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Microsoft slashes Vista VDI license pricing; acquires Calista Technologies

While expounding on its new Dynamic IT vision for virtualization, Microsoft also slipped in several nuggets of news related to Vista and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

Speaking from its private Virtualization Deployment Summit in Bellevue, Wash., today, Microsoft Corp. will tout several strategic changes in its virtualization strategy that when taken together make desktop virtualization attractive to a broader swath of IT shops.

Under the banner of its new Dynamic IT vision, Microsoft officially made the following announcements:

  • New licensing options for running Microsoft Windows Vista as a virtual machine (VM);
  • The acquisition of Calista Technologies Inc.
  • Interoperability between Citrix Systems Inc.'s XenServer and Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor.
  • A broad alliance with Citrix; and
  • Support by the Office team for Microsoft Office using SoftGrid Application Virtualization.

As a whole, these announcements reflect the importance that Microsoft has placed on virtualization, which David Greschler, the company's director of virtualization strategy, described as "a great enabler to massive flexibility in the data center." To that end, "we want to make sure that the right pieces are in place so that people can adopt it."

Changes to Microsoft's Vista licensing take effect right away and should have an immediate, tangible impact on virtual desktop deployments. As of today, all Vista SKUs can be legally licensed in a virtualization environment, including Windows Vista Home Basic and Windows Vista Home Premium. Previously, Greschler explained, only Vista Enterprise, Premium and Ultimate could be virtualized (that is, could be run under desktop virtualization programs like VMware Workstation or Microsoft Virtual PC).

Microsoft has also slashed the cost of Vista virtual desktops under its Vista Enterprise Centralized Desktop (VECD) license from $56 to $23 per desktop, per year. Announced in April, VECD allows licensees to run up to four Vista instances but is still available only to Software Assurance customers, the Microsoft subscription service used mainly by larger enterprises.

Making VDI multimedia-friendly
Also of interest to virtual desktop users is Microsoft's acquisition of Calista Technologies, which has developed software to improve the multimedia experience for users running in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) environments.

Calista's technology is 100% software, Greschler said, and integrates with Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), the remote access protocol bundled with Microsoft desktop operating systems and used for remote access by VDI users today.

Still under development, the Calista Virtual Desktop will not be sold as a standalone product, but rather will be integrated into future versions of Windows Server 2008 (W2K8) and Microsoft Terminal Services, Greschler said.

According to independent analyst Brian Madden, a server-based computing expert, Calista takes a server-side approach to improving multimedia performance for VDI users. In an article on the future of RDP, Madden had this to say about Calista's approach:

In "virtualizing" the graphics system of the host, software on the host captures all possible graphical layers (GDI, WPF, DirectX, etc.) and renders them into a remote protocol stream (like RDP) where they're sent down to the client as fast as possible. (Certainly much faster than the default of 10x per second.)

And because all the work is being done remotely, "the real value of the Calista technology is that even the thinnest and dumbest devices can get a really good [multimedia] experience," Madden said in an interview with

Other approaches to solving VDI's lackluster multimedia performance have focused on enhanced server and thin-client hardware. For example, NEC's Virtual PC Center (VPCC) is a VDI bundle that includes specialized firmware on both servers and thin clients. But specialized hardware may come with additional cost, negating the economic advantages of a VDI.

Citrix's role
To the casual observer, Microsoft's renewed focus on the RDP protocol would suggest that it is squeezing out longtime partner Citrix, which has traditionally augmented the Microsoft Terminal Services platform and RDP with a protocol of its own, ICA. Instead, Citrix plays heavily in today's spate of announcements.

For one, Citrix is developing a migration tool that would enable Citrix Xen and Microsoft Hyper-V virtual machines to run seamlessly on either platform based on their shared use of the VHD virtual machine format. In addition, Microsoft has developed a list of five different virtual desktop scenarios: the so-called Windows Optimized Desktop solutions toward which end Citrix will provide key enabling technology.

When it comes to virtual desktops, "there's no one-size-fits-all solution," said Greschler. For instance, a contract worker might benefit from a VDI desktop, a task worker may do best in a Terminal Services environment, and a disconnected laptop user could more effectively use technologies like SoftGrid application virtualization or Vista BitLocker for security and folder and profile redirection, he said. Where Citrix comes into play "is how to get the right desktop to the right user at the right time," Greschler said.

According to Sumit Dawan, Citrix director of product marketing in its Desktop Delivery Group, there are three components to a virtual desktop solution: the hosting platform, the delivery system; and the management environment.

Under this model, the hosting platform is represented by technologies like Hyper-V and Microsoft Terminal Services, and management is provided Microsoft System Center. Meanwhile the delivery system is Citrix's domain, performing tasks like connection brokering, handling creation of on-demand desktops and giving administrators a window into the current virtual desktop environment.

This functionality is included in the forthcoming XenDesktop available this May and with support for Hyper-V shortly after it becomes generally available this summer.

Let's not forget SoftGrid
Microsoft's application virtualization platform SoftGrid also got a boost today following the news that Microsoft's Office group will support virtualized Office applications directly rather than referring problems back to the SoftGrid group. The support promise applies to Microsoft Office 2003 and 2007 running under both Microsoft SoftGrid 4.2 and 4.5.

"This is our attempt to get more ISVs [independent software vendors] to support virtualization of their own applications," said Greschler. When it comes to new technology adoption, "the devil is in the details. People need to feel comfortable that they will be supported."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Alex Barrett, News Director.

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