Virtual Desktops Come in New Flavors

Cloud and mobility provides wider desktop virtualization options. Citrix and VMware remain the leaders, but Microsoft and others gain ground.

As Microsoft sets to roll out Windows 10 this summer, many shops are looking at refreshing their aging PCs with the latest version of the new OS. Despite Microsoft's bold prediction last month that 1 billion client devices will run the newest version of Windows -- which brings together desktop and mobile experiences -- many IT organizations are still looking at alternatives. Making that feasible are advances in desktop virtualization, particularly among those seeking to have more secure and controlled client computing environments. Also increasingly new and more affordable virtual desktop client form factors including Chromebooks and sub-$100 devices such as Raspberry Pi, the credit card-sized computers that can connect to a keyboard and monitor, are expanding the appeal of virtual desktops.

Thin client and application virtualization, of course, have been available in many forms for decades and continue to account for a small -- but formidable -- subset of the overall client-computing universe. According to Redmond magazine's IT Agenda survey ("Marching Orders," February 2015), 6.4 percent of respondents said they intend to replace traditional PCs with some form of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) or thin-client architecture. More than 15 percent reported support for thin clients is available to a notable number of their organizations' employees.

If your organization is looking at deploying thin clients, virtually every leading supplier of software and hardware has added new wares or is in the process of doing so. The market for virtual Windows desktops has long been dominated by Citrix Systems Inc. and VMware Inc. To a lesser degree, but growing, is Microsoft. Many key supporting players include ClearCube Technology Inc., Dell Inc., Hewlett Packard Co., Moka5, NComputing, Unidesk and Virtual Bridges. Most support Citrix, VMware and Microsoft virtual desktop proto­cols to varying degrees.

Microsoft RDS Gains Traction
Microsoft Remote Desktop Services (RDS), which include the mature Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), long considered a distant follower to the more widely preferred Citrix HDX and VMware PCoIP protocols (the latter licensed from Teradici Corp.). But now Microsoft is gaining on Citrix and VMware, according to experts. Among the popular upgrades to RDS in Windows Server 2012 R2 is RemoteFX vGPU, which supports DX11.1-capable GPU cards designed to provide better performance, particularly for graphics-intensive applications. When deployed on Non-Uniform Memory Access (NUMA)-based systems, the DX11.1 GPUs offer improved scaling capabilities and allow for dynamic increases in video RAM. Microsoft lists a number of other features including online data deduplication, more efficient bandwidth and compression usage and session shadowing, among others in the TechNet Library article, "What's New in Remote Desktop Services in Windows Server" (

One key reason RDS is becoming more attractive to many customers is the growth in Hyper-V infrastructure, which according to IDC accounts for approximately one-third of the virtual servers deployed. "Citrix and VMware still own the lion's share of the market space, and continue to do so, but we are finding some opportunities where prospects see this as very appealing as an alternative, especially if they're actively looking for an alternative," says Dan O'Farrell, senior product director for cloud clients at Dell.

At last month's Ignite conference in Chicago, the company launched its new Dell Appliance for–vWorkspace, which is available on a number of its popular PowerEdge servers and designed to run RDS as an alternative to Citrix or VMware. Dell vWorkspace is a broker that runs on top of Windows Server and Hyper-V that distributes virtual desktops to any number of users. O'Farrell says Dell continues to market and support Citrix and VMware virtual desktop environments but RDS has become an attractive option, as well.

"Certainly if a customer is already operating a Citrix environment, or already a VMware environment, we honor their preferences, but if it's a green field opportunity or they're specifically asking for an alternative, we have vWorkspace," he says. "Where we see this working real well is education, especially schools that may have lots of Chromebooks." The company's own line, the Dell Chromebook 11, was priced at $256 as of early last month.

