Virtual desktop applications: Learning from Terminal Services' mistakes

It's one small step for man, but focusing on application delivery -- rather than simply using VDI as a desktop delivery method -- is a giant leap for the desktop virtualization industry.

Series: It's the Apps, Stupid!

Application and desktop virtualization, streaming, automated installation and packaging, virtual machine-hosted apps -- oh my! Dig around the hottest technologies and you'll quickly see that applications have become job number one. We've built mature infrastructures, secured their networks and learned how to best operate them, so what should we focus on next?

In this ongoing dramatic series, experts Greg Shields and Don Jones take the stage to help you realize the answer that's right in front of you: "It's the apps, stupid!"

Previous episodes
in this series:

The new age of application delivery methods: More than just install

Citrix VM Hosted Apps: Using VDI for application hosting

Reverse seamless windows: The secret to local apps on remote desktops

What's in a name? Demystifying app delivery and VDI product naming

An eternity ago -- at least, an eternity in IT years -- there was this technology called Terminal Services. It offered unimaginable improvements to both the administrator's and user's experiences. Microsoft Terminal Services back then focused on delivering desktops, and on those desktops were applications.

People everywhere dreamed of a new tomorrow, where everything would be delivered via Microsoft Terminal Services desktops. That tomorrow never came.

Then virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology arrived, again offering improvements to the user and admin experience. As with Terminal Services (now called Remote Desktop Services in Microsoft land), people dreamed a second dream of an even newer tomorrow, where everything in IT was delivered via virtual desktops. That tomorrow hasn't come yet, either.

In the final episode of It's the Apps, Stupid, Greg and Don come to terms with what went wrong for VDI.

GREG:     At last! I think I finally figured out what went wrong with VDI.

DON:      Don't you mean going wrong? As in the present tense?

GREG:     Possibly. There's all this recent industry news that's got me thinking we might finally be learning from our earlier mistakes.

DON:      Enlighten me.

GREG:     OK, draw two lines. You're creating four quadrants. On the top, list the two places where we can host an application today.

DON:      Like, "on a server" versus "on a desktop"?

GREG:     Correct. On the side, list the two ways we can remotely deliver that application. For this, we're ignoring all the local options such as application streaming and local installation. Just list the two ways one might deliver a remote application.

DON:      Generally, that'd be “on a desktop" and "as an application." So here's what we have:

 

Hosted on
a server

Hosted on
a desktop

Delivered as desktop    
Delivered as application    

GREG:     Exactly. This grid now identifies the four possible combinations we have today for delivering a remote experience to a user.

DON:      Makes sense. I can host it on a server via classic server-based computing or on a desktop using the newer VDI approach.

GREG:     A-ha! But you're only partially right.

DON:      Partially?

GREG:     Let's assume I have an application that's hosted on a server and gets delivered to its users as part of a remote desktop. What would you call that approach?

DON:      Essentially classic Terminal Services.

GREG:     Precisely. Label that box.

 

Hosted on
a server

Hosted on
a desktop

Delivered as desktop Classic Terminal Services  
Delivered as application    

DON:      I guess your next point will be that VDI is similar to classic Terminal Services in that it focuses on delivering desktops. What's different, however, is that VDI delivers desktops as desktops. I'll take the liberty of marking that one down, too.

 

Hosted on
a server

Hosted on
a desktop

Delivered as desktop Classic Terminal Services
VDI
Delivered as application    

GREG:     Good assumption; you're zeroing in on my point. Now, you remember all the promise we heard back at the turn of the last century?

DON:      Who doesn't? Wasn't 1999 supposed to be "The Year of Terminal Services" or something like that?

GREG:     It was, and it wasn't. It turned out that delivering applications through Microsoft Terminal Services -- or even the Citrix equivalent -- wasn't all that easy when the item of delivery is a full desktop.

DON:      I remember. With all those regular users logging in to the same server concurrently, there were all those lockdowns and other precautions we had to put into place to ensure that everyone played nicely.

GREG:     Not to mention that Windows Server wasn't really meant to be locked down like that. There were all kinds of ways users could create havoc, often inadvertently, just by their usage patterns.

DON:      I get where you're going now. The unpredictability was a nightmare. That's why many Citrix shops shifted over to delivering Published Applications instead of desktops, and Terminal Services later gained RemoteApps. I'll add those to our table.

 

Hosted on
a server

Hosted on
a desktop

Delivered as desktop Classic Terminal Services
VDI
Delivered as application RemoteApps,
Citrix Published
Apps
 

GREG:     Now you can see there's a glaring hole in our picture, right there in the lower right.

DON:      I get it… Let me see if I can put this into words. Back in the day, traditional server-based computing never saw its "year" in part because the desktop focus actually made things harder.

GREG:     For everyone. Users had to deal with confusing double desktops. Administrators had to deal with unpredictable concurrent users. Nobody won.

DON:      But by shifting the focus away from the desktop and just delivering the applications from that server desktop, things got far easier. The lockdowns were fewer and simpler. The behaviors and performance became easier to quantify. More importantly, users got a more seamless experience.

GREG:     And IT could focus its energies on hosting just the apps that made sense to be delivered via server-based computing.

DON:      Wait a minute. I get what you're saying now about the industry today. Microsoft has quietly offered RemoteApp for Hyper-V for a while, which is designed to deliver desktop-hosted applications -- as an application. Citrix much more loudly offers VM Hosted Apps for the same reason. Heck, even VMware's gotten on board with its new Horizon Application Manager. It's almost like --

GREG:     … oh, write it down, baby. We're all on the same train.

 

Hosted on
a server

Hosted on
a desktop

Delivered as desktop Classic Terminal Services
VDI
Delivered as application RemoteApps,
Citrix Published
Apps
It's
the apps,
stupid!

DON:      It's the apps, stupid! That missing quadrant represents the need to deliver just the applications from virtual desktops, rather than focusing on the desktop itself.

GREG:     And in the same way we learned from our mistakes with Terminal Services, we're going through the same process again.

DON:      In that VDI was a great idea, but with the wrong focus -- at least initially.

GREG:     I rest my case.

Read all episodes of the It's the Apps, Stupid series.

This was first published in June 2012

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