Making the case for non-Windows desktops in the cloud

Is it plausible to run an Apple OS X or Linux desktop in the cloud? Learn the pros and cons of non-Windows Desktop as a Service.

Desktop as a Service mostly centers on delivering Windows desktops, but DaaS may have a place for non-Windows desktops, too.

In a DaaS scenario, a cloud service provider stands up a heap of virtual machines (VMs), and users connect to their remote desktops through a remote display protocol to use applications and data in the provider's data center. While IT tends to focus on Windows desktops, both Linux and Apple's OS X run on the same hardware architecture as Windows, and provide computing environments for users. What can be done with Linux and OS X in a DaaS environment -- and why bother?

First off, Windows licensing is complex for DaaS. Microsoft does not offer a service provider license for its desktop operating systems, so most current Windows desktops in the cloud actually deliver a dedicated Windows Server for each user, rather than Windows 7 or Windows 8. This makes service providers keen for non-Microsoft DaaS – ideally, open source, royalty-free DaaS -- so they can offer lower-cost or higher-profit services.

DaaS with a Linux desktop

One option for DaaS is a Linux desktop. (Linux advocates have been telling us for a while that this is the year of Linux on the desktop.) There are a number of ways to provide remote access to Linux desktops, many of them open source and -- in one form or another -- free.

One remote-access option that has been around for some time is 2X Application Server, which has VM-provisioning and connection-broker components. With 2X, administrators can create Linux desktop VMs on a selection of hypervisors, and it even has a clientless HTML 5 interface for easy access with a modern Web browser. Other options include products from Virtual Bridges, QVD and Cantivo. Most of these offer both Windows and Linux desktops, which would give a DaaS provider a single platform to deliver the more familiar Windows and the lower-cost Linux desktop.

Linux for DaaS has the same potential problems as Linux on a regular desktop: It isn't Windows, so its look and feel aren't what users are accustomed to, and not every application works or has a Linux compatible equivalent. It is possible to make Linux feel a lot like Windows, which helps ease the transition for users. Plus, problems with application compatibility are diminishing as the Wine project allows a Linux desktop to run some Windows applications. Perhaps next year will be the year of Linux on the virtual desktop.

DaaS with an Apple OS X desktop

Another non-Microsoft option is Apple's OS X, which has its own licensing challenges because Apple allows OS X to run only on hardware that it produces. This means that the DaaS provider would need to buy hardware from Apple to run an OS X-based DaaS offering.

For more on DaaS

FAQ on Desktop as a Service

Five challenges of DaaS

How DaaS licensing works

Comparing VDI and Desktop as a Service

A few problems also would arise: Since Apple killed off the rackmount Xserve range, the Mini and the Mac Pro are the only devices without screens built in -- and neither is well suited to rackmounting in a data center. Then there is the issue of remote display protocols and brokers: OS X has no built-in remote display server, so there are no connection brokers. The only solution to this is a product called AquaConnect, which functions as a terminal server and has its own remote display protocol, with Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol as another option.

Once a DaaS provider has solved these problems, there should be good (but not complete) application support, a great user interface and loyal Apple supporters as customers. Without Steve Jobs at the helm, it is possible that Apple will allow its operating system to run on other people's hardware and maybe will even allow an iPad to be a great DaaS client by adding mouse support.

In the end, DaaS is about offering users a way to access their application and data. At present, most businesses have some applications that require Windows, and until this changes, DaaS will need Windows. Of course, the fact that many Windows applications are being replaced by HTML 5 Web applications does change the complexion here a lot.

This was first published in September 2013
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