Citrix, VMware and the race for a type 1 hypervisor

VMware and Citrix are both attempting to release a useful type 1 hypervisor, but their race is proving to be more of a marathon than a sprint.

One key hurdle to completing user virtualisation across the enterprise network is the mobile user. In a recent Citrix presentation, they identified this as a key reason for virtualisation project failure. They estimated that a desktop virtualisation project currently excluded 10-15% of the users they were targeting. For the enterprise seeking the benefits of managing a user desktop centrally, this leaves a dilemma. The originally identified benefits can be found for the majority of users, but the remainder still leave the support team with the challenges they were originally trying to remove.

With the hosted approach to virtualisation requiring a link to the data centre to receive a centrally distributed desktop image, the use of a laptop challenges the ability to connect. Considering Microsoft should dominate discussions on Windows desktops, their current laptop virtualisation offering falls short. Microsoft's "eggs" are in the Hyper-V basket, but this does not currently support their 64-bit operating system, Windows 7. So with Microsoft dropping all support for XP in the summer, those enterprises that chose not to upgrade to Vista and await the arrival of Windows 7 have a further hurdle if they wish to virtualise desktops and remain solely Microsoft.

The type 1 hypervisor
Both VMware and Citrix are currently locked in a race to release a useful type 1 hypervisor, but it is more of a marathon than a sprint. The challenges of including all the necessary drivers needed by PC users and convincing manufacturers to ship and support their respective products are high hurdles to jump.

In 2008, VMware announced a 2010 vision which included a client-side hypervisor. For laptops, Offline VDI View was highlighted with the ability to take an image offline and then synchronise when back online. At the time, Brian Madden commented, "This is something VMware has talked about in the past, but now it seems to be closer to reality."

This month, Citrix have released a "public" version of XenClient. Called XenClient Express, it contains three products; XenClient, Synchroniser and Receiver. Based upon their XenServer technology, XenClient is a true bare-metal hypervisor positioned purely for desktops and laptops. Synchroniser manages the corporate desktop from the data centre, allowing the corporate desktop to be downloaded and updated as well as providing a secure link for data to be backed up to the data centre. Receiver gives the user the ability to create their own virtual machines and access their corporate desktops.

So the race is won, right? Not quite, according to Robert Whiteley, vice president and research director at Forrester Research. Whilst recognising that XenClient provides better user experience, policy management and positions the technology in the mainstream, it will take some time before companies adopt this approach into the corporate network.

Whiteley states: "We do think desktop virtualisation will go mainstream, but 2010 will be the year when companies establish a roadmap, with actual deployments to take place a year or two later."

Citrix challenge
Another challenge facing Citrix with XenClient (and VMware, when they catch up) is compatibility with hardware platforms. XenClient was developed with Intel specifically on their vPro technology. The XenClient User Guide lists only three vendors and a dozen laptop models and requires 4 GB of RAM and 160 GB of hard disk space. So, to introduce this technology into the corporate environment, most current laptops will need replacing. With the economic outlook uncertain, it is unlikely that CEOs will be agreeing to investments in new technologies where choice is limited and budgets are tight. It is more likely that plans will be made in 2010 with pilots being agreed. This cautious approach will allow organisations to understand how to best manage and support this new type of desktop.

Alternatives 
If you do not subscribe to the gospels of Citrix, VMware and Microsoft and seek a more immediate answer, there are alternatives. For example, the NeoSphere Platform from Neocleus is a type 1 hypervisor that provides the core functionality highlighted above and has been on the market for some time.

Almost a year ago, Neocleus started shipping NeoSphere 2.1, proudly announcing compatibility with Intel vPro and AMD VT-D enabled laptops. It provides side-by-side execution of two separate and isolated operating system instances, along with granular level control of the hardware components on the desktop or laptop. This all comes from a centralised, policy-based administration system, allowing IT to centrally turn "on" and "off" devices on the target end user machine without ever touching the machine. It's designed for tight integration with Active Directory and works well with virtual desktop management applications like Microsoft App-V. The marketing purse of Neocleus is pocket change compared to Citrix and VMware, and they will be overlooked by many. Technically though, their offering deserves serious consideration.

By the end of this year, most commentators agree that Citrix will release XenClient formally (probably included in a variant of XenDesktop) and VMware will release a client hypervisor to compete. It would be surprising if Microsoft does not follow suit soon after. The race to find a type 1 hypervisor for the enterprise laptop is still very much on.

Andrew Cross is the sales director at reseller Sol-Tec and a contributor to SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.uk.

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