Can browser desktops be another type of VDI? Not today, but maybe someday.

Lately, I've been looking into browser desktops to see if they qualify as a type of VDI. For those that aren't aware, browser desktops (BD's) are relatively lightweight desktop environments that execute in your local machine's internet browser.

Lately, I've been looking into browser desktops to see if they qualify as a type of VDI. For those that aren't aware, browser desktops (BD's) are relatively lightweight desktop environments that execute in your local machine's internet browser.  They're typically sourced from a cloud-based infrastructure, be it home grown or from a "traditional" cloud like Amazon EC2. The BD itself could be considered an operating system, but I think it's more appropriate to separate it from a typical OS, which interfaces with the hardware on the client device.  Instead, a BD interfaces only with the software running on the OS, using the browser as an abstraction layer between the normal operating systems like Windows, OS X, or Linux, and the browser desktop itself.

Several browser desktops exist today, and I'm sure there are many that I've missed or that are in the works right now. Each is similar in presentation, although some use apps built into the BD itself while others use cloud-based apps like Google Apps.  Files are stored server-side, as is the user environment, so that the look & feel is the same from wherever a user logs in.  Lets take a quick look at who is out there (with obvious apologies to those I've missed).  All three of these organizations have free products to try.

G.ho.st


G.ho.st (pronounced Ghost, but written that way because that's also the web address) is one of the most recognizable names in browser desktops.  The G.ho.st environment is an edgy looking, Windows-like interface right down to the "Go" menu where a Start menu should be.  G.ho.st consists of a 2MB Flash/JavaScript package that runs in any browser that supports those technologies (which is to say "everywhere"). Applications (and there are many) are cloud-based apps like Google Apps, Zoho, or Zimbra that run in iFrames to give the appearance of running in their own windows.  There is also an HTML-only version that runs on mobile phones and gives you access to your documents as well as the various cloud-based apps.

G.ho.st is currently consumer-oriented, but is considering modifications to make themselves more viable in a business scenario. 

iCloud

iCloud is based on a web service called the Xcerion Internet Operating System /3 (XIOS/3), which is based on Ubuntu Linux. What is interesting about iCloud is that if it is started while online, it can be used offline because the applications execute from within the BD. An offline browser desktop is intrguing, but it's not ready for prime time unless you can pre-cache it and start the desktop while offline. Still, it appears that iCloud has a definite enterprise focus.

At this time, iCloud only supports IE fully and is in alpha for Firefox, so if you're going to check it out, make sure you use IE.  It feels a little clumsy in Firefox.

eyeos

eyeos is an open-source browser desktop with a host of "local" applications (in that they run natively in eyeos and not from a cloud). I thought this might mean that they would work offline similar to iCloud, but that's not the case.  It appears the applications and other components are sent down to the client on demand.  eyeos has the distinction of being the only BD that allows the server to be installed in your enterprise and accessed without touching the internet.

So what's the big deal?

Proponents will say that the browser desktop is the reinvention of the desktop--the way it would be done if you were building a user environment from the ground up today. Riding the wave of "The Cloud," it's easy to get caught up in the hype, and there are some interesting benefits to a BD, such as the server-side user environment and ubiquitous access to the lightweight desktop.  Since everything runs on the client side, there are no remote protocols to worry about. Even the web apps like Google Apps are mostly code that is executed in the browser and not on the server. YouTube videos, for instance, aren't remoted down from a centralized location. Instead, the BD that's executing in your browser is just wrapping around another instance of your browser that is going to YouTube.com.

Opponents argue that it might be all right for task users, but it's not a valid replacement for VDI scenarios since those are typically more hardcore users that require hardcore applications instead of web-based ones. SBC users might be more adaptable to a browser desktop, but the interface is to unfamiliar, the apps aren't the same, and the integration with the rest of their enterprise systems isn't there.

Who's right?

Beats me! I think right now, regardless of any of the claims of network bandwidth reduction and latency tolerance, there's not much of a place for a browser desktop in an enterprise.  My take is that there needs to be some serious integration into enterprise systems before they can gain any traction.  The issue is that companies have invested millions and millions of dollars (or hundreds of euros) into their systems, and they're not going to be willing to take their systems and modify them to work with a browser desktop when they have a solution that works well today. While an increasing number of applications are becoming web-oriented, there are still plenty of applications and systems, not to mention file shares and collaboration systems that don't work (or don't work as well) via the web.

