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VMware Virtual Desktop Manager treads on Citrix turf

VMware VDM 2 has started to look like a real connection broker, but does it compare with more established players, or more to the point, does anyone really care yet?

VMware Inc. made its new Virtual Desktop Manager (VDM) connection broker generally available this week, removing it from beta and adding important features to the baseline functionality included in the 1.x version.

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The new VDM 2 is now available as a packaged product, complete with pricing and support, said Jerry Chen, VMware senior director of enterprise desktops. Previously, VDM was available exclusively through VMware's professional services organization, he explained.

While VDM 2 strives to chip away at the success of existing connection brokers like those from Citrix Systems Inc. and Provision Networks Inc., its functionality raises questions as to whether the technology is truly competitive with offerings like Citrix XenDesktop, whose new release is on the horizon.

As it stands, VDM's role is to complement and enhance a VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) deployment, VMware's approach to centrally hosting desktops on top of its virtualization layer. Like any connection broker, VDM's most fundamental role is to allow a user to log in and access a designated desktop image, but VDM 2 includes some new functionality as well, Chen said, including the following:

  • two-factor authentication using RSA Security Inc.'s RSA SecurID;
  • an optional encryption tunnel for Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) traffic traveling over the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL);
  • pool management capabilities that allow VDM to organize and classify different types of users; and
  • support for remote USB.

Other notable features of VDM, Chen said, include the ability to cluster VDM servers for failover and scalability. VMware will sell VDM 2 as a bundle with VMware Infrastructure 3 (VI3) for $150 per concurrent user. And for users with existing VI3 investments, VMware will also offer VDM "à la carte."

VDM: Too little, too soon?
But by all appearances, demand for VDI -- and therefore for a connection broker like VDM -- is still in its infancy. Furthermore, compared with existing connection brokers from the likes of Citrix Systems and Provision Networks, VDM lacks a lot of important advanced capabilities, one expert said.

VMware is great at managing systems, but they don't have much of a provisioning story.
Brian Madden,

Take Pentair Inc., a manufacturer of water filters, pump systems and pool accessories whose Sanford, N.C., division is testing VMware VDI for delivery of basic applications to the 1,400 Active Directory users that work in the facility. Tony Arnett, a senior systems engineer at the firm, first heard about VDI after attending the VMworld conference in 2006 and quickly brought online a small 10 VM deployment that includes Wyse Technology Inc.'s thin clients and that he rotates around the facility on a cart. Up until a couple of days ago, he was still using VDM 1.x, "because if it ain't broke, don't fix it," Arnett said, and the firm still has not determined whether it will continue with VDI on a wide scale. "Management hasn't really set the plan about what we're going to do yet. There's a lot of them and just one of me," Arnett said.

Arnett said he chose VDM over competitive connection brokers because he "wasn't all that impressed with them," and because "it didn't make sense to use a third-party broker when [VDM] was integrated [with VMware VI3]."

Then there are the VDI shops that don't use a connection broker at all. At Huntsville Hospital in Huntsville, Ala., IT staffers are about halfway through a project to virtualize 1,600 Windows XP desktops for clinical staff like doctors and nurses, but there is nary a connection broker in sight. For the time being, explained Tony Wilburn, a senior network specialist with the hospital, virtual desktops are mapped one to one with their physical stations, and access to applications is managed via a user's login.

"It's better that way," said Wilburn. "That way, a doctor can go to, say, a nurse's station, and use their ID to get an application that the nurse might not need." This approach is also quite simple to administer, Wilburn said, since IT staff only maintains a single small (5 GB) XP image that contains all the clinical staffers' applications.

It's the application delivery, stupid
But if you want to do VDI with any degree of sophistication, eventually you'll need a full-featured connection broker complete with dynamic application delivery and provisioning capabilities, said Brian Madden, an independent consultant who focuses on server-based computing. "Otherwise, you can only do it with your nurses, your students, your task workers; you can't use it for a more diverse user population."

And whether VMware's VDM fits the bill remains to be seen. "VMware is great at managing systems, but they don't have much of a provisioning story," Madden said. As it stands, VMware's VDI model relies on a Microsoft's System Preparation Tool (Sysprep) to build a new [virtual] machine every time a dynamic user connects, he explained. Introduced as part of the Windows NT 4.0 operating system, "Sysprep really wasn't designed for the world of dynamic desktops."

In contrast, both Citrix and Provision Networks have very good application provisioning stories, Madden said. Citrix's forthcoming XenDesktop and Provision's Virtual Access Suite, for instance, can manage VMs from a variety of vendors as well as Microsoft Terminal Services, can snap into VMware's VirtualCenter and can efficiently deliver individual dynamic desktops, he said, thanks to technologies like Citrix's Ardence application streaming.

Provision Networks latest Virtual Access Suite 5.9 was announced in September, and the company was acquired by Quest Software in November. Meanwhile, Citrix XenDesktop is scheduled for general availability this quarter.

"Once Citrix XenDesktop comes out, it will blow VDM 2 out of the water."

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

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