VMworld 2014: Next-generation desktop virtualisation

Are the barriers preventing IT departments from virtualising user computing falling?

At VMworld Europe, VMware showcased seamless access across Macs, iPads and Windows PCs through its Workspace Suite. But are the barriers preventing IT departments from virtualising user computing falling?

The IT consumerisation trend has seen traditional desktop computing being replaced by a heterogeneous computing environment with PCs, Macs, iPads, Android tablets and smartphones.

Users want access to corporate data and, increasingly, they are looking for seamless access to applications.

Some industry experts believe technology has evolved to the point where such access is entirely possible. Both Citrix and VMware have been pushing what desktop virtualisation can deliver.

Travel Group Tui used VMware Horizon View for its desktop virtualisation project to migrate from Windows XP to Windows 7. According to infrastructure architect at Tui InfoTec Christian Rudolph, "it makes sense to go from a PC to zero client." 

To convince users, the company held a roadshow to explain to staff the benefits of using thin client devices over traditional PCs. It rolled out Wyse terminals for desktops, and gave some users access to Windows 7 from iPads.

Products like Xen Desktop from Citrix and VMware Horizon Enterprise provide thin client access to desktop Windows applications.

But performance, storage infrastructure cost and usability have prevented wide-scale adoption.

GPU access

VMware has recently announced a partnership with Nvidia to virtualise graphics-processing unit (GPU) access, allowing graphics-intensive applications to be delivered on a virtual desktop.

Vice-president and general manager of professional visualisation and design at Nvidia Jeff Brown said companies are running the most sophisticated applications and complex models virtually, without compromising the graphics experience. 

"Global manufacturing, design and engineering businesses are putting virtual GPU (vGPU) on VMware Horizon to the test," he said.

Siemens Wind Power is one of the early adopters of the technology and team leader at the wind turbine manufacturer Soren Reinersen said the company has deployed 3D-accelerated virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to 30 of its engineers, to run Siemens Teamcenter computer-aided engineering software. 

While the cost of licensing is equivalent to the cost of a high-end 3D workstation, he said by virtualising the GPU, the company is able to collaborate more easier.

Compared with the PC market, application virtualisation is fast-growing

Andy Buss, IDC

Ovum principal analyst Roy Illsey said there is a demand for Nvidia GPUs and, while Nvidia announced in 2013 GPU acceleration would be supported in Citrix XenServer, most customers use XenDesktop on vSphere. So to get the GPU capability, they needed to deploy vSphere in their datacentre. “VMware has closed the gap with Citrix," he said.

Storage challenges

Accelerated graphics is one of a number of shortcomings of VDI now being addressed, according to Illsey. "Storage used to be a bottleneck, but now you can buy optimised storage," he said.

For instance, he said PernixData sells software drivers that optimise storage input/output (I/O) at the operating system kernel level.

Condusiv Technologies works similarly, but at the Windows driver level.

Previously, organisations wishing to deploy desktop virtualisation needed to install a storage area network (SAN), but Illsey believes such storage optimisation products, combined with Flash storage, allow organisations to attain good performance cost effectively.

"Combined with Flash, you have cost-effective storage, with good performance," he said.

Application streaming

Rather than deliver a whole managed desktop, consulting manager at analyst IDC Andy Buss said application streaming is expanding the applicability of desktop virtualisation. "Desktop virtualisation is still strong in call centres and secure application delivery. But organisations are concentrating on application virtualisation," he said.

The key challenge for application streaming is to deliver a good user experience irrespective of whether the user is accessing the application from a PC, tablet or even a smartphone. "Compared with the PC market, application virtualisation is fast-growing," Buss said.

Hyper convergence

Desktop virtualisation at Airbus

Airbus went live with the first phase of a desktop virtualisation project in Summer 2014 to support 2,500 desktops and 4,000 users. 

ICT merger, acquisition and outsourcing project manager at Airbus Arnaud Albinet said the project would allow the airline manufacturer to set up new offices quickly. 

“Desktop virtualisation is agile and cost effective,” he said. 

Among the announcements VMware made at VMworld was a set of partnerships around EVO:Rail. VMware EVO:Rail combines VMware compute, networking and storage resources into a hyper-converged infrastructure appliance. According to VMware CTO Ben Fathi, businesses can set-up and deploy EVO:Rail in 15 minutes, and it can support 100 servers and 250 desktop virtual machines (VMs).

Commenting on EVO:Rail, Gartner research vice-president Philip Dawson said not all workloads need expensive infrastructure, and putting the storage controller in software lowers the cost of virtualisation.

According to Ovum's Illsey, desktop virtualisation is now easier to deploy thanks to off-the-shelf converged infrastructure products.

"Now you have VDI in a box and converged infrastructure using fabric-based technology with software engineered to work together in a fully integrated stack," he said.

A new era of desktop IT

While desktop virtualisation is not new, it has been limited to task-based workers – in a call centre, for example. User computing is no longer just about the desktop and Windows. With support for GPU acceleration, and the fact an SAN is no longer a prerequisite, desktop virtualisation and application virtualisation may replace traditional desktop IT.

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