In-Depth

In VDI Market, V Is for Volatile

VDI mindshare and market share are up in the air as more -- and more diverse -- vendors enter the fray.

The Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) market is a highly combative arena these days, in which a wide variety of contenders are deploying their strongest marketing and technical forces in a battle for both mindshare and market share. Every technical point is strenuously debated. Every protocol is closely scrutinized. Every product philosophy is challenged religiously. And it's not just a fight over who's got the best straight-ahead VDI product -- a host of new management companies are also clamoring for attention.

Citrix Systems Inc. (XenDesktop 5 SP1) and VMware Inc. (VMware View 4.6) are the current titans, accounting for 90 percent of the VDI market, according to Goldman Sachs. The two companies have been matching each other product for product, feature for feature over the past two years, leaving customers to wade through a wake of claims and counterclaims. Moving down the food chain, smaller vendors such as RingCube Technologies Inc., Unidesk Corp. and Kaviza Inc. (recently purchased by Citrix) have introduced technically elegant products based on complex underpinnings. Then there's Microsoft, the perennial force to be reckoned with. The smart money is always behind Redmond in a technological street fight, and nobody understands that better than Citrix (which continues its tight alignment with Microsoft) and VMware (which still maintains a large lead over its server-based foe). Most recently, Citrix unveiled XenDesktop 5 SP1, which includes support for XenServer 5.6 SP2 (including support for IntelliCache) and Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager R2 SP1. It also supports Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1, Hyper-V 2008 R2 SP1, Windows 7 SP1 and VMware vSphere 4.1 Update 1.

How does the cloud fit in with this volatile mix? As it becomes more pervasive (and as VDI adoption rates increase), will the cloud become a game-changer -- a newly disruptive force causing market leaders to rethink the value of maintaining virtual desktops in their datacenters, and consider redistributing them to more cost-efficient public clouds?

Market Leaders Slug It Out
Citrix XenDesktop 5 SP1 includes several significant enhancements to an already strong product. Perhaps the most significant of these enhancements from an administrator's perspective is a new management framework that has been specifically designed to tackle some of the common challenges associated with large-scale deployments.

One of the major benefits of this revamped architecture comes in the form of a new management tool, Desktop Studio, which helps enormously with image creation and management. Perhaps more importantly, XenDesktop 5 SP1 also reduces management complexity by using a role-based approach to management tasks. Embodied in Desktop Director, this provides a major benefit to any large organization in which various VDI administrative tasks are split between different groups.

Other management improvements include a new API that enables the integration of XenDesktop data with existing management and reporting systems; an improved version of FlexCast; and self-service provisioning for applications via the XenDeskop client, Citrix Receiver. In addition to the self-service enhancement, Citrix Receiver offers a number of other improvements, with perhaps the most significant being XenVault, which requires Windows 7 and provides a sandbox environment for corporate data and cached objects. At the recent Citrix Synergy conference, Citrix announced that Receiver now supports more than 1,000 different Mac and PC models, 149 smartphones, 37 tablets and 10 different classes of thin clients.

By ensuring that potentially sensitive data is adequately protected, Citrix has gone a long way toward achieving the ultimate in end-user flexibility by making the end-user device less important from a security perspective. Throw in support for hypervisors from Citrix, Microsoft and VMware, and you have an industry-leading product that just seems to get better and better -- and which clearly benefits from a product team that understands what customers are looking for in VDI.

In the opposite corner, VMware offers VMware View 4.6, which supports external secure remote PC-over-IP (PCoIP) access without the requirement for a new SSL VPN. However, VMware View 4.5 was the bigger newsmaker, because it offered a number of more significant enhancements. One of those is the introduction of tiered storage, which should help reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) of VDI deployments. Because the storage requirements of a large-scale VDI infrastructure are very significant, the ability to optimize storage at the datacenter level, as well as locally to the client, is a large value-add for many organizations.

An excellent example of this technology's value is its ability to resolve I/O storm, a problem that many VDI admins encounter in large environments. I/O storm occurs during peak usage times such as the morning, when employees first log in for the day. By being able to put master images on a storage medium such as solid-state disks -- and separating out other disk-intensive elements of the virtualized desktop, such as the page file -- admins now have much more control over the impact of disk I/O.

From an administrator's perspective, another important improvement is the integration of VMware View 4.5 with ThinApp 4.6, significantly enhancing the distribution and management of applications delivered to desktop environments. Another important enhancement is local mode for the VMware View client. This allows a virtual machine (VM) to be checked out and executed on local laptops or desktops. In practical terms, this means a user can run a VM while not connected to the network, and all changes are replicated back to the VDI servers when the laptop is reconnected to the network.

