Cisco expands into desktop virtualization

Cisco Systems Inc. is moving into desktop virtualization, further extending its attempt to offer enterprises solutions running from data centres to end users.

Early next year it will start selling two so-called zero-client desktop appliances as part of what it calls its newly-created Virtualization Experience Infrastructure (VXI).

“The future we see is that we’ll be shipping millions of virtutally-enabled devices over the next few years,” Barry O’Sullivan, senior vice-president and general manager of Cisco’s voice technology group told a Webcast on Monday for industry analysts and reporters. That, he said, will help push the cost of the devices down,

“We want to be able to deliver rich media in the same form and capability as on the thick client,” added Manny Rivelo, Cisco’s senior vice-president for systems and architectures.

VXI is a group of products and integrated solutions from partners virtual desktops from Citrix Systems Inc. and VMware Inc. aimed at assuring organizations they can run rich media collaboration applications over a fully virtualized environment. Compatibility with hypervisors from these companies and Microsoft Corp. is also assured.

One of the Cisco clients, the VXC 2200 is a small standalone device, while the VXC 2100 plugs into Cisco’s 8900 and 9900 series IP phones.

Both can be used as the heart of a desktop computing system with Power over Ethernet connection to the network plus plugs for two monitors, a keyboard and a mouse.

Also certified under VXI are thin client endpoints from Wyse Technology, DevonIT Inc. and IGEL Technology

Prices haven’t been firmed up yet, but Cisco says they’re trying to keep the hardware under US$500.

Cisco also said its soon to be released Cius tablet will be part of the system through a docking station that offers similar connectivity.

“This is the first phase of a multi-pronged architecture that we will be announcing and continue to build to over the coming years,” said Rivelo. It will be an open ecosystem, in that customers have their choice of virtual machines.

Initially, however, VXI is only certified for Microsoft desktops. Support for Linux at some point in the future is expected.

Cisco’s hope is that for thousands of VXI-approved devices in enterprises will be fed by its Unified Computing blade servers – and through its routers switches and media gateways.

According to Zeus Kerravala, a senior vice-president of research at Yankee Group, it’s a vision that might come to pass because unlike server virtualization, desktop virtualization hasn’t caught on yet with IT managers.

“Lots of CIOs aren’t sold on it,” Kerravala said in an interview. However, he believes the approach has to spread as the number of devices – PCs, laptops, smart phones, tablets and their separate operating systems on organization networks — increases.

Virtualized desktops not only makes rolling out and managing applications easier, it makes operating systems “irrelevant” he said.

“It’s the way most organizations will go,’ he concludes. “It will take time to get there and much of the resistance to VDI is historical resistance and comes from people who have tried thin clients. This is different. It handles audio and video much better.”

Cisco’s VXI model is “very logical,” he said.

It’s important to note that thin clients aren’t all that’s on Cisco’s mind, Kerravala added. Also on Monday it announced the 21-inch TelePresence EX60 desktop unit, priced at US$6,900, as well as new 32-inch and 37-inch models.

Few competitors have a similar unified desktop virtualization strategy, he added. One that might develop one is Avaya Inc., which has just released its Flare collaborative software and tablet that links to the company’s Aura communications server.

Hewlett-Packard Inc. makes thin clients, servers and blade servers, but Kerravala believes it is weak in desktop video products. That’s one reason some speculate HP will buy videoconferencing specialist Polycom Inc., he said.

Laura Hansen-Kohls, a research analyst who specializes in desktop virtualization and cloud computing at London-Ont.-based InfoTech Research, cautioned IT managers not to be dazzled by Cius or fancy thin clients.

“When you’re talking about desktop virtualization the last thing enterprises should be thinking about is the end point device,” she said. “Having the back-end infrastructure in place is the most important part. You have to build from back to front.”

In that sense Monday’s announcement doesn’t advance the cause of desktop virtualization much, she said. When InfoTech surveyed customers a year ago on the idea, the biggest concerns were mobility, end-user experience and licencing costs. Cisco’s announcement briefly hit mobility and didn’t touch on licencing, she pointed out.

“As with any technology like this there are so many factors and its going to take more than one to really move things forward,” she concluded.

“One thing we keep hearing from clients over and over is desktop virtualization is really cool, and if they can tie that together with a bring-your-own-computer initiative that’s something they will seriously look at.”


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