After sitting engrossed in the breakout session that Brian Madden and Chetan Venkatesh presented at BriForum 2010 ("Deconstructing Brian's Paradox: VDI is here, like it or not."), independently both Brian and Chetan approached me and commented that I seemed to be shaking my head through parts of the session, but I didn’t speak up. I wanted to speak up, but what I had to say wasn’t a quick 30-second question or even what Steve Balmer refers to as a “commentary with a question mark appended to the end,” so I stayed quiet. At their prodding, I agreed to write up my thoughts on the topic.
To pull a quote from the original article, the Paradox refers to Brian’s contention that “You only choose VDI because you want server-based computing but TS can’t cut it, and then to manage your VDI environment, you implement a shared master image system that makes your VDI behave just like Terminal Server”. Brian has further implied that this this means client-based VDI will better succeed more than server-based VDI garnering all of the hype (but that we need offline VDI capabilities for client based VDI to work), and maybe server VDI getting all of the hype doesn’t make any sense. (Forgive me Brian if I got you wrong, but that is how I interpreted it.)
In the presentation, Chetan made a potent other case. In his world, the PC as we know it is dead and server-based VDI is the future. I can’t possibly do his points justice, so hopefully you were at BriForum and can watch the video so you can understand his points accurately. [Unrelated to the rest of this post, I’ll nitpick and point out that Chetan’s proposal--which stated that 65-70% of all desktops will be server-based VDI in 5 years--does not pass my smell test. (Nor would a claim that all VDI flavors combined will be 90% within 5 years.) I find it totally unsupportable due to Newton’s first law (a body at rest tends to stay at rest), however this is really just a side (or snide) comment and I really appreciated hearing his points of view].
In the session the two made their points about why they thought their view of the future was the correct one. For those not at the session, the most telling difference between their viewpoints was their beliefs in the ratios of VDI deployments they expect to see five years down the road. Chetan believes 70% of all desktops will be server-based VDI. Brian thinks most VDI deployments (he was less specific towards a number) will be client-based. So why did they notice me shaking my head? Because I think they were both wrong about the problem. Here I will try to explain why. (It might take more than 30 seconds.)
In some ways, Brian is correct in my view for his assertions that the limitations of server-based VDI (at least as practiced today) producing a user experience no better than TS at a higher cost. And Chetan may also deserve some credit for asserting that it just doesn’t matter, because the old assumptions that caused “fat client” domination for the last (almost) 20 years no longer hold. But I have a different view, and one that screams out “You’re both wrong!!!!!!"
A different way to view the last 20 years of computing history is to not consider it the era of the PC, but to consider it the era of the Application. The concept of “Information Technology” (IT) was born in the desire to increase business productivity of employees and companies by making Applications available to users. Citrix may be known for calling it “Access, to anything from anywhere”, but we all know that this was “access to applications.” From making applications available to making them stable by controlling how they become available to controlling access to the applications (both license management and security), it has all been about the application. The PC has been nothing more than a tool.
I believe, however, that the era of the application is coming to an end. In my mind this era will be replaced by another. It isn’t all about the application anymore. It’s all about the data.
It’s All About The Data
I think Tom Kite (not the golfer) said it best in his blog: “Go ahead, erase all of my .exe files, but don't you dare touch my data. Take word away from me, leave me my .doc files. I'll be able to find something that can process the data eventually”. Given that the hardware no longer increases capacity at such a high rate, we may soon find that the main reason for a desktop refresh is to get a clean copy of the operating system because ours has bogged down with too much junk. Extract my stuff off, give me a clean copy, plop it back on, and I’m good to go for another year.
At BriForum 2008, I presented a session called “The Data Problem” in which I discussed the need to identify the various types of data so we can build tools to successfully extract the right data, only the right data, and all of the right data. I think it would be fair to characterize the response as “Yeah, but that is way too big of a problem for me to get involved with”.
Incidentally, because server based VDI--when using a common image--attempts extraction (at logoff) and injection (at next logon), it has some additional benefit here. Of course today’s tools miss out on the “only the right data” part, storing too much in the deltas, but a server-based VDI user should experience less OS performance degradation over time. Not that this is a major reason to think server based VDI; it takes time to degrade, client based refresh on occasion is an option, and if this becomes important enough the client based world can implement the same type of solution.
But I sense a change in the air that is more fundamental when it comes to data. We are moving into a more dynamic world. The issues we face in IT are much larger than just handing the “new employee’s work and home applications at the same time. We need more than barriers between the applications and operating systems; layers, extractions, and injections. Don’t get me wrong: virtual machines, virtual applications, security appliances and methodologies are all great tools that we need; but these are tools and not solutions.
The primary change forcing an end to the era of the application is this: Users no longer equate to a device on a one to one basis. Users expect, and are receiving more and more, connectivity from anywhere.
Just this week I witnessed an extraordinary event, at least it was to me. I saw a user unplug a 10Mbps lan connection and use his 3G phone data connection to connect his laptop to the internet because it was faster than the service provided by the building. With Blackberries, smart phones, and iPads becoming standard fare, people expect to connect from multiple devices at different times and locations. We expect to access our work life from the road or home, and our home life (what is left of it anyway) when we are at work. TS, Server or Client based VDI--those are just implementation tools. In the end, we want access. But while we have been trained to think of it as access to applications, I firmly believe it is access to what the applications do for us. And in the end, what applications do for us is allow us to access and manipulate data. In the new era approaching, it will all be about the data.
Data used to be stuff in a file. Or maybe stuff in a database. It isn’t any more. My data is stuff in a whole bunch of files and a whole bunch of databases. On a whole bunch of servers. Stored at all sorts of companies. My applications work with all sorts of odd collections of data, not only my data but sometimes other peoples' data (that they choose to expose). When I read my email, accessing my stuff means I pull data from multiple Exchange servers (one for work and one or more for personal use). But it also links me into to data from places like LinkedIn, and Facebook, and presence-tracking data apps.
Wherever I am, and whatever device I have in front of me, what I want from IT today is access to all of my stuff. (Note: one must make an irrelevant passing reference to George Carlin when using that word.) My view is that we have evolved the technology to the point where we can say that not only are the platforms just tools, but even the applications themselves are becoming tools. Tools to access our stuff.
The application that is appropriate when I am on a large display device may not be my choice when on a small display device. Available input devices also dictate application choice. (You’ll never run word processing on a device designed with one button.) Network speed and latency also matter.
The job of Information Technology in the future will be to manage all of this data. Give me access to my data wherever and however. Turn all of those bits of data into something useful to me: Information.
Back to Head Shaking
Of Brian and Chetan’s views as expressed at BriForum, I am drawn more to Brian’s, but only because I'm very selfish. If server-based VDI wins out (as Chetan proposed), all of my work stuff will only be available when I connect into work--and it will remain separate from my personal stuff, walled off and segregated. If client-based VDI wins out (as Brian proposed), I’ll have access to all my stuff on the laptop I’m now carrying, and probably in a relatively seamless way to me.
But ultimately, I shake my head because I think they are both wrong. It isn’t about what platform technology prevails, or where the apps will run. It’s all about the data. And we need to start our thinking of the future from there. I might not be able to express my views as elegantly as others, but hopefully this makes sense to at least a few people out there. Maybe they can say it better.