Finally, as part of the VMware effort to tackle one of the biggest perceived drawbacks of deploying VMware View -- particularly when compared to newer VDI vendors -- the company has designed new reference architectures it claims can lower the cost of deployment to $500 per virtual desktop, which, if true, should allow for some compelling return on investment (ROI) numbers. The company also recently introduced VMware Horizon App Manager, the first element of the company's Project Horizon, which was created to provide what VMware refers to as a "simple, seamless user experience when accessing work resources across the private and public cloud on whatever device the user chooses." VMware Horizon App Manager includes an identity as a service hub that "securely extends a user's existing identity in systems such as Microsoft Active Directory, or other directory options into third-party cloud applications."

This concept could prove to be an important addition to VMware View's capabilities -- though at this point it still lags behind the Citrix implementation. By creating the concept of a cloud identity for View users, VMware hopes to allow them to take advantage of third-party cloud-based services and applications that can be assumed within the virtual desktop environment. This highlights some of the potential benefits offered by cloud integration.

Microsoft and VDI
While it's clear that Citrix and VMware are the 800-pound gorillas in the marketplace, it never pays to overlook Microsoft, and as the VDI market continues to grow and mature, it's clear that Redmond intends to be a serious player. One of the most obvious examples of this is the overall, long-term alignment of Microsoft and Citrix in the virtualization space, including their joint initiatives in the VDI market. These marketing initiatives have, to date, targeted companies wishing to implement VDI from the ground up, or move off of the VMware vision of VDI. Even though the Microsoft-Citrix marketing alignment is still strong, Microsoft continues to advance its own VDI solutions through the addition of new technologies such as RemoteFX. With the combination of Windows 2008 R2 SP1 and Windows 7 SP1, RemoteFX is a major enhancement in the Microsoft VDI suite of products, which includes Session Virtualization (Terminal Services). Targeted at improving the end-user experience, RemoteFX offers improved graphics capabilities and USB direction. These capabilities put Microsoft more in line with Citrix (HDX) and VMware (PCoIP). Windows Server 2008 R2 also provides built-in support for what has been called VDI-in-a-box (the name of the Kaviza product). With this functionality, if you deploy Windows Server 2008 R2, you have the ability to deploy a VDI infrastructure without any additional software.

VDI and the Cloud
Given the complexity and capital costs associated with large-scale VDI deployments, and the increasing prominence and diversity of the cloud, it seems that VDI as a service and the cloud would be a marriage made in heaven. However, despite the apparent ability of VDI and the cloud to leverage their respective capabilities and create a synergistic effect, there's a noticeable lag in this type of service offering, which is not unexpected at this early stage. Still, with XenDesktop 5 SP1, Citrix has taken the first steps toward delivering Web-based apps from the cloud. This type of capability -- which is also found in Project Horizon -- represents the natural integration point for in-house VDIs and third-party applications offered as a service, and seems destined to deliver virtualized desktops from the cloud. Also known as Desktop as a Service (DaaS), this type of service offering is not yet getting a great deal of attention, but there some providers that offer it, including Desktone and Alteritech.

In particular, Desktone describes itself as the pioneer of DaaS. It supports all the major hypervisor products from Citrix, Microsoft and VMware. Offered in conjunction with Rackspace US Inc., DaaS is surprisingly affordable. Built upon a multi-tier Web architecture, it offers a flexible approach to authentication, authorization, provisioning, management and reporting. Supporting a wide number of clients -- including traditional desktops, thin-client terminals and newer client devices such as the Apple iPad -- this platform offers a well-rounded alternative to traditional on-site VDI deployment. Most recently, Desktone introduced what it calls the industry's "first cloud-hosted virtual desktop infrastructure blueprint for service providers." This blueprint includes Desktone Platform 4, which includes expanded display protocol options and an enhanced cloud connection broker that slashes management by up to 80 percent. It also includes a reference architecture for operations and infrastructure, and a VDI in the Cloud Quick-Start Environment that helps service providers running the Desktone Platform hosted on Equinix servers get started reselling VDI immediately. Further indicating interest in DaaS, there have been rumors that Windows 8 will offer native support for it.

Other cloud developments include the provision of management services from content-delivery networks. For example, late last year Akamai announced IP Application Accelerator, designed to enable customers to utilize the Akamai delivery network to ensure that virtualized applications and desktops are "close" to remote users regardless of their locations. For very large organizations with highly distributed workforces, this type of service could prove to be invaluable. It's worth noting that, while the platform itself is more generally targeted at IP-enabled applications, there will be many services and applications that will integrate with and enhance VDI as the cloud matures.

Final Thoughts
Given the tightness of this race, there would appear to be no solid basis for Goldman Sach's -- or, for that matter, anybody else's -- projections. Analyst hoopla aside, the fact remains that the VDI market continues to attract new entrants and is extremely dynamic. Moreover, with potential game-changers such as cloud integration on the horizon, it's clear that conditions will remain volatile.

No matter who holds a narrow lead in any one area, the VDI marketing machines will continue pumping out extraneous noise on the respective superiority of their products. As always, however, it's prudent to remember that, while it may be easy to let market noise impact your purchasing decisions, there's no substitute for due diligence. Always evaluate a product before you deploy it, and if you're not in a position to test, always make your selection based on your own unique needs.

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