VDI, the Next Generation or the Final Frontier?

After sitting through a virtualization sales pitch focused around Virtual Desktop Infrastructures (VDI) this afternoon I had several thoughts on the topic I thought may be blog worthy.

VDI has been a constant buzzword for a few years now, riding the coattails of server virtualization.  For the majority of those years you can search back and find predictions from the likes of Gartner touting ‘This is the year for VDI’ or making other similar statements, typically with projected growth rates that don’t ever happen.  What you won’t see is those same analyst organizations reaching back the year after and answering to why they over hyped it, or were blatantly incorrect. (Great idea for a yearly blog here, analyzing previous years failed predictions.)

The reasons they’ve been incorrect vary over the years starting with technical inadequacy of the infrastructures and lack of real understanding as an industry.  When VDI first hit the forefront many of us (myself included) made the assumption desktops could be virtualized the same as servers (Windows is Windows right?)  What we neglected to account for is the plethora of varying user applications, the difficulty of video and voice, and other factors such as boot storms which are unique and or more amplified within VDI environments than their server counterparts.  From there for a short while the VDI rollout horror stories and memories of failed Proof of Concepts slowed adoption and interest for a short period.

Now we’re at a point where the technology can overcome the challenges and the experts are battle hardened with knowledge of success and failures in various environments; yet still adoption is slow.  Users are bringing new devices into the workplace and expecting them to interface with enterprise services; yet still adoption is slow.  We supposedly have a more demanding influx of younger generation employees who demand remote access from their chosen devices; yet still adoption is slow.  This doesn’t mean that VDI isn’t being adopted, nor that the market share numbers aren’t increasing across the board; it’s just slow.

The reason for this is that our thinking and capabilities for service delivery have surpassed the need for VDI in many environments. VDI wasn’t an end-goal but instead an improvement over individually managed, monitored, and secured local end-user OS environments.  The end-goal isn’t removing the OS tie to the hardware on the end-point (which is what VDI does) but instead removing the applications tie to the OS; or more simply put: removing any local requirements for access to the services.  Starting to sound like cloud?

Cloud is the reason enterprise IT hasn’t been diving into VDI head first, the movement to cloud services has shown that for many we may have passed the point where VDI could show true Return On Investment (ROI) before being obsoleted.  Cloud is about delivering the service to any web connected end-point on-demand regardless of platform (OS.)  If you can push the service to my iOS, Android, Windows, Linux, etc. device without the requirement for a particular OS, then what’s the need for VDI?

To use a real world example I am a Microsoft zealot, I use Windows 7, Bing for search and only IE for browsing on my work and personal computers (call me retro.)  I also own an iPad, mainly due to the novelty and the fact that I got addicted to ‘Flight Control’ on a friends iPad at release of the original.  I occasionally use the iPad for what I’d call ‘productivity work’ related to my primary role or side projects.  Using my iPad I do things like: Access corporate email for the company I work for and my own, review files, access Salesforce, and Salesforce Chatter, and even perform some remote equipment demos, my files are seamlessly synched between my various other computers.  I do all of this without a Windows 7 virtual desktop running on my iPad, it’s all done through apps connected to these services directly.  In fact the only reason I have VDI client applications on my iPad is to demo VDI, not to actually work.

Now an iPad is not a perfect example, I’d never use it for developing content (slides, reports, spreadsheets, etc.) but I do use it for consuming content, email, etc.  To develop I turn to a laptop with full keyboard, screen and some monitor outputs.  This laptop may be a case for VDI but in reality why?  If the services I use are cloud based, public or private, and the data I utilize is as well, then the OS is irrelevant again.  With office applications moving to the cloud (Microsoft Office 365, Google Docs, etc.) along with many others, and many services and applications already there, what is the need for a VDI infrastructure?

VDI like server virtualization is really a band-aid for an outdated application deployment process which uses local applications tied to a local OS and hardware.  Virtualizing the hardware doesn’t change that model but can provide benefits such as:

  • Centralized control
  • Added security
  • More efficient backup
  • Support staff reduction/repurposing
  • Broader device support
  • Reduced administrative overhead
  • etc.

Once the wound of our current application deployment model has fully healed, the band-aid comes off and we have service delivery from cloud computing environments free of any OS or hardware ties.

So friends don’t let friends virtualize desktops right?

