Yesterday VMware released the much-awaited update to their VDI product, VDM2. VDM2 is a "complete" VDI solution, packaging VI3 (ESX Server), a desktop broker, and the management tools you need to have a turnkey VDI solution. Pricing is fairly aggressive too. $150 per concurrent user (CCU) gets you everything you need, and for those who already own VI3, you can add-on the VDM2 stuff for a mere $50 per CCU.
This version of VDM is the first VDI product release since VMware acquired Propero almost a year ago. The dueling themes of VDM's progress have been "delay" and "rewrite." After a significant overhaul of Propero's code, VMware finally feels its ready for the market.
I don't want to use this article to discuss the merits of the VDI concept in general. (That's been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere.) Instead, let's look at the specifics of the actual VDM2 product, and what its January 2008 release means for all involved.
VMware still has the best reputation in the industry when it comes to virtualization. VMware is hot and trendy. VMware user group meetings are standing room only, and the general level of enthusiasm is high. Even conservative old-school IT folks who've been in the business 20 years and seen every fad are jumping on the VMware train.
There's something to be said about that. If "the" virtualization company has a VDI product, it will get an automatic pass to the short-list of consideration.
And of course there's strength in the fact that VDM2 is an actual released product. (Download a 60-day eval) Citrix's XenDesktop, which is shaping up to be another dominating force in the VDI space is still months away best case. (Download the Tech Preview) Now that Citrix and Microsoft have renewed their vows, it's even possible that many would-be XenDesktop customers will take a "wait and see" approach to see what happens when Hyper-V is released in August. So from now until August--that's a lot of time for VDM2 to pull ahead.
VDM2 looks to be a decent product, especially for a "v1." (Don't let that "2" in the name fool you.) It does what you'd expect it to do. It also offers connection tunneling, encryption, two-factor authentication, AD integration, and redundancy. (While none of these features are exclusive to VMware. In fact it's quite the opposite. These features are the new cost of admission to dance at the VDI ball.)
But VDM2 does have some weaknesses. (Big weaknesses? Glaring weaknesses? Game-stopping weaknesses? It depends on who you ask.)
The first weakness of VDM2 is that fact that it uses Microsoft's out-of-the-box RDP protocol for remoting the central Windows XP or Vista desktops to end users. As I've written in the past, RDP was not designed to remote the full Windows desktop experience, and it has shortcomings with regards to multimedia performance, high resolutions, and low bandwidth networks. This is why all the "extension" products like ICA and Wyse TCX exist. Anyone still in the "RDP is fine" camp last week would have been extra surprised with Microsoft's announcement that they bought Calista Technologies to improve RDP to address these exact shortcomings.
The good news for add-on vendors like VMware is that Microsoft will most likely add the Calista technology into the core product, meaning that VDM would get an "automatic" upgrade when Vista gets the upgrade. The only problem is that we don't know when that will be. Calista hadn't shipped a single license when Microsoft bought them, so it could be another year or two before any of these new features makes it into Vista.
No Terminal Server single-app integration
IT is really about applications. VMware knows this and bought application virtualization vendor Thinstall two weeks ago. The Thinstall purchase was a brilliant move on VMware's behalf, but it only addresses the issue of delivering apps that will run locally within a VM (or locally on a desktop). Anyone who's been in the desktop world the past ten years knows that Terminal Server-based applications (Citrix Presentation Server, etc.) make up a significant portion of applications that users access, and server-based computing certainly has advantages over local application execution.
(As a side note, VMware has been incongruent on this. On the one hand, they talk about the advantages of server-based computing since that's the core purpose of VDM2. On the other hand, they try to pooh-pooh SBC as it relates to Citrix, and they claim that virtualizing local apps (i.e. Thinstall) is the way to go. So SBC is good only for desktops, but not apps??!? I'll say it again, "When all you make is a hammer... everything looks like a nail.)
If VMware really wants to compete against Citrix and wants to enter the application space, can they realistically do this without entering the Terminal Server-based single-app publishing world? I wrote about this in-depth last October, but I think it still applies today. If VMware really wants to provide the complete virtualization stack (apps, desktop, hardware), they're going to have to figure out a way to get applications into all these desktop VMs they're sending all over the place. That's just too big a piece of the pie to give to Citrix and Microsoft.
But what if VMware decides to enter this space? How do they do it? Do they write something from scratch. Do they buy someone? (If so, who? Provision would have been perfect, but they couldn't do that politically since they'd just bought a broker. Who does that leave? ProPalms? 2X? HOBsoft? Ericom?) Or does VMware just wait and piggyback onto the new features of Terminal Services in Windows Server 2008? If so, will TS2008 be robust enough to do what VMware needs? Maybe they could leverage the seamless windows capabilities of RDP 6 and extend their desktop broker to become an application broker? How long would that take?
Windows disk image provisioning
The final weakness of VDM2 has to do with provisioning of new desktops. VDM2 integrates with VI3 and VirtualCenter to make instant copies of desktop disk images. From a physical and technical standpoint, this works perfectly. The problem lies with the fact that VMware is virtualizing Windows disks, and you can't just make a copy of a corporate Windows disk image without certain conflicts popping up (SIDs, computer names, domain accounts, etc.).
VMware addresses this problem with traditional cloning and deployment tools from Microsoft, namely, SysPrep and the Windows Automated Installation Kit. VMware's prime competitor (Microsoft/Citrix) has the ultimate solution: Citrix 's Provisioning Server (which Citrix acquired from Ardence in 2006). While VMware is working on their own version of disk image streaming, this is another technology component that is real today from Citrix/Microsoft, and still in the labs with VMware.
The Competitive Landscape
VDM2's biggest competitor will be Citrix XenDesktop. At this point, all signs point to XenDesktop being a superior product. It will have ICA. It will have Citrix Provisioning Server. It will have the weight of Microsoft and will run on Hyper-V. (And in fact XenDesktop will run on VMware VI3, but I don't believe VMware VDM2 will run on Hyper-V.)
Citrix also has Presentation Server which can deliver streamed and remote apps into desktop VMs, although unfortunately Presentation Server is not included with XenDesktop, and even if you buy both, you have to manage them separately. So that's not really a "win" for Citrix or VMware because you could just as easily buy Presentation Server and add it into your VDM2 environment. (Okay, maybe Citrix wins if you're using their product to enable a holistic solution running on VMware, because it wouldn't been to hard for Citrix to say, "Hey, since you need us anyway, here are some free XenDesktop licenses." Of course they're phrase it in a less monopolistic way, but you see the point.)
And then there's Provision Networks / Quest Software's Virtual Access Suite. This is a desktop broker, a Terminal Server-based application publishing tool, profile management, and a bunch of extensions for RDP all rolled into a single package for $50-100 per CCU. Provision / Quest does not offer streaming or a hypervisor out of the box, but Microsoft's SoftGrid is dirt cheap now, and there are tons of hypervisors to choose from, so maybe that doesn't matter? (Quest integrates with the popular hypervisors for automated VM provisioning, hibernation, etc.) And then of course there's Quest's killer feature: The VDI broker and the Terminal Server application broker are actually the same product, so you can legitimately manage your whole desktop and application environment with one tool.