AppSense: Riding the VDI Tailwind
Abstracting user "personality" is an important consideration in pooled resource VDI deployments. Here's how one start-up is looking to capitalize.
At the end-user level, VDI appears to be simplicity itself, often represented by a sleek thin client on the desktop -- lean and green. Back in the data center, however, things get quite a bit more complicated. A VDI installation from VMware, for example, is often a heterogeneous deployment involving not only a number of distinct VMware products but often additional functionality provided by partners.
In any given VDI deployment, one of the more critical areas involves personalization of the desktop -- making sure that so-called standardized desktops don't become too standardized. A VDI solution can be set up in different configurations but when pooled resources are used (as opposed to 1:1 mapping), it depends on user personalization data being abstracted and placed on a dedicated server. In essence, with this approach, all three resources -- OS, applications and user data -- are centralized, separately deployed, but then recombined on an on-demand basis.
One company that has staked an early claim in this area is U.K.-based AppSense which describes itself as being in the business of "user environment management." In FY08, AppSense did about $30 million in revenue. The company has 155 employees and is profitable. It sells through value-added resellers in Europe and the U.S. and hopes to get deeper penetration into the latter in 2009, a key to future growth. U.S. customers now include JP Morgan Chase, Lowes, United Airlines, Wachovia, Wal-Mart and ESPN.
One of three major offerings, a software product called Environment Manager provides a way to disaggregate user "personality" information for VDI and presentation virtualization applications (such as Citrix XenApp). From an AppSense perspective, "personality" includes two elements: policy and personalization. Policy relates to things like authorization to access printers, networks or folders. Personalization includes all the elements that go into a user's customization of a PC such as mouse settings, wallpaper, bookmarks, shortcuts, e-mail signature blocks and application toolbars.
Environment Manager separates user personality from the virtual desktop by abstracting user policy and preference from both the OS and applications involved. In combination with Citrix XenDesktop, VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure or the newer solution, VMware View 3, those individual resources are then applied on demand resulting in a "fresh" desktop for the end user. AppSense says it has about 35 VMware VDI implementations in place to date.
In this product area, AppSense competes with a handful of companies including RTO Software, Entrigue, and RES Software. Another company which provides some of this capability, Sepago, was purchased by Citrix. According to Martin Ingram, vice president of corporate strategy with AppSense, the company gets called in by Citrix on larger deals where scale is important. "Citrix is very aware that for their large and complex customers, what they have now have isn't the solution for them."
Early Work with Citrix
AppSense got in on the ground floor of the emerging VDI market through its longstanding partnership with Citrix. In many respects, Citrix got an early lead itself in VDI through its success in offering a forerunner to VDI technology called presentation virtualization. Presentation virtualization is similar to VDI in that it centralizes desktop capabilities, runs the application in the data center, and then "publishes" the screen changes to the user's PC or thin client as if it were running locally. It differs from VDI in that it can only provide specific applications and not the full, hosted desktop.
For Citrix, XenApp, formerly known as Presentation Manager, has been a flagship offering for this market. The company now has a large number of installations worldwide and is the clear market leader. Because of its desktop expertise, many analysts believe Citrix is poised to become the leading vendor in VDI, eroding VMware's current market leadership. But the XenApp product had a few capability profile management gaps that AppSense saw as a market opportunity and capitalized on.
Now that the VDI market is heating up, AppSense also sees an opportunity to repeat this success not only with Citrix but with all of the "big three" virtualization suppliers. The timing is good. There are significant challenges associated with the idea of standardizing desktops and many of them are centered around the issue of personalization.
While IT departments get significant benefits from VDI in terms of much easier PC maintenance and improved security, users -- especially knowledge workers used to customizing their PC's appearance, usage and applications -- may be less than enthused about the idea. But most industry observers agree that the success of VDI is highly dependent on the notion of user acceptance.
A Healthy "Trust Fund"
Analysts see the VDI opportunity as a strong one and perhaps even the "next wave" for the virtualization market although economic impacts in the current environment create uncertainties. But if this market does take off, AppSense and its competitors will be well positioned to ride that wave. In a recent report, Rachel Chalmers, an analyst with the 451 Group, cited AppSense in a group of "companies at forefront of disruption" and stated: "Citrix ecosystem business gives the company a healthy trust fund to subsidize its efforts around VDI and spearhead its assault on the North American market."
Besides partnering with market leaders in the emerging VDI space, Citrix and VMware, the company also partners with systems integrators including CSC, EDS, HP, IBM and Dell. Back in May, at the Citrix Synergy event, the company announced that Environment Manager would support Citrix XenDesktop. AppSense's partnership with CSC involves the AppSense Management Suite as a component of CSC's Dynamic Desktop, a hosted desktop virtualization offering.
At VMworld last September, AppSense announced support for VMware's Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. At that time, it also announced a new version of Environment Manager 8.0, positioned by the company as a way to improve on the use of multi-vendor profile management tools. The new release allows admins to migrate users from physical to virtual desktops or from one OS to another while keeping personalized user data and corporate policies intact during the process.
Some of the other features touted by the company in its 8.0 version include an offline mode, which can be used to store personalization and policy data in a user's virtual cache when disconnected. Another feature, Quick User Profile Migration simplifies migrations between operating systems (e.g.Windows XP to Vista), and applications. The release also introduced personalization streaming in which personal settings are streamed to users along with applications.
Tom Valovic is a freelance technology writer.