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MokaFive Joins Red Hot Desktop Virtualization Market

The startup's Web server-based software competes with larger vendors like Citrix, Microsoft, and VMware as well as thin client advocates like Sun and Wyse.

Three-year-old start-up MokaFive entered the hosted desktop virtualization fray Monday, joining a growing crowd of competitors out to make enterprise and eventually consumer computing more manageable and flexible by offering virtual desktops as a service or as compressed images that can fit on even a USB stick.

This is largely different than software like Parallels Desktop for Mac, which fully installs two operating systems on the same PC. Instead, virtual images are streamed or partially downloaded from a server in a local data center or on the Internet, which in some cases requires nothing more than a thin client. Start-ups like MokaFive, InstallFree, and Desktone are looking to make a mark in this market, as are larger competitors like Citrix, Microsoft, and VMware as well as thin client advocates like Sun and Wyse.

Most of MokaFive's competitors require dedicated virtualization servers that can only host about 10 desktop images, but MokaFive streams its images from a Web server -- representing the ability to scale to hundreds of users on a single server -- or allows users to carry images in a USB stick. "All you need is a regular Web server," John Whaley, co-founder and principal engineer of MokaFive, said in an interview.

However, that comes with a significant trade-off. While software from companies like Citrix, Microsoft, and Desktone largely need to download little permanent software onto PCs and thus take up few local computing resources, MokaFive's LivePC virtual machines gradually download to the PC, so they still take up significant hard drive space.

The heavily compressed operating system image can be up and running after downloading about 100 Mbytes. The res t of the image will be downloaded in the background as needed using a technology MokaFive calls predictive fetching that tries to anticipate what a user might need next. When an admin installs new service packs on the server-based image, applications or hot fixes to the server-based image, the LivePC player downloads only the necessary changes.

Though thin clients have long failed to live up to their hype, the new breeds of desktop virtualization are attracting newfound interest. Forrester Research analyst Natalie Lambert, who also covers the security market, gets about 90 formal inquiries about technology each quarter from enterprises, and recently more than 85% of those have been about hosted desktop virtualization. "We're still in its infancy, but this technology is huge and interest is coming from every single direction," she said in an interview.

According to Lambert, desktop virtualization has the potential to far outgrow the burgeoning server virtualization market, though it will likely take years to do so and will start as server-based desktop virtualization and then move to virtual desktops hosted on the Internet. Hosted desktop virtualization requires a persistent Internet connection, and that's simply not something that's available today. Outages are frequent in remote locations and there's no Internet connection in places like airplanes.

Lambert anticipates that when conditions change, service providers like AT&T and Verizon will be best suited to offer desktop virtualization as a service. As InformationWeek recently reported, Cincinnati Bell is among those expressing early interest.

MokaFive, which like VMware emerged from Stanford, has about 20 pilot customers testing its software, including a large HMO using LivePC to allow doctors to carry their PC image and applications with them as they move around to different wings of a hospital. SAP is also using LivePC to allow salespeople to demonstrate complicated applications that require a specific computing environment.

MokaFive licenses LivePC as a hosted service where companies upload images to MokaFive servers in the cloud or as a server-based desktop virtualization offering for the same price. It supports Microsoft Windows XP SP2, Windows Vista, Mac OS X, and a custom Linux distribution known as Bare Metal as host machines.

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