Not necessarily.  As shown above VDI can have significant advantages over standard desktop deployment.  Those advantages can drive business flexibility and reduce costs.  The difficult questions will become

  • Whether your organization can utilize a pure service delivery model based on security needs, organizational readiness, application/service readiness, etc.
  • Whether the VDI gains will be seen before the infrastructure can be replaced with a fully service based model

Many organizations will still see benefits from deploying VDI today because the ROI of VDI will occur more quickly than the ability to deliver all business apps as a service.  Additionally VDI is an excellent way to begin getting your feet wet with the concepts of supporting any device with organizational controls and delivering services remotely.  Coupling VDI with things like thin apps will put you one step closer while providing additional flexibility to your IT environment.

When assessing a VDI project you’ll want to take a close look at the time it will take your organization to hit ROI with the deployment and assess that against the time it would take to move to a pure service delivery model (if your organization would be capable of such.)  VDI is a fantastic tool in the data center tool bag, but like all others it’s not the right tool for every job.  VDI is definitely the Next Generation but it is not The Final Frontier.

Additional fun:

Here are some sales statements that are commonly used when pitching VDI, all of these I consider to be total hogwash.  Try out or modify a few of my one line answers next time your vendors there telling you about the wonderful world of VDI and why you need it now.

Vendor: ‘<Insert analyst here (Gartner, etc.)> says that 2011 is the year for VDI.’  Alternatively ‘<Insert analyst here (Gartner, etc.)> predicts VDI to grow X amount this year.’

My answer: ‘That’s quite interesting, let’s adjourn for now and reconvene when you’ve got data on <Insert analyst here (Gartner, etc.)>’s VDI predictions for the previous 5 years.’

Vendor: ‘The next generation of workers coming from college demand to use the devices and services they are used to, to do their job.’

My answer: ‘Excellent, they’ll enjoy working somewhere that allows that, we have corporate policies and rules to protect our data and network.’  This won’t work in every case as Mike Stanley (@mikestanley) pointed out to me, universities for example have student IT consumers who are the paying customers, this would be much more difficult in such cases.

Vendor: ‘People want a Bring Your Own (BYO) device model.’

My Answer: ‘If I bring my own device and the fact that I want to matters, what makes you think I’ll want your desktop?  Just give me application or service.’

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Additional Private Cloud Blogs

For those that are interested and unaware I’ve been blogging for Network Computing for about a month on their Private Cloud Tech Center.  You can find those blogs here: http://www.networkcomputing.com/private-cloud-tech-center.  You should see a new one there every week or so.  I will continue to publish content here as regularly as possible and I’m always seeking new contributors for guest posts or regular contributions.  Contact me via the About page if you’re interested.

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Server/Desktop Virtualization–A Best of Breed Band-Aid

Virtualization is a buzzword that has moved beyond into mainstream use and enterprise deployment.  A few years back vendors were ‘virtualization-washing’ their products and services the way many ‘cloud-wash’ the same today.  Now a good majority of enterprises are well into their server virtualization efforts and moving into Virtual Desktop Infrastructures (VDI) and cloud deployments.  This is not by accident, hardware virtualization comes with a myriad of advantages such as: resource optimization, power and cooling savings, flexibility, rapid deployment, etc.  That being said we dove into server/desktop virtualization with the same blinders on we’ve worn as an industry since we broke away from big iron.  We effectively fix point-problems while ignoring big picture, and create new problems in the process:

  • Fix cost/support of the mainframe with commodity servers, end up with scalability and management issues.
  • Consolidate servers and storage to combat scalability end up with density issues and reencounter scalability problems with growth.
  • Move to blades and end up with ‘Mini-Racks.’ (See Sean McGee’s post: http://www.mseanmcgee.com/2010/05/the-mini-rack-approach-to-blade-server-design/)
  • Virtualize and end up with management complexity, sprawl, and other issues.

The underlying issue is the way in which we design our applications.  When we moved to commodity servers we built an application model with a foundation of one application, one operating system (OS), one server.  We’ve maintained that model ever since.  Server/desktop virtualization provides benefits but does not change this model it just virtualizes the underlying server and places more silos on a single piece of hardware to increase utilization.  Our applications and the services they deliver are locked into this model and suffer from it when we look at scale, flexibility and business continuance.

