VMware elevates its desktop virtualization view

VMware View 4 is most focused on improving user experience, one of the things that has limited the appeal of desktop virtualization in the past.

Although VMware got its start with a desktop virtualization product aimed at developers, the company today is best known for bringing server virtualization to the mainstream.

Creating multiple virtual servers on a single physical system lets IT departments consolidate applications onto fewer computers and thereby cut costs. Over time, server virtualization has also enabled a variety of products and approaches that can simplify IT operations and generally make data centers more flexible.

VMware has continued to invest in virtualization aimed at the client. This includes client-side hypervisors such as its original VMware Workstation product. However, products and technologies associated with delivering applications and user desktops to the client are really the main focus.

Application and desktop delivery sometimes makes use of client hypervisors but it's a largely separate category of technology that's fundamentally about centrally managing user applications and/or operating-system images. In VMware's case, virtualized desktops fall under the VMware View name.

On Monday, VMware announced VMware View 4, the latest version of its virtual desktop portfolio.

Much of VMware's development focus with View 4 was in the area of the user experience--that is, making applications and desktops delivered from a central location perform with the same responsiveness and fidelity as if they were installed on a local PC, in the usual way.

Historically, this user experience has been one of the stumbling blocks for desktop virtualization in general. Older forms of Citrix Presentation Server (now rebadged and modernized under the XenApp label) and initial virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) implementations very much tried to simplify management and otherwise deliver direct benefits for IT operations. Whether users liked using the products was secondary.

As a result, desktop virtualization has been mostly something used by what are often called "task workers." Think call centers and other groups of users with specific jobs to do and not much say about the tools they use to do it. In general, desktop virtualization promoters have focused too much on delivering benefits to IT and not enough on delivering benefits to users. (They've also arguably paid too little attention to keeping up-front costs down and relied too much on promises of soft cost savings down the road.)

One of the technology pieces that VMware is leaning on to improve user experience is the PC over Internet Protocol (PCoIP). PCoIP was originally developed by Teradici to improve the responsiveness and display quality of virtual desktops. However, in Teradici's initial implementation, specialized hardware was needed on both ends of the wire. This effectively made it a premium solution for situations in which cost wasn't a factor, such as for financial traders and government agencies for which security considerations are paramount.

VMware has worked with Teradici to create a software-only version of the protocol. Desktop virtualization Chief Technology Officer Scott Davis goes into a lot of the details on his blog.

It's a User Datagram Protocol-based server-side protocol that transmits compressed bitmaps or frames to the remote client. This has the advantage of being able to make real-time adjustments to account for the available bandwidth and latency of the communications channel; the display quality degrades, if there isn't enough bandwidth but things still "work."

Although details differ, there are similarities to Sun's Appliance Link Protocol--which is well-regarded for its ability to deal with poor-quality connections. (A downside of server-side protocols is that they consume processing horsepower on the server, where it tends to be more expensive, rather than on the client.)

VMware will continue to support other remote display protocols, most notably Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol. However, VMware is clearly positioning PCoIP as its favored technology and a point of competitive differentiation for VMware View in general.

Also in the graphics area, View 4 adds "multimonitor, adaptive display support--resolution optimization for each monitor, with an option to pivot and rotate the display output, supporting rich audio and video content with increased performance."

Other user experience enhancements generally relate to better integration with the overall desktop environment. For example, View Printing automatically discovers local printers without the need to install print drivers. View Limited Access provides a single point of authentication across VMware View environments, Windows Terminal Servers, Blade PCs, and remote physical PCs.

VMware View 4 comes in two editions. The Enterprise Edition includes the basics: VSphere 4 (the back-end server virtualization product), VCenter 4 (management), and View Manager 4 (for provisioning user access). It's priced at $150 per concurrent connection.

The $250-per-concurrent-user Premier Edition adds ThinApp 4 (for delivering ad hoc applications that aren't part of a master image) and View Composer (for managing images), both capabilities that would typically be desired in a large or sophisticated deployment.

VMware as a whole approaches the world from the perspective of the enterprise data center. Delivering desktops from that data center was somewhat of a sideshow. Is it now as focused on application delivery as, say, Citrix? Not really. But that said, desktop virtualization has moved beyond the sideshow stage at VMware.

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