Virtualizing desktops is clearly an area of the enterprise that begs for IT action, but the variety of ways to go about it indicates that this technology segment is in deep ferment. Will those who have dominated the desktop so far rule a virtualized future? Perhaps, but where there's fermentation, there's also a whiff of disruption.Microsoft and Citrix Systems are going to play off their established desktop strengths to try to dominate the virtualized end user as they have dominated the desktop of the past. But it's by no means clear they will be able to do so. The number of startups, the existence of free and open source hypervisors, along with such unlikely pairings as Sun Microsystems and VMware, indicate to me that this is an area ripe for upheaval. Which gets turned over -- the dominant virtualization vendor, VMware, or the dominant desktop vendors?
Maybe both. Consider for a moment some of the advantages of an unknown, MokaFive, a 30-employee firm emanating out of research at Stanford University (as VMware did).
When it comes to desktop virtualization, two countervailing forces are at play. On the one hand, you want to centralize control of desktops. Let a few administrators in the data center generate and manage thousands of desktops at a time, from a handful of golden images they keep under lock and key. On the other hand, you want to satisfy many different types of end users with lots of personal settings, applications, and documents. Reconciling the two isn't easy.
It seems to me the dominant vendors tend to conceive of a wired world where the users are constantly linked to the central servers that provide, one way or another, a virtualized desktop. As long as the connection exists, this approach works great, and both VMware and Citrix offer some form of a connection broker to handle the requests of thousands of users at a time for their virtual machines. That way, when 5,000 site employees report to work at 9 a.m., they can all get their virtual machines up and running at the same time.
MokaFive offers no connection broker. Instead, it's gambling on a more deliberate separation of powers between administrator and user. The user is governed more by the policies and rules that accompany his assignment of a virtual machine than by constant links and close supervision. Since the virtual machine, what MokaFive refers to as its Live PC, remains resident on the user's machine, there's no need for a fresh download each morning as the user logs in. The Live PC does check with VM headquarters to see if anything in its operating system or applications has changed, but if it has, only the changes are downloaded, a much faster process than downloading complete versions.
The golden image in this case is resident on both a central server and the user's machine, gets checked and updated there regularly, but still leaves the user in constant possession of his own data, documents, and perhaps even applications, if the rules allow. And best of all, the user can disconnect from the network and continue working in his virtual machine environment on an airplane or other disconnected state for as long as he wants.
It's not for everybody -- key decisions need to be made by central IT and then lived with, as users go about doing their usual unpredictable things. Until best practices become documented, this approach might work for some, not others.
And it may not scale as well as MokaFive CTO John Whaley claims. Lots of users seeking replenishment of an outdated golden image at the same time could overtax servers unprepared for such an onslaught. For proven scalability, see Citrix, Microsoft, and VMware. But MokaFive still represents an artful split between the differing priorities of administrators and users.