In the case of running on Chromebooks, Dell vWorkspace will work with its HTML5-based browser but it'll also work with full-blown virtual Windows desktops and Dell Wyse terminals. It's available in up to two-rack configurations or as towers for those organizations without datacenters, notably schools. The software comes bundled with Windows Server 2012 R2 and the vWorkspace broker and includes all of the licenses for up to 350 users in HTML5 mode or 150 when running in a full VDI implementation. This is aimed at small and midsize organizations and provides a relatively simple four-step wizard to deploy, O'Farrell says. It costs $180 per user for those running an HTML5 configuration and $410 when deployed in full VDI mode.

The newest version for smaller organization follows the recent release of the new Dell vWorkspace 8.5, which includes the HTML5 connector and the company's new Secure Access Service, which can provide secure remote access for up to 10,000 users connected to a single Hyper-V virtual machine (VM). For larger organizations or those looking at a variety of different virtual desktop environments, the Dell XC Series appliances are available with Citrix XenDesktop and XenApp, VMware View and Microsoft-based vWorkspace brokers supporting either VMware vSphere or Hyper-V.

VDI and virtual application management software provider Unidesk in March said it was adding support for Hyper-V with the release of its Unidesk 3.0 platform. The new release means Unidesk can now enable support for RDS environments and can also integrate with Citrix XenDesktop. Unidesk last month extended its Microsoft integration adding support for Microsoft Remote Desktop Session Host (RD Session Host) protocol and Microsoft Azure. Unidesk CEO Don Bulens says administrators can provision RD Session Host VMs on Hyper-V or Azure as virtual layers onto logical disks. This makes it possible to distribute patches to all VMs and Windows and their associated applications as though they were actually installed on the device. These "layers," as he describes it is the result of Unidesk virtualizing the Windows OS and appli­cations as read-only virtual disks.

This upgrade also adds full virtual desktops in VMware vSphere, Microsoft Hyper-V-based VDI, multi-user RD Session Host sessions for contract workers and specific Azure-based apps. Bulens believes RDS-based desktop virtualization has become viable. "Three years ago, Citrix was the king of virtual desktop protocols with HDX and then VMware with its PCoIP [actually a protocol developed by Teradici Corp.] leveled the playing field," Bulens says. "Now Microsoft's RDP is as good as ever."

The BYOD Factor
Those deploying traditional virtual desktops as noted have historically done so for scenarios where multiple employees, or perhaps contract staff, can log into any device and have his or her desktop environment appear. As more organizations embrace supporting user-owned PCs, tablets and phones -- commonly referred to as bring your own device (BYOD) -- virtual desktops are becoming an appealing way for IT to maintain control over applications running on the network and minimizing the risk of data loss.

"Three to five years ago, adoption of VDI was being driven principally by compliance and security -- for example, we can't have data at the edge," Bulens says. "Now it's much more driven by mobility and bring your own device." That's one reason Microsoft RDS is starting to gain ground in virtual desktop usage, he adds. One customer, the CIO of a university, told Bulens the average student connects three different devices to access the courseware on its network. "Windows applications are central to their curriculum," Bulens says. "They've got to make applications available to those students on all of their devices both on and off the campus. The best way to do that is VDI."

The Citrix Next-Gen Workspace Cloud
While Microsoft RDS appears to be gaining more share, Citrix and VMware still provide the majority of VDI today. For its part Citrix, whose XenDesktop and XenApp virtual platforms remain a dominant force in virtual desktops, last year revealed plans to evolve its VDI portfolio with a new platform called Workspace Cloud. Built on a services provider model, it aims to cash in on the growing market for Desktop as a Service (DaaS). At last month's Synergy annual gathering of customers and partners in Orlando, Fla., Citrix gave the first public demonstration of Workspace Cloud.

Citrix Workspace Cloud (formerly described as Citrix Workspace Services), is the company's new approach to service delivery management. This new cloud-based platform will let organizations automate the design and delivery of desktops, apps and data as services on hybrid cloud infrastructure, according to Citrix. Much of it will be delivered by third-party services providers, though enterprises can deploy it, as well. Among the functions of the worker environment it will auto­mate are mobile device management, data and file sharing, application lifecycle management, and the delivery of Windows desktops and applications.

