Vendors Sound Off On Desktop Virtualization

The coming fast growth of the desktop virtualization market has brought out multiple vendors, large and small, looking to gain a foothold and get their share as early as possible.

Vendors of desktop virtualization technology can be sorted into three broad categories: hypervisor-based server virtualization vendors who also offer desktop virtualization technology, desktop virtualization software vendors who take advantage of the VDI infrastructures offered by the server virtualization vendors, and hardware-based desktop virtualization vendors.

Most of the large server virtualization software vendors, including VMware, Citrix, Sun, and Microsoft either have a desktop server virtualization technology, or are planning to offer one in the near feature.

The following is a look at how some of those vendors are arming themselves and their channel partners.

Citrix, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. got into the hypervisor-based server virtualization market with last year's $500 million acquisition of XenSource. It plans to release its Citrix Xen Desktop technology during the second quarter of this year, said Sumit Dhawan, director of product marketing for the company's desktop virtualization group.

Citrix Xen Desktop will allow the automated provisioning of virtual desktop PCs based on a master desktop image that can be customized for each user, Dhawan said. Performance is expected to be no different from that of current desktop PCs, he said.

It will include integrated support for Citrix's ICA high-speed delivery protocol, which can be optimized to support simple applications or media-rich applications. Customers will be able to choose graphics capabilities to support users who create media and those who collaborate or work with data, he said. And, instead of waiting six to eight minutes to boot the PC, users will find it takes about 20 seconds with Citrix Xen Desktop, he said.

Citrix Xen Desktop is fully interoperable with any hypervisor-based server virtualization technology including Citrix XenServer, VMware ESX, and Sun's Hyper-V, Dhawan said.

It is currently available as a feature-complete beta test application, and the final version is expected to ship in the middle of the second quarter, he said. Pricing has yet to be determined.

Sun Microsystems, of Santa Clare, Calif., currently has its xVM hypervisor-based server virtualization software and two versions of its virtual desktop software in beta testing, and plans to start shipping the latter next month.

The desktop virtualization technology bundles the company's Sun Ray thin client software with its Secure Global Desktop to build virtual desktop PCs initially using VMware's ESX Server. Versions supporting xVM are expected to be released soon, with versions supporting Microsoft's Hyper-V expected to come this summer. Sun is also working on a version to support Citrix's Xen Server.

The Sun technology includes a dynamic binding feature so that users can access their existing desktop PCs from any location from where they last left off, said Steve Wilson, vice president of engineering for Sun's xVM.

Sun in February acquired innotek, a Stuttgart, Germany company that has been developing PC virtualization technology since 2001, Wilson said. innotek is a small developer of desktop virtualization technology who's major product is an open source virtualization software called VirtualBox. VirtualBox, which has been downloaded over 4 million times since January of 2007, enables desktop or laptop PCs running Windows, Linux, Macintosh, or Solaris operating systems to run multiple different operating systems side-by-side. Users can switch between the operating systems with a mouse click.

"So Mac users without Windows can keep an instance of Windows on-hand," Wilson said. "This is especially useful for developers, especially for Web-style applications."

Ericom Software, of Closter, N.J., is one of a number of software developers who take advantage of other vendors virtual desktop infrastructure. Ericom entered the field in 2005 at the same time VMware introduced its ESX Server, said Eran Heyman, CEO and founder. The company develops software that lets thin computing devices act as a Windows Terminal services or VDI virtual desktop. The company's software currently supports most major hypervisors, with a total of about 14 expected to be supported by June.

Heyman said that his company believes that the hypervisor is fast becoming a commodity, with VMware's ESX costing $3,500, compared to Microsoft's Hyper-V expected to cost $28 for a license and Sun's hypervisor being available for free.

The biggest difference between companies like Ericom which do not have their own hypervisor-based server virtualization, and those like VMware, Citrix, and Microsoft who do, is that the larger companies first focus on supporting their own hypervisors with their desktop virtualization software, Heyman said.

"We are agnostic to the technology," he said. "We provide you the freedom to use whatever hypervisor you want, and the freedom to switch any time you choose. We ensure customers are not dependent on one signal technology."

Like Ericom, Provision Networks, which was acquired by Quest Software, of Aliso Viejo, Calif. in November, develops desktop virtualization software that supports multiple hypervisor-based server virtualization software.

Provision Networks' Virtual Access Suite is a single management framework to help customers manage their virtual desktop PC lifecycle from cradle to grave, said Paul Ghostine, vice president and general manager.

"It pushes the virtual desktop to the client devices, adds active directory, and makes it available to users over IP networks," he said.

The biggest driver of the desktop virtualization business going forward will be the push to adopt Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, Ghostine said. "About 60 percent to 70 percent of PCs today don't have the processor and memory power to allow them to work with Vista," he said. "Our software can help those customers navigate to virtual desktops."

Pano Logic, of Menlo Park, Calif., produces desktop virtualization software specifically for VMware's VDI environment, as well as small, low-powered thin computing devices which connect the user's monitor and keyboard to the virtual desktops.

The company, which is relatively new to the VDI environment, has about 60 customers doing proof-of-concept testing on its products, said Benjamin Baer, vice president of marketing. The software offers both fixed-location and roaming desktop capabilities.

The desktop client sells for $300 including software and licensing, or $1,800 for five units plus services, Baer said.

Another way customers save cost is in power savings, Baer said. A single Pano device only uses 5 Watts of power. "For 10 desktops, customers can really start saving money," he said.

Pano's latest version of its software includes support for VMware ESX 3.5 and VMware's Virtual Center 2.5 for improved memory utilization over the previous version, Baer said. Also included is the kiosk mode, which allows users to roam. "For example, one customer is looking to install 50 to 100 Pano devices in a conference room so its users don't have to bring their mobile PCs to meetings," he said. "When customers are done, there's no state left on the workstation."

ClearCube Technology, of Austin, Texas, is also new to the VDI environment, but is better known for its proprietary PC blades which offer high performance but at a higher cost.

The company recently made its Sentral software hardware-agnostic and compatible with VMware ESX Server, Microsoft's Hyper-V and Microsoft Virtual Server, and Citrix XenServer. The software also allows virtual desktops to be run over IP networks, said Amir Husain, company CTO.

Sentral supports API-level connectivity with ESX Server which allows it to do things like power management, Husain said. The next version will offer similar support with XenServer, he said.

It is important for a company like ClearCube to support multiple vendors' products, Husain said.

"Any technology that results in vendor lock-in will not be successful," he said. "Right now, it's not clear which of these technologies will win in the end."