Rationalizing a Virtual Desktop Architecture

Hi, my name is Manlio Vecchiet, and I am a group product manager in the Windows Server marketing group at Microsoft.

I am on my way back from Interop where I participated in an industry panel about Virtual Desktop Architecture. I was joined by VMware, Citrix and Qumranet. I enjoyed discussing Microsoft’s approach and all the great work we are doing on this scenario.

Just as a level-setting since the taxonomy and terminology is still emerging in the space, Virtual Desktop Architecture was defined as the storage and execution of a desktop workload (OS, apps, data) on a virtual machine in the datacenter and the presentation of the UI via a remote desktop protocol (such as RDP) to user devices such as thin and rich clients. Other terms used in the industry are VDI, server-hosted desktop virtualization and desktop delivery. Yes… we really need to come to some agreement in the industryJ.

First of all, server-based client computing and centralized desktops are of course not new to Microsoft – Windows Terminal Services has been delivering centralized desktops and applications for more than twelve years, and many IT departments today are enjoying the proven benefits of this mature technology.

What is new, however, is the unprecedented interest in server-based client computing, and the availability of a new virtualization infrastructure that creates different technical implementation possibilities. Advances in all forms of virtualization as well as specific business problems, such as ensuring greater levels of data privacy, reducing the cost of desktop management and improving disaster recovery processes, are driving the interest in new models of client computing within the enterprise.

Deciding on the right desktop delivery strategy and the right technologies and tools to implement is not an easy task. Enterprise IT departments need to be able to respond to the various computing needs of their entire user base, and so they have to be able to choose from a full spectrum of client computing options from full rich PCs to thin clients and centralized Windows Vista/XP, and everything in between. There is no “one size fits all” model for optimizing the delivery of a modern enterprise desktop to a broad variety of information workers.

Companies with a centralized desktop strategy effectively have a choice between a terminal server-based architecture and a hypervisor-based (VDI) architecture to deliver data center-hosted enterprise desktops. Terminal services is an integrated part of Windows Server that takes advantage of the multi-user capabilities of the OS allowing IT to create multiple, locked-down user sessions sharing a single image of the server OS. VDI is actually quite similar to terminal services except that a full client environment is virtualized within a server-based hypervisor instead of a light-weight session. In either case, the desktop is accessed by the end user via a remote desktop protocol such as RDP.

While the terminal services model is proven, mature, extremely scalable and cost-effective, not all applications are compatible with the session concept. Furthermore, many users demand higher levels of desktop customizability than terminal services supports. In contrast, with VDI users are able to get a complete desktop experience (including full admin rights), and applications will run just fine as they are running on top of a standard client OS. However, VDI is still an emerging technology which is less scalable, requires more server hardware resources and introduces additional management complexity compared with a terminal services approach.

I should point out here that Microsoft’s offering for VDI includes a management solution with System Center Virtual Machine Manager, which complements Hyper-V as the hypervisor and RDP as the remoting technology for VDI. And for optimal manageability of a virtual desktop, applications can be provisioned and updated either by streaming applications to the virtual desktop on-demand (with Microsoft Application Virtualization), or with the Terminal Services RemoteApp feature which remotes specific applications to the virtual desktop via RDP.

Partners are also building on this infrastructure delivering end to end customer value. While I was speaking in the Interop panel, on the other side of the Las Vegas strip at Microsoft Management Summit, Citrix demoed a version of XenDesktop (their VDI product) running on Hyper-V and SCVMM. I am very excited that, with our Citrix partnership, we can offer a leading end-to-end VDI solution based on the Microsoft Hyper-V infrastructure, with common management for physical and virtual environments alike through the System Center line of products.

Centralized desktops, including virtual desktop architectures have a firm place in the ‘arsenal of weapons’ enterprise IT can choose from to best respond to the needs of specific users. At the same time we probably won’t see large production deployments of virtual desktops until some of the hard problems such as the provisioning of personalized virtual desktop images and the user experience over a remote protocol are addressed. In fact, I believe that Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Calista Technologies is proof that investments into areas such as improving the remote user experience are both necessary and instrumental in accelerating broad adoption of virtual desktops.

Virtual desktop architectures have caught the eye of corporate IT, and for a good reason. The technology is only emerging, and there are still many challenges around implementing and managing a virtual desktop environment. But the promise of VDI is real, and the payoffs of a rationalized implementation are potentially huge. So let’s enjoy the ride!

-Manlio Vecchiet