So, in order to be useful in an enterprise, browser desktops need, among other things:

  • LDAP integration - some have this, at least experimentally
  • Access to file shares - SMB for sure, others as needed
  • Some way of connecting to those non-web apps - If we all put our heads together, we can probably come up with something :)
  • Security - most organizations aren't going to want to send their files over the net to web apps and back, so something super-secure has to be created and vetted out thoroughly before people will begin to accept a BD as a possibility.  eyeos is ahead of the pack here, with an option to install the server side directly into your data center.

Some folks will argue that offloading all the processing back to the client is counter-intuitive to the whole VDI approach, and in some ways that might be true. Thing is, some solutions for remote protocol issues already offload some things to the client side, requiring clients to be more powerful. I suppose that will always be the case, though. My fear here is the increased amount of client administration as more things are offloaded to the end point.  The goal of VDI/SBC is to centralize almost everything and offload only what is needed. The current BD is the other way around--centralize the easy stuff, but leave the heavy lifting to the client.

We're sure to see more browser desktops pop up in the coming months/years. Google Chrome OS has a different delivery mechanism than the BD's above, but shares a similar goal. Adobe AIR is gaining popularity as an app that can turn web services into desktop applications (like TweetDeck). And Mozilla's Prism project promises to "split web applications out of their browser and run them directly on their desktop." While these might not be presented in a desktop browser interface, it could be argued that they're in the same vein as BD's.  After all, they are still aiming to provide applications in a native-looking manner.

In the end, even with a well-integrated solution from the browser desktop makers, the decision that has to be made is this:

Your users don't know one "cloud" or desktop from another. Are you comfortable with that desktop coming from "The Cloud", or do you want to own that cloud?

I'm not saying it won't ever work. I'm just saying don't cancel your VDI pilots.

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I must be getting old, because this seems silly.


reinvention of the desktop... pfft.  cloud shmaod


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I agree, it seems utterly pointless.  So I run a desktop in a browser from my .... desktop.  Woo!  If I want to run cloud apps like Google Apps, I will run them in my browser.  Why the hell should I use an intermediary desktop environment.  I can run my apps from anywhere in the browser and use cloud storage for my files, so where is the "OS" really adding value?  It seems like a solution in search of a problem, while from here I see no real win at all.  Great job pointing out the lack of enteprise integration, which makes these a complete non-starter anyway.  So who are these intended for then?  Home users?  Bah, they get confused enough by a standard Windows desktop (much less Linux!).  I can't really see Grandma launching a browser desktop and doing anything useful with it.


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And those were serious questions.  I don't see the use case here.  "Cloud" seems to be the target, but web apps and cloud storage are becoming mature enough to obviate the need for any of these browser desktops, as far as I can see.


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This is like the if you have apps via XenApp from anywhere, why do you need XenDesktop as a UI shell debate. I think the guys above have limited use since the apps people care about are in Windows. Don't talk to me web apps, we can;t get people of 16 bit installers :-) Very far out concept although cool!


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That's pretty much what I meant by "hype."  There is such a free for all right now with "cloud" hype that it's one of those things that can easy be branded as the next big thing.


I'm not saying that there isn't or won't be a use case in the business world, it's just tough to find one today without re-engineering many of the systems in your environment or starting from scratch.


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These browser desktops have been around a few years, every once in while getting some attention from the local media or some it mag, or a web article.


Aside from pretty innovative web programming, crap galore.. Fact of things, they are nothing seriously to concider. At all. Anywhere. Anyone to suggest otherwise is seriously detached from the real world.


So Gabe, let me ask you this: Are you so far aside, so detached, that you even *lightly* concider there things? Let us know.


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@Kimmo


Wow. That seemed harsh.  I didn't get from the article that Gabe was promoting these things at all as be all end all solutions.


"I'm not saying it won't ever work. I'm just saying don't cancel your VDI pilots."


Seems pretty clear to me.  Just sayin' ...


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@sbrown23  //->  @gabe


Yeah, you're right. I'm sorry, bad move, my mistake.Thanks for pointing it out


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For the record I'm glad Gabe wrote something out of the box. It's refreshing. Keep it up, certainly educated me on some of the players I did not know about.


