I spent last week at VMware’s VMworld Europe 2009 conference in Cannes, France. I spent this week at Microsoft’s Global MVP Summit in Redmond, Wash. “VDI” was a major topic a of discussion at both events, and I quickly realized that VMware's positioning of VDI is not as crazy as I initially thought, nor is Microsoft's foray into the VDI space.
VMware’s VDI Marketing
VMware is pushing VDI like crazy. I don’t get the sense that VDI is too popular yet in terms of actual production deployments, but from a marketing standpoint, VMware is going strong. VDI is a key part of their “vClient” initiative which, along with vSphere and vCloud, make up the “Top 3” strategic areas where the company focuses.
Even though VDI is not quite ready for broad adoption (at least not in 2009), there are some specific use cases where it makes sense. Today’s VDI solutions are essentially server-based computing (SBC) solutions that connect users back to single-user virtual workstation instances instead of connecting to the multi-user Terminal Server-based Windows Servers that have been the staple of Microsoft SBC for over a decade.
Since VMware doesn’t have a Terminal Server-based SBC solution, when VMware talks about SBC they only focus on VDI and completely ignore (from a marketing standpoint) Terminal Server. At VMworld last week, I criticized VMware for positioning VDI against traditional desktop computing while ignoring Terminal Server. I felt that they were misleading everyone by not talking about Terminal Server-based solutions which are much cheaper than VDI and that usually work just as well for most use cases.
After I wrote that article, I had a chance to sit down with VMware’s Jerry Chen and Noah Wasmer. They made it clear that VMware only wanted to focus on VDI versus traditional desktops. My snarky response at the time was something along the lines of, “Well sure. Because you don’t have a TS solution, of course you don’t want to include it in your comparisons.” I left that meeting feeling stronger than ever that VMware was doing the wrong thing, marketing-wise.
But after a few days I began to wonder how "wrong" VMware really is. Sure, for today I think Terminal Server should be part of a VDI-versus-traditional desktops conversation. But I’ve been writing for a year that the true value of VDI is based on technical capabilities that don’t yet exist. So positioning VDI against Terminal Server is somewhat of a losing battle that trivializes its larger potential. Why not let Terminal Server “win” against VDI today, because when VDI is ready, it will not be about “VDI versus Terminal Server”—it will be about “VDI versus traditional desktops.”
Perhaps VMware’s “VDI versus traditional desktops” messaging is just a year or so ahead of time? Because this positioning is brilliant (for two reasons).
First, the desktop opportunity is huge. VMware will never even begin to make a dent in the Terminal Server-based SBC space that Microsoft/Citrix own. But if VMware can steer the conversation aware from TS and towards traditional desktop replacement, they move into a new area where neither Microsoft nor Citrix has the advantage. In effect they “reset” the race.
Second, many people have this vague notion that Terminal Server is kind of weird, not too customizable, and not very compatible with too many applications. While those of us Terminal Server people “in the know” understand that none of these notions are true, there are many more of “them” than “us,” and I would guess that probably 80% of the world’s IT professionals think Terminal Server is some crazy non-compatible niche piece of crap. (Case-in-point: I met another three MVPs at this week’s MVP summit who, upon reading my name badge, said “Seriously? There are MVPs for Terminal Server?” This was last week, in 2009!)
Microsoft also understands that Terminal Server is a niche solution. It’s been a niche for ten years and it’s going to be a niche for another ten. And honestly that’s probably why Microsoft was fine letting Citrix run away with the features while Microsoft sat back and collected the licensing revenue.
But Microsoft also understands that VDI can be huge and definitely more than a niche. (I'll clarify again that the “VDI” that will be mainstream in a few years is NOT the plain-old SBC-based VDI of today and maybe shouldn’t even be called “VDI” at all.) To that end, Microsoft has announced several VDI features that will be built-in to Windows Server 2008 R2.
Much like Windows Server has included “basic” SBC Terminal Services functionality (for use in “low complexity” scenarios, to use Microsoft’s wording), Windows Server 2008 R2 will include “basic” VDI functionality. VDI in general has a more moving parts than Terminal Server, and Server 2008 R2 will include (a) a desktop connection broker, (b) a web interface, (c) a Hyper-V-based platform virtualization engine, and (d) the ability to configure persistent or shared pools of VMs and assign them to users via AD. And Windows 7 (the client piece) will allow for (e) RDP v7-based connections to hosted VDI instances (either directly or through (f) the Remote Desktop SSL gateway).
Microsoft has basically let Terminal Server languish for all these years. One executive at a smaller ISV refers to the Terminal Server product group at Microsoft as the “do littles” because they just sit around while Citrix does all the work.
But as soon as VMware’s VDI threat (or more specifically, the “non-Microsoft” VDI threat) looked real, Microsoft snapped out of their trance and started focusing again on desktop remoting features. Microsoft will tell you that they’re equally committed to adding value to the “core” Terminal Services platform too, but let’s face it—if that was their goal, then we would have seen RemoteApp in 2003 instead of 2008. The real reason that Microsoft is putting effort into this is so they can stay relevant in the VDI space (and, by extension, the corporate desktop in general). If any of these new VDI features (like improvements to RDP, the SSL gateway, the web interface, etc.) “happen” to work with Terminal Server too, then all the better! But that's an effect, not the cause.
Why does Microsoft care?
One could argue that Microsoft shouldn’t care whether VDI or Terminal Server wins. They shouldn’t care about VMware at all (in the desktop space). If VMware sells Terminal Server, Microsoft gets the TS CAL revenue. And if they sell VDI, Microsoft gets the VECD revenue. (In fact, since VECD requires Software Assurance, one could argue that it’s in Microsoft’s best interest to sell VDI.)
The real fight will be about mind-share at the client. Microsoft has owned the desktop for more than fifteen years. If a younger company like VMware comes in with their disruptive technology and starts telling people about how VDI (i.e. VMware) is so much better and cheaper than traditional desktops (i.e. Microsoft), then what else might VMware tell them? That’s only one step away from VMware saying that all apps should be delivered via ThinApp, which itself is just a short step away from (in a few years) “well customer, why do you need Microsoft at all?” Hyper-V versus ESX. App-V versus ThinApp. Calista versus VMware/PC-over-IP. This is where it gets interesting.
Ironically this fight doesn’t involve Citrix, which is too bad for them, because the only thing worse than not getting picked on is not being relevant.
How does Citrix stay relevant?
While Microsoft’s desktop OS monopoly is assured for at least the near future, Citrix’s desktop delivery monopoly is not. Not only are established threats from VMware and Microsoft a concern, but there are growing threats from Quest and Symantec. And for every year that ticks by, Citrix’s “we were first” value is worth less and less.
Today Citrix is huge in the Terminal Server space. But as Terminal Server’s favor is replaced by the VDI+ of the future, Citrix has to fight Microsoft/VMware/Quest/Symantec. And this time they’re going to do it without the dedicated support of Microsoft. They'll have to continue to "add value" to their core products while out-innovating the other four companies.