In many ways, Citrix Workspace Services will provide a mechanism for desktop and application delivery much in the way server infrastructure is deployed via Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) offerings, says Calvin Hsu, vice president of desktops and apps at Citrix. "It's VDI but using a service provider's infrastructure," Hsu explains, pointing out it's not a managed services delivery model. "It's very much like the AWS [Amazon Web Services] model. In order to use AWS, I still have to understand servers and processing and server images and things like that, it's just much easier, and I'm using rented infrastructure versus using my own."

The VMware Desktop RefreshTied to the release of VMware vSphere 6.0 -- its first major hypervisor platform upgrade in sthree years -- the company took the wraps off Horizon 6, adding high-end graphics support, a boost in performance and ties to its NSX software-defined networking (SDN) infrastructure. The company says it's vali­dated to manage support up to 4,000 virtual desktops per cluster in a 20-node configuration. VMware says Horizon 6 consolidates the management of Windows applications and desktops and like Citrix Workspace, it ties in app and device management and mobile device management.

VMware has its own mobile device management platform, thanks to its acquisition of AirWatch, and like Citrix and Microsoft, the company can push the portfolio approach of infrastructure management from mobility and desktops to network, storage and VM platforms. Like Citrix, VMware is also enabling its network of service devices to deliver new virtual client offerings from VDI, to remote application and DaaS with its VMware Horizon DaaS platform.

GPU Power
VMware Horizon 6 is also well suited for applications that render 3D graphics via support for NVIDIA GRID vGPUs. The integration with the NSX SDN platform simplifies the creation and management of networking and security policy, according to VMware, by extending datacenter policies to the user's device. The company also improved its Cloud Pod platform, providing a common interface for management and monitoring.

Many say the graphics processing power enabled from GPUs is breathing new life into traditional VDI, especially for organizations supporting more mobile or remote employees including telecommuters. In addition to providing more efficient processing on the server, GPUs also allow for better use of bandwidth and network capacity. For the HP Velocity offering, the GPU performs network packet extrapolations to reduce frame rate latency when transmitting video, says Jeff Groudan, marketing director for the company's thin-client product line. "We can dramatically improve the video frame rates offering better videoconference performance and really improving upload and download times, Groudan says.

The DaaS Factor
Both Citrix and VMware, along with the providers of point solutions and services, are taking a pragmatic approach to virtual desktops. DaaS is where the growth appears headed, albeit from a smaller base, while VDI and application virtualization run in datacenter accounts for the largest number of implementations. The allure of DaaS, of course (just like IaaS), is it reduces and often eliminates the need for on-premises server, network and storage infrastructure. Just like IaaS, customers can procure desktop images in various forms with access to various services and applications for a monthly fee, adding and deleting individual users on the fly.

So far, the most apparent effect the Amazon entry of AWS WorkSpaces is that Citrix, Dell, Google, HP, Microsoft and VMware are ensuring they will be ready to have their own DaaS offerings, either directly, through third-party providers or both. It's not evident Amazon has signed on a huge number of AWS WorkSpaces enterprise accounts to date, but no one's taking the cloud behemouth for granted, either. In April Amazon extended AWS WorkSpaces with API and command-line interface (CLI) support. "Up until now, all actions on a WorkSpace had to be initiated through the AWS Management Console," wrote AWS evangelist Jeff Barr in an April blog post announcing the new API and CLI support. "This access method offered point-and-click convenience, but did not lend itself to integration with existing business processes and workflows."

Some believe DaaS will ultimately replace VDI. One such proponent is Mike Chase, CTO of DinCloud, which offers an AWS-compatible cloud service. "I see VDI going away," he says. "Right now even the people that want to continue running a portion of their infrastructure in their own datacenter on-site are finding it very easy to connect to us via high-speed MPLS, 1 gig or 10 gig circuits, or to just do a point-to-point VPN tunnel over the Internet."

Others believe it will be a long time before DaaS becomes a mainstream alternative to on-premises desktop virtualization. "I think it's going to continue to grow," HP's Groudan says. "If I had to estimate a crossover point for as a service from VDI being the big driver of end-user cloud computing, I'd guess it's more than 10 years away."


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