VDI versus Reality

I have a long history in the remote desktop and remote application market, so for obvious reasons I like the notion of virtual desktops.  But when creating slideware for a series of one-day TechTarget seminars on VDI I started thinking about the “reality” of VDI.  A couple of VDI facts I collected are confusing but also interesting when looking at them side-by-side.  Both Citrix and VMware claim that they are the market leader and currently have a VDI user base of roughly 1.5 million each – in a market of 600 million desktops in total.  This means that VDI has a 1% market share at most, but only if all VDI licenses delivered by all VDI vendors are used in production.  That’s not too impressive, but okay, it’s an emerging market. Even if it was 5%, traditional desktops would still be dominating the market. And this is exactly what I hear when talking to customers: VDI is still a niche. Migrating their physical PCs to Windows 7 is far more important for most customers.

On the other side, in some of their public slide decks Microsoft states that VDI will reach a market share of more than 30% in 2010 and 60% in 2012 according to Gartner, IDC and Microsoft internal projections.  Okay, if this comes true, the next years will be extremely successful for ALL VDI vendors, such as Microsoft, Citrix, VMware, Quest, Red Hat, Oracle, Ericom, Propalms, Virtual Bridges, MokaFive, PanoLogic, NComputing, Kaviza, Leostream and Synchron.  Assuming that none of the big vendors and market analysts is lying, the reality may be that VDI is used in parallel to traditional desktops, adding to the total number of existing desktops rather than just replacing them.  It may still get tough for some of the smaller vendors as Gartner’s virtualization hype cycle published in July 2010 shows that hosted virtual desktops are on their way down from the peak of inflated expectations to the trough of disillusionment.  But there’s light at the end of the tunnel as Gartner also predicts that it will take hosted virtual desktops less than two years to mainstream adoption.  This means high risks for small vendors, but big opportunities for investors.

Here’s another VDI thing:  In their commercials and banner ads, Citrix claims that their products are all about simplicity.  What?  Citrix is either ignoring the facts or has some interesting interpretation of the word simplicity.  Today’s VDI solutions are all about solving provisioning, brokerage, networking, storage, scalability, user experience and personalization issues.  Without any doubt these are all very complex things, which not only influence VDI environments based on Citrix products.  VMware and Microsoft are not better here.  Installing a production-ready VMware VDI environment is also far from being easy, no matter how experienced you are.  Ever tried to setup a Microsoft-only VDI environment with all the different server roles and role services?  If you did you know what I’m talking about.  That ain’t simple!  It takes me a full day to introduce the core VDI principles, products and challenges to seasoned IT professionals – and I can only scratch the surface.  I interpret simplicity as something similar to the iPad user interface (even though I don’t like Apple stuff too much, but that’s another story).  Everything that takes longer than ten or twenty minutes to introduce and everything that requires an expert to make it work is not simple.  Telling an IT professional or his boss that introducing and maintaining VDI is simple just sucks, it’s misleading.  Citrix, can you hear me?

But wait a minute.  Maybe Citrix was looking at VDI from a user’s perspective.  Provided that a troop of house-elves installed and perfectly configured a full-blown Citrix XenApp and XenDesktop environment (including some add-on products), things may indeed look simple for a user.  He or she can use any endpoint device and get intuitive access to any application – independent if installed locally or remotely – while enjoying superior performance and full personalization.  The nature of the endpoint device doesn’t matter; Windows is only the mandatory backend runtime environment required for a subset of the applications requested by the users.  The endpoint device can be whatever the user prefers to use.  If this is what Citrix had in mind when creating their marketing campaign around simplicity, I’m all in.  If only it was not so hard to find good house-elves and get the endless budget approved.

But it gets worse.  In two weeks I will be speaking at BASTA, a major developer conference in Europe.  I’m on the Azure track, talking about “Windows applications in the cloud” (Tue, Sept 21, 5:15pm).  My goal is to educate developers about the impacts it has when running their Windows applications from one of the major VDI and remoting platforms.  I’m really looking forward to meet with the Microsoft developer community.  But when browsing the agenda and seeing what other speakers have to share with the audience I get the feeling that I come from a different planet.  They are talking about Software as a Service, SOA and Silverlight while Microsoft confirms their confidence that this will be the future.  Wait a minute, that’s the same Microsoft saying that VDI will be the dominating desktop delivery model of the future.  I mean, let’s face it, as of today Azure doesn’t even have an IaaS offering.  The Azure platform cannot host virtual desktops you can connect to through RDP from the outside, even though Prashant Ketkar, marketing director for Azure, promised such functionality in February.  If it was really important to Microsoft, they would be offering this service by now.  Is Microsoft cheating on us VDI guys?  Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but Microsoft seems to have multiple agendas.

So, in a nutshell, it looks like all major vendors and market analysts are walking in the dark.  The Citrix versus VMware fights may become obsolete in less than two years when Silverlight finally dominates the market and Windows is just an application hosting platform within Azure – just kidding, but I scared you for a moment, didn’t I!  But there’s still some truth in my statement.  What if the Microsoft developers are right?  What if they are about to start creating the next-generation applications that don’t require a Windows desktop anymore?  Did you ever see how smooth Silverlight applications run on a Mac?  Is it possible that in five or ten years we will be looking back at virtual desktops with a smile of wisdom and knowing that they were only good for a transition phase?  On the other side, who knows what IT users will be asking for in some years?  Maybe the next-generation VDI will be based on an über-cool Windows 8 or 9 desktop that rocks the world by then.  Just keep that in mind when listening to all the VDI marketing at VMworld, Synergy and Tech-Ed.