The new battleground for the virtualization market

There’s a new battleground in the virtualization market, and it’s being driven in part by an unlikely source.

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), the hosting of multiple sets of PC applications and operating systems on a single server, will be a major focus in the next few years, and that’s partly because of Microsoft’s Vista operating system, according to Scott Davis, chief data centre architect for VMware Inc.

“Vista has much larger hardware requirements,” Davis said. Enterprise users aren’t seeing the incremental business value in upgrading to Vista, and are looking to VDI and hosted desktops to save hardware dollars and extend the life of older computers, he said.

Davis spoke at the Southwestern Ontario VMware User Group’s Virtualization Day in Kitchener, Ont., on Tuesday. The event drew about 300 people, according to organizer Scott Elliott of Christie Digital.

VDI was a hot topic at the conference. Paul Wegiel, a systems engineer with “zero client” manufacturer Pano Logic, said that VDI has been gaining traction over the last few years.

Desktops, though they’re coming down in price, are costlier to buy than terminals or thin clients. “And once you’ve got the infrastructure in place, it’s even costlier to maintain,” Wegiel said – the total cost of ownership for a desktop for three years is about $4,500. Weigel said VDI can reduce desktop costs by 70 per cent.

Because there’s a one-to-one relationship between endpoint and virtual machine, users can customize their desktop just as they would a discrete machine, but network managers have more control over configuration. And because the virtual desktop is essentially a file created from a template, it can be simply dragged to the trash and replaced if, for example, it becomes compromised or “Winrot” sets in.

“DVI is based on the very same principles as server virtualization,” Wegiel said. The major difference is that the graphic experience has to be sent to a remote user, and the user’s keyboard and mouse clicks to the server.

That element of the process is managed by a connection broker. “It’s kind of like a traffic cop,” Wegiel said. The broker manages the virtual workstations, authenticates the user and maintains the one-to-one relation ship between end points and virtual machines.

While that’s sometimes managed by a server, Pano’s broker is a virtual appliance that is downloaded and plugged into VMware’s hypervisor. It’s Linux-based and managed by a browser. Wegiel said each processor core on a server could handle five desktops; a $12,000 server could substitute for about 40 PCs.

In principle, this might sound a little familiar to people who have been on the tech scene for a few years. “It is similar to the old thin client model,” said Davis. But VDI offers a full-scale desktop, whereas thin client run in Windows’ timeshare mode, limiting the PC experience.

And VDI is very much a grassroots phenomenon among users, according to John Sloan, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research.

“It really wasn’t vendor triggered,” Sloan said. “It was actually something that started in the data centre.”

By the end of 2006, companies that had done significant consolidation through virtualization were looking for what they could do next with the capacity they’d freed up. He cites the example of a fast-growing law firm that had to add 500 new client machines, but didn’t have the IT resources to configure and manage that many more PCs, as one company for which VDI was the logical approach.

“That was a very common scenario,” Sloan said.

Thin-client isn’t the only way to approach VDI, Sloan said, but it comes up in the discussion a lot. “There is a certain synergy there,” he said, but “fat clients are going to be around for some time to come.”

The value proposition is the same as the thin client pitch, Sloan said: You save your money on deskside support and configuration. With commodity PCs continually tumbling in price, the purchase price of a thin client isn’t much less – perhaps a 10 per cent difference. But the half the TCO of a PC that comes from support can be slashed considerably, Sloan said.

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