. The first Vblocks run VMware's View 4.5 desktop virtualization package.

• Unified communications vendor Mitel announced a set of cloud-based communications servers designed to run either in public clouds or cloudified data centers.

• Telecom vendor Avaya announced a package it called the Virtual Enterprise Network Architecture provides products and reference architecture designed to help build low-latency networks to support multimedia or virtualized applications.

• Tiny Desktone announced the Desktone Cloud — a service built on infrastructure maintained by Rackspace that provides remote-hosted desktops (Desktop as a Service) to end users.

• The latest version of the Fedora Linux distribution, announced last week, comes with extensive virtual desktop capabilities and the ability to run remotely on Amazon's EC2 cloud platform.

For Many End Users, Web Apps Enough?

Though the rush of announcements has spurred headlines like a recent one in the Wall Street Journal that warned "Cisco Aims to Replace Your PC", a completely virtualized desktop will probably never be the preferred workstation for corporate end users, according to Chris Wolf, research vice president at Gartner.

"We continue to see clients using streaming applications in some instances and shared hosted desktops and for people who need it, VDI or, when you're talking about tablets and other devices, virtual clients that work offline [such as receiver]", Wolf says. "What we'll probably end up seeing is many or most corporate desktops or laptops virtualized to some degree, even if it's just one streamed application; only a small and probably relatively fixed percentage would be based on a full VDI or hosted OS model."

It's the potential in being able to partially virtualize many or most desktops that provides the incentive for both integrators selling the technology and vendors developing it, according to Bill Hurley, chief technology officer of $3 billion global IT distributor Westcon Group, which sells and services IT products for telecom service providers, regional and national resellers and integrators in 70 countries.

Cloud computing is growing far more quickly than desktop virtualization, Hurley says. The high-capacity, low-latency networks that support high-performing cloud-based applications meet most of the same specifications needed to support virtual desktops.

"Once you get beyond a three-tier network for WAN/SAN/LAN to a fabric-based network you have an environment with much greater flexibility and more data running across it and can do a lot more than you could in a dual or single-tier network," Hurley says. "We're just starting to build up a business in desktop, but we expect it to grow pretty quickly as well [as the faster growth in cloud computing]."

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