In 2011, will Microsoft muscle in on virtual desktops too?

In early 2010, Microsoft’s position on virtual desktop technology was one of benign neglect. In 2011, it has a much different story to tell.

Microsoft has all the pieces to be a big player in desktop virtualization, but the company never completely warmed to this emerging technology because it is a computing model that runs counter to the Windows desktop paradigm.

Indeed, the software company actually slowed adoption by enforcing licensing rules that made virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) too expensive for companies to justify. But its profile changed this year when Microsoft introduced a VDI-friendly licensing model and improved its own virtual desktop technologies to get in the game.

Today, Microsoft’s “VDI suite” is really a hodgepodge of products that IT pros cobble together to create a virtual desktop environment using Windows Server 2008 R2, Hyper-V R2, Systems Center Virtual Machine Manager, Configuration Manager and Operations Manager. They also need to use Windows 7 and Microsoft’s virtual desktop offerings, which include RemoteFX (previously Remote Desktop Protocol), App-V, Med-V and Remote Desktop Services (formerly Terminal Services).

Even though Microsoft has what it takes to sell a complete VDI environment, it urges customers to adopt virtual desktop technologies conservatively, with an eye on specific business needs. The company’s continued hesitancy toward VDI makes sense, given what the technology means for Windows PCs, said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft.

“Microsoft still promotes the idea that you need a full Windows OS and a full copy of Office on the endpoint, but with VDI, people start to wonder why they need a PC at all, because they can access their desktop on any endpoint,” Cherry said. “The other issue is that while Microsoft has the technologies to create a VDI environment, it is still woefully complex.”

And while Microsoft may view VDI to be a threat to Windows relevancy, Mark Margevicius, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said Microsoft also recognizes it as a potential moneymaker.

“At the end of the day, they have to answer to stockholders, so they have to take the opportunity to make money, which they did by changing the licensing model,” Margevicius said. “So even if they offer no VDI products, they make money off the technology.”

Microsoft VDI and Windows 7
Microsoft suggests that customers begin with user-state and application virtualization, which costs less than installing a full VDI environment. Both of those layers can be applied to local desktops, Remote Desktop Services or VDI if necessary, said Karri Alexion-Tiernan, Microsoft’s director of desktop virtualization products.

With user-state virtualization or personalization software, user data is separated from the device and replicated centrally. User-state products are currently available from AppSense, Liquidware Labs, UniDesk and a number of other companies. IT pros can also create user state virtualization in Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate editions using three features -- Roaming User Profiles, Folder Redirection and Offline Files.

Those features existed in Windows XP, but they were enhanced for desktop virtualization in Windows 7. For instance, there are 13 folders that can be redirected in Windows 7, compared with five in Windows XP, and Offline Files in Windows 7 is better at transitioning from online to offline modes and synchronizing files.

App-V and Med-V
Some would argue that Microsoft’s strongest VDI tool is App-V, application virtualization software that separates applications from the operating system to prevent conflicts without changing the Windows registries or the OS installation. It has been a big hit for Microsoft, and many experts consider it superior to other application virtualization tools on the market, including VMware ThinApp.

In fact, Microsoft claims to have sold over 24 million Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) licenses since 2007, which is how Software Assurance customers get App-V. A number of major corporations use App-V today, including Expedia, General Mills and BMW, Alexion-Tiernan said.

App-V adoption has been strong partly because Microsoft integrated it with Office 2010 and Windows 7, making it an obvious choice for Windows shops. For instance, App-V is integrated with all the Windows 7 user-interface features, so users don’t know when applications are virtualized.

As for operating system virtualization, where the OS is abstracted from the physical hardware, Microsoft supports it begrudgingly because it gives customers a way to hold on to past versions of Windows.

At the same time, Microsoft acknowledges that some enterprises need to run older versions of Windows to support legacy applications. “They need more time but don’t want to prevent the entire user base from moving to Windows 7,” Alexion-Tiernan said. “We want customers to move to the latest technologies, so Med-V is available as a bridging technology.”

Med-V provides a way to deliver applications from previous versions of Windows to Windows 7, delivering applications to user desktops and making them appear as if they were installed locally. “From a Med-V perspective, even though it’s an XP engine behind it, all of the apps appear in the start menu just as if they were running natively in Windows 7,” Alexion-Tiernan said.

But Med-V is intended as a temporary fix, and one downside is that it requires administrators to manage and maintain a separate OS image.

IT pros would like to use App-V to virtualize Internet Explorer (IE) 6 as a way to run IE 6-based apps on Windows 7, but Microsoft won’t support IE virtualization because the approach would require separating a part of one operating system, Windows XP, and running it on another. That would violate Microsoft’s licensing rules.

What’s next?
Microsoft plans to integrate App-V, Med-V and other VDI technologies deeper into Windows in the coming year, Alexion-Tiernan said, but she didn’t offer specifics.

What we do know is that the major improvements to Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1, which is now in release candidate version, involve virtual desktops. There will be enhancements to the Remote FX to give end users near-native performance, and the new Dynamic Memory capability will let IT better manage Hyper-V memory resources, which extends to virtual desktop management. The official release of Service Pack 1 is scheduled for early 2011.

The major enhancement to App-V 4.6 SP1 during the first quarter of 2011 will be Package Accelerators, which are instructions that let admins import instructions, point to binaries, and convert applications from physical to virtual. This will make the application virtualization process much faster, especially for shops with hundreds of apps to convert, Alexion-Tiernan said.

Let us know what you think about this story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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