Wyse Technology said today that it has the ability to host VMware virtual machines on some of its thin clients, giving IT managers an alternative to running Citrix and Windows Terminal Services.
"With Citrix, multiple users are accessing a single OS and applications on the same platform," said Jerry Chen, VMware director of enterprise desktop platforms and solutions. But with this approach, he said, "each user gets his or her own operating system."
Wyse has developed a VDI Edition of Thin OS, the 1.5MB embedded operating system that runs on its S-class terminals. The Wyse thin clients run standard Remote Desktop Protocol and connect to a VMware ESX server hosting the virtual desktops. Alternately, for shops with large numbers of thin clients to manage, they can connect via a connection broker such as those offered by Citrix, Propero or LeoStream and simplify mapping thin clients to their virtual machines.
Wyse isn't the only vendor partnering with VMware for desktop virtualization. VMware announced its VDI Alliance in April and counts 28 members, including Wyse thin client competitors Hewlett-Packet and Neoware.
In the case of Wyse VDI Edition thin clients, "you can run between 20 and 30 virtual desktops on a single low-end Dell server," said Ricardo Antuna, Wyse vice president of business line management. List price for a Wyse S-class thin client is $299. Running VDI Edition desktops also requires an ESX Server license.
It would be possible to run VDI virtual machines on a generic PC, said Antuna, but it's unclear why anyone would want to. "You'd have to pay for two Windows licenses -- the one running on ESX server and the one running on the client."
VMware, for its part, sees the Wyse "VDI Edition" terminals as a sign of the increasingly broad role being played by its VMware Infrastructure 3 platform. "The most exciting thing from our point of view is that as users are consolidating on VMware, they're thinking about ways to use it to solve other IT problems, like the problem of unmanaged desktops," , said Chen.
Thin clients gaining ground?
Depending on who you listen to, thin clients make up between 5% and 10% of the desktop client market, with particular success in healthcare, retail and finance. Wyse sees its main competition from Hewlett-Packard and Neoware, Antuna said.
"It's not a huge market, but it's a growing market," said Mark Margevicius, research director for client platforms at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "Our customers are particularly interested in it because of the security, management and cost benefits thin clients represent."
But while Margevicius sees the Wyse-VMware partnership as a good thing, thin clients in general may have trouble getting a bigger share of the desktop market. "There's the traditional desktop, of course," said Margevicius, "but there's also application streaming like Softricity Softgrid [recently acquired by Microsoft], operating system and application streaming like what Ardence or Wyse with its Streaming Manager are doing, and blade-based PCs from HP and ClearCube."
Even in organizations that have deployed thin clients, their use is fairly limited, leaving IT administrators to explore other approaches to managed desktops.
Wellspan Health, a not-for-profit, community-based health care system in York, Pa., has 500 Wyse thin clients that run Windows XP embedded and are used use by doctors and nurses as "point-of-care" terminals. The devices cost about $600 apiece including memory, monitor and wireless card, or "about the same as a regular PC," Defelice said.
Although thin clients don't cost any less than a PC, "they do force us in to a managed environment," Defelice said. "We're coming from [Windows] 95 – about as far away from a well managed environment as you can get," Defelice said.
But with thin clients such a small portion of the overall desktop market, IT administrators are exploring other technologies for managing desktops.
App virtualization emerges
With 500 devices, Wellspan has a respectable number of thin clients, but that numbers are dwarfed by the 4,500 PC desktops Wellspan manages across 70 locations including hospitals, doctors' offices, labs and the like. Managing them has proved difficult enough to prompt Defelice to deploy Altiris' Software Virtualization Solution (SVS), out to an initial group of 150 desktops.
The Lindon, Utah-based Altiris released SVS in March and has been working hard to popularize the package. The company has made SVS free for personal use, and earlier this week, released an SVS API. The company also announced that the popular SVS utility Trinket had been released to the open source community via SourceForge.net.
With SVS, administrators "virtualize" an application by recording how it gets installed. A standalone SVS utility or tool or Altriris' Wise PackageInstaller collects the file system changes and registry settings created by an install routine and bundles them in along with the executable in to a Virtual Software Package, or VSP. The VSP can then be loaded on to a client running an SVS agent, a file system filter driver that intercepts file system and registry calls and handles them instead of the operating system.
This has many implications for desktop manageability. "With application virtualization, provisioning and 'de-provisioning' is much simpler," said Scott Jones, SVS product manager at Altiris. It also helps eliminate conflicts between applications, as files and registry settings are kept separate from other applications, he said.
Users are finding other novel uses for SVS.
Back at Wellspan, Defelice has found that SVS is a great way to manage the problem of incompatible versions of Microsoft Access. "We might have 60 to 70 different Access databases all created with different versions," Defelice said. "It's a real pain." Wellspan has virtualized several versions of Access, which it loads on to end users' PCs when they need to open an older database. "That way, we can be sure that databases associated with a particular version always get started up with the correct version."
Another Altiris SVS user, Mercy Health Services Inc. in Baltimore, has deployed SVS to 50 of its 2,200 managed desktops and is experimenting with integrating SVS in to its Active Directory structure. This would allows an application to be activated and deactivated upon login, said Matt Giblin, Mercy senior desktop engineer. "It becomes a good login licensing scheme," he said. "If an app is just loaded -- but not activated -- it's not taking up a license because [Windows] can't see it," he said.
In the long run, application virtualization may make a much deeper impression on the desktop than thin clients because it doesn't require the use of proprietary hardware. Like application virtualization today, thin computing of yore had as a mantra to "make the client system more flexible and secure," said Michael Dortch, principal business analyst and IT infrastructure management practice leader at the Robert Frances Group Inc. in Westport, Conn. "But the way to do it was never to take away existing hardware and replace it with something far less functional – that was never going to fly."
By using on the same desktop PC hardware that users have come to know and love – or at least tolerate, said Dortch, "[app virtualization] takes today's thick client and instead of trying to make it thin, makes it more fit and agile."