Desktop virtualization is turning out to be one of those technologies that have to be approved, configured and implemented very much on a department-by-department basis, not as a standardization policy issued from the CIO's office.
VMware, Citrix, Microsoft and a horde of other vendors have been pushing it for years, and analysts have been predicting for the same length of time that it's about to break into the big time, based on surveys of CIOs who say they like its cost-savings potential.
Virtual desktops, especially the variety known as virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), are too slow, expensive and complicated to justify the benefit, according to plenty of analysts, but in this case also according to Peter Bookman, CEO of V3 Systems.
V3 is a systems-software developer that just shipped an appliance designed to plug into corporate networks and run as many as 400 virtual desktops from a single pizza-box server.
In VDI, each end user is assigned a virtual machine running on a server in the data center that becomes "their" PC in the same way the one on their desk would normally be. They log in to it using an old, slow PC at their desk, or across the Internet using their home PCs, smartphones, tablets or other devices.
The virtual PC launches when users log in, lets them add data, software, custom wallpaper – exactly as they would on a regular PC, except it lives on a secure, efficiently managed server in a data center rather than a messy, support-intensive PC at a user's workstation.
That's what makes VDI attractive to IT and end users, but only if it runs as fast or faster than the PCs users already have.
Usually it doesn't, due to latency in the applications, operating systems, backend SANs in which the desktop OS images are stored, networks, hypervisors, I/O on the VDI servers, and from nearly every other device in the data center.
V3's Stratosphere servers try to reduce latency and boost power in two ways: They come preconfigured on hardware optimized for VDI; they use SSD rather than spinning disks for storage, use custom-written drivers to let the hypervisor speak directly to the SSD, rather than to the layer of software most SSD devices have to use to emulate spinning disks.
The V3 software also uses special drivers to reduce latency to memory, the CPU and to optimize the PCoIP protocolVMware's View desktop virtualization product uses for communication between server and client machines.
It's not completely sealed, but it's designed to be plugged in and run, without extensive tuning, designing of virtual networks and integration of pieces of VMware's product list, as VMware View normally requires, Bookman said.
It's not cheap, though. The full package – which includes VMware View software and licences – averages about $500 per seat, which comes out to between $25,000 and $30,000 for the lowest-end unit that supports up to 50 desktops.
About half that cost is for V3's products and about half for VMware, Bookman said. So companies with existing VMware View licenses may be able to reduce that cost.
V3 is rumored to have more integration deals with VMware in the works, including a bundle that may cut costs further. Bookman said the company expects to announce a deal with another major desktop virtualization vendor – which one can comfortably presume to be Citrix – in a couple of months.
Can an appliance that's essentially an application accelerator break the logjam on VDI and turn a "developing" market into the standard way corporate end users get to their "PCs?"
Probably not by itself, but it does address most of the big roadblocks, possibly even the cost. $500 per desktop is reasonable for performance "about equal to what you'd get from a pretty high-end workstation," as Bookman described it.
Add in the 25 percent or so drop in cost to support server-based apps and operating systems – according to a now-aging Gartner study – and you have a pretty cost-effective solution.
There are lots of other questions, though, about how manageable the hardware is from a central console, how the long-term support, maintenance and other costs that go into TCO calculations shake out, how well it performs accessed remotely, and how happy end users would actually be with it.
On those questions the answer is the same as for whether a desktop virtualization project will work at all: It depends on what the end users think of it.