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Gabe one company you might want to look at for this space (if you dedide to continue exploring it down the road) is StoneWare (www.stone-ware.com).  They market themselves as an "internal cloud".


On the items you mentioned in your list about "entperprise ready" this BD solution has pretty much all of them built-in.  They recently signed a deal with Dell as a solution they are marketing at the education space.


An interesting thing about this solution is on top of the LDAP integration, file system access, etc from your list they also bring to the table the ability to integrate the client to determine best how to deliver application.  Managed desktop, icons link to local installed apps, Citrix apps, etc.  Remote unmanaged device icons dynamically change/point to the appropriate delivery mechanism.  


To me the great thing about these types of solutions would be first not having a big Citrix/etc infrastructure to just delivery applications.  Second, for using as a remote access solution I like the idea of not having to code/manage the intelligence to figure out the right way to deliver an application.  Example would be a web application that only runs in IE.  I would like to manage one "instance" of that application.  Remote user on Windows great, pull through straight the SSL VPN/reverse proxy etc, MAC ok now I know I have deliver though TS/XenApp. The administrator and the customer only sees one application that dynamically changes on the fly depending on its delivery mechanism.  Finally, the biggest thing here is customers expect consistency. Everything is moving to the web/cloud whatever you want to call it.  Yes it is years and years away but at home they are going to start seeing these solutions soon.  Being able to provide that type of interface now instead of waiting for demand for it might be a good idea.


All that said... like Gabe I think this is just interesting and may have some potential down the road.  I guess we'll see.


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You know where I can see this being viable, is in your SMB market.  Say you have a company of 5 computers.  You store, forward and print documents mostly.  You do not want to heavily invest in a server and backups and an IT guy from the corner shop who chances are is rubbish.  Why wouldnt you consider this.  I mean you need to ensure the data is relatively secure, that it can be retrieved, but why is it that bad?


This is not a VDI play at all, but for your small business worker or maybe even a collaboration tool for school students who just need a tempoary desktop to work on documents together.


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@Jason


In regards to SMB where they need storage and doc availability, I don't see where the browser desktop provides a win.  There are plenty of web based apps and "cloud storage" vendors who I'd bet have a much better chance of being around in 5 years than the guys listed above.  Once again, I go right back to Google Apps.  Doc creation, editing, storage etc.  Why to a need another desktop environment to facilitate any of that?


Really, I don't see the value add here.  Just take one of the screenshots above for eyeOS with the Chess game icon.  I'm accessing a web desktop from a desktop OS, or even a smartphone OS, which more than likely has multiple games installed already.  What the heck do I need a game in the BD for?  Seriously, it seems like all these things do is duplicate apps and experiences that one would already have on the desktop and/or apps that one would already use on the web.


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I didn't mention it in the article, but G.ho.st (and maybe the others) does offer file sharing between users.  I think there is a case for small businesses, but they have to use a BD from the start.  If they already have PC's and applications, they're not going to switch because they've already made the investment.


I think there would need to be some seriously heavy marketing in order to get SMB's to take a look at BD's before they make their IT investments.  Most SMB's decide they need a computer and run to Best Buy to pick one up.  After that, they're invested in Windows.


G.ho.st might even want to consider having a hardware device (or a partnership) that people could purchase in order to head off that initial run to Best Buy.


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Gabe, I think BD is great.   I reason as follows in two aspects.


The 1st aspects:


We have to access to resources from  our local device   and/or  from cloud side . In long term, all these resources could be marked by XML/HTML. For local resources, current we access to them through local  OS GUI. Depending on your favorite OS, you got your specific native GUI's for Windows, Linux, Mac, etc. But why not  we replace the native OS GUI by GUI based on browser? In this way, we will have same GUI to access to whichever resources/apps either local or remote.


The 2nd aspect:


I favorite the host rendering solution like PCoIP,   and PCoIP chip decoding on client device. We know they are hardware based. Are we sure that  there will no new improvements  or new applications to appear in the furture, or PCoIP could afford to deal with any new   coming stuffs?        Well, you might conclude as I do, that's not the case.  But what the hell does this has   anything  to do with BD?  :=)   I assure you, it does. Coz we also need a software based solution as a complement to PCoIP hardware based solution. SO WHY not we adopt a BD as a unified and standard GUI for local and remote resources?


that's my 2 cents.


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