This is not a sustainable model, or at best not the most efficient model for service delivery.  Don’t take my word for it, jump on Bing and do a search for recent VMware acquisitions/partnerships.  The dominant giant in virtualization is acquiring companies or partnering with companies poised to make it the dominant giant in PaaS and SaaS.   Cloud computing as a whole offers the opportunity to rethink service delivery, or possibly more importantly brings the issue of service delivery and IT costing to the front of our minds. 

Moving applications and services to robust, highly available, flexible architectures is the first step in transforming IT to a department that enables the business.  The second step is removing the application OS silo and building services that can scale up and down independent of the underlying OS stack.  When you talk about zero downtime business continuance, massively scalable applications, global accessibility and other issues the current model is an anchor. 

That being said transforming these services is no small task.  Redesigning applications to new architectures can be monumental.  Redesigning organizations/processes and retraining people can be even more difficult.  The technical considerations for designing global highly available services touches on every aspect of application and architecture design: storage, network, web access, processing, etc.  That being said the tools are either available or rapidly emerging.

Any organization looking to make significant IT purchases or changes should be considering all of the options and looking at the big picture as much as possible.  The technology is available to transform the way we do business.  It may not be right for every organization or application but it’s not an all or nothing proposition.  There’s no fault in virtualizing servers and desktops today, but the end goal on the road map should be efficient service delivery optimized to the way you do business.

For more of my thoughts on this see my post on www.networkcomputing.com: http://www.networkcomputing.com/private-cloud/230600012.

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My Recent Guest Spot on The Cloudcast (.NET) Podcast


Brian Gracely, Aaron Delp, and I discuss converged infrastructure stack, tech news and industry direction: http://www.thecloudcast.net/2011/06/cloudcast.html.  It was a lot of fun to chat with them and we covered some great topics.

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The Difference Between Private Cloud and Converged Infrastructure

With all of the  hype around private clouds and manufacturer private cloud infrastructure stacks I thought I’d take some time  to differentiate between ‘private-cloud’ and ‘converged-infrastructure.’  For some background on Private Cloud see two of my previous posts: http://www.definethecloud.net/building-a-private-cloud and http://www.definethecloud.net/is-private-cloud-a-unicorn.

Private clouds typically consist of four architectural stages (I describe these here: http://www.definethecloud.net/smt-matrix-and-vblock-architectures-for-private-cloud):

To build a true private cloud hardware/platform consolidation is layered with virtualization, automation and orchestration (without which the ‘On-Demand Self Service requirement of NIST’s definition is not met.)  The end result is a IT model and infrastructure that moves at the pace of business.

Converged infrastructure on the other hand is a subset of this, typically consolidation and virtualization but could possibly include some automation.  With all major vendors selling some form of ‘Integrated stack’ marketed at Private Cloud I thought I’d take a look at where four of the most popular actually fall along the path.



Starting from the bottom (as in bottom of the pyramid rather than bottom in quality, value, etc.)

FlexPod: FlexPod is an architecture designed using NetApp storage and Cisco compute and networking components.  The FlexPod architectures address various business and application needs but do not include automation/orchestration software.  The idea being that customers will have the flexibility to choose the level and type of automation/orchestration suite they require.

Vblock: Vblocks consist of EMC storage couple with VMware virtualization and Cisco Network/Compute.  Additionally VBlock incorporates EMC’s Unified Infrastructure Manager (UIM) which enables automation and single point of management for most of the infrastructure components. An orchestration suite would still be required for true private cloud.

Exalogic: Oracle’s stack offering is Exalogic which combines Oracle hardware with their middleware and software to provide a private cloud platform tailored toward Java environments.  The provisioning tools included offer the promise of private cloud ‘on-demand self-service.’

BladeSystem Matrix: Is built upon HP BladeSystem, storage, network and software components and is managed by HP’s Cloud Service Automation.  The automation and orchestration tools included in that software suite put HP’s offering in the private cloud arena.

Bottom Line:

Depending on the drivers, requirements, and individual environment all of these stacks can offer customers a platform from which to rapidly build cloud services.  The key is in deciding what you want and what is the best tool to get you there.  The best tool to get you there will be based on both ROI and business agility as cost is not the only reason for a migration to cloud.

For a deeper look at private cloud stacks check out my post at Networking Computing (http://www.networkcomputing.com/private-cloud/229900081.)

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