In-Depth

HP: Upping The Ante in the Protocol Wars

RDP lags behind ICA in terms of the VDI user experience. But HP intends to narrow the gap for its client virtualization offerings.

Hewlett-Packard Co. has not sent shockwaves around the industry with its gradual approach to assimilating and adopting virtualization technology. But the world's largest computer company can ill afford to ignore virtualization just as other companies as well as IT customers can ill afford to ignore HP.

HP has virtualization efforts underway across many of its product lines. As one of the top four IT management companies, it will eventually need to integrate powerful capabilities for managing both virtual and physical machines into its portfolio and has already started this process with products such as HP Insight Dynamics VSE.

The company also has many other efforts underway in virtualization and solid partnerships in place with key hypervisor heavyweights including VMware Inc, Microsoft and Citrix Systems, Inc. But a lot of activity lately seems to be centered on the company's thin client portfolio which organizationally falls under Roberto Moctezuma, vice president and general manager of HP's Desktop Solutions Organization. This business unit also has HP Blade Workstation, HP Blade PC and partner-based VDI solutions from VMware and Citrix under its purview.

Thin Clients: Going mobile
HP's thin client business was built both internally and by the acquisition of a company called Neoware in October 2007, which added Linux-based products to the mix. Product rationalization and integration of the two lines is still going on but the company has been busy making announcements. Back in May, HP unveiled the 2533t Mobile Thin Client. At the same time, it also announced that thin clients would be integrated into VDI partner solutions including Citrix XenDesktop and VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure.

Mobile thin clients are still ahead of their time but the availability of more robust wireless network technologies such as 3G may speed adoption. In the meantime, HP, being the engineering-driven company it is, concentrated on building a best-in-class offering. 2533t designers, for example, drew upon aircraft engineering to give the product a strong outer casing that protects it in harsh environments. The device weighs three pounds and has integrated Wi-Fi and 3G capability.

In September of this year, HP made yet another push into the segment and unveiled the t5630, t5545, t5540 and t5145 devices. It also announced expanded support for Citrix XenDesktop, blade PC solutions and a new high-end blade workstation intended for use in the financial trading, public sector and oil and gas markets.

Display Protocols: Technology Battle Brewing
HP thin clients, when deployed with VDI solutions from either VMware or Citrix, use display protocols to ferry information from the back-end server to the user's desktop. To do this, VMware uses a protocol called RDP whereas Citrix uses ICA, generally considered to be the gold standard in terms of desktop responsiveness.

But as VDI becomes more mainstream, companies will increasingly compete to develop faster, sleeker and more multimedia-friendly versions of those protocols, potentially an important technology battle in the making. Over time, it's one that may eventually tilt the market advantage that some vendors now have in a different direction.

Display protocols are critical to VDI because they affect the user experience -- what he or she sees and hears on the screen -- and are something that can make or break VDI's acceptance. VDI vendors such as VMware and Citrix and thin client suppliers such as HP, IGEL and Wyse know that they have to ensure that early implementations don't frustrate knowledge workers who are used to the speedy performance that today's laptops and PCs can provide, given their ever-increasing multicore-based power. There are a number of ways that VDI can be improved today but display protocols remain among the most critical.

More recently, in December, HP announced its intention to take on this challenge and address some of the issues that has cause RDP to lag behind ICA in performance. "When you start to do graphics or rich content with RDP, it starts to get [erratic] and in some cases just simply not adequate", says Denis Bournival, a product manager at HP. "That's one of the complaints from end users … that when they want to do video training or broadcasting, the rendition of the image is subpar."

To tackle this challenge, HP plans to build extensions to RDP to improve performance for graphics and real-time applications such as videoconferencing and VoIP. Some improvements have already been incarnated into a new software suite called HP Virtual Client Essentials which also includes multimedia, brokering and streaming solutions.

The suite includes a session broker called HP Session Allocation Manager (SAM) and HP Image Manager for OS and applications streaming. "It provides better performance, improves latency, and delivers a richer multimedia experience to the end user", notes Bournival. "It also improves USB protocol redirection."

For applications such as videoconferencing, the enhancements to RDP will offload processing from the host server and onto the thin client itself (making it slightly fatter). Bournival says the improvements will also help HP maintain improve its profile in areas such as VOIP where competitors like IGEL have made strides.

About the Author

Tom Valovic is a freelance technology writer.

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