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Lower-cost VDI platforms aren't a myth

Alternatives to VMware and Citrix for VDI may seem few and far between, but there are some options out there for lower-cost VDI software and hardware.

One of your biggest decisions as an administrator deploying VDI is which software you want to base your deployment on.

When it comes to virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) platforms, there are the major vendors: VMware, Citrix and Microsoft. But if you don't want the price tag and complexity of those products, there are other players in the market to consider, such as Dell and NComputing, plus a variety of pre-bundled offerings. Which one you choose may depend on server virtualization you already have in place or your existing hardware. Of course, cost, management and support also come into play.

Since the major providers already get a lot of face time, let's look at a few of the alternatives for VDI platforms, software and services.

NComputing vSpace

NComputing is mostly known for its thin client series, but the company has tried to get its foot solidly in the VDI software door over the past year. It offers the vSpace platform, which uses OS session virtualization similar to Remote Desktop Services, and a management console that will allow you to manage connected client devices, virtual desktop software installs and server clients from a single pane of glass. Customers say NComputing virtual desktops and thin clients are low-cost and easy to deploy.

Virtual Bridges and IBM

Virtual Bridges VERDE allows admins to build an environment of Windows and Linux desktops that can run in the public cloud, the private cloud, on servers at branch offices or directly on client devices via VMs on a client hypervisor -- all with one disk image. Built on the kernel-based virtual machine, or KVM, hypervisor, VERDE is very fast to install and uses the SPICE protocol, which performs well over the LAN.

In 2011, IBM made a deal to power its Virtual Desktop product with VERDE. That partnership gave more credibility to Virtual Bridges and increased IBM's viability in the desktop virtualization market. IBM offers Virtual Desktop for Smart Business, geared to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) doing VDI, plus its SmartCloud Desktop Infrastructure service based on the VMware, Citrix and Microsoft architectures.

Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization for Desktops

The SPICE protocol that powers Virtual Bridges' offering is actually owned by Red Hat. SPICE uses different channels to optimize the user experience of Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization for Desktops, and it works well with remote USB devices. Still, other remote display protocols are more proven in the market, so Red Hat's offering remains behind the eight ball.

Dell vWorkspace

Previously owned by Quest Software, vWorkspace is sometimes viewed as a close runner-up to the three major vendors in the VDI world. It is more flexible than the major vendors' products because Dell vWorkspace can run on almost any hypervisor. It also offers a unified management console and automation capabilities. VWorkspace has a few enticing features for companies looking to do simple, cheaper VDI: HyperCache, which monitors block usage; HyperDeploy, which reduces storage footprint and improves provisioning times; and the User Experience Monitor, which offers a dashboard to view individual user experiences.

Citrix VDI-in-a-Box

Although Citrix is known for XenDesktop, the company also offers VDI-in-a-Box, an all-in-one product aimed at SMBs. Citrix VDI-in-a-Box costs less than half the price of XenDesktop, but it doesn't come with a XenApp license. The software has limited configuration options and installs in a single package, making it more suited to small offices with few virtual desktop requirements.

Pre-integrated VDI offerings

The market is also rife with companies that offer preconfigured VDI appliances and services based on other vendors' software. Dell has its Dell Virtualization Solutions with deployment options for XenDesktop, View, VDI-in-a-Box, Windows Server and vWorkspace. Pivot 3 offers the vSTAC VDI appliance, which can be "stacked" into an array for high availability. SimpliVity's OmniCube is an all-in-one stack for View and XenDesktop, and v3 Systems offers hardware appliances to drop into existing VMware environments. And the list goes on, with plenty of other providers entering and leaving this market all the time.

VDI market casualties

Unfortunately, not all small vendors can make it in the VDI market. One of the more common low-cost VDI options, Pano Logic, went out of business last year, leaving customers in the lurch. The company offered an end-to-end virtual desktop software and hardware product with its Pano System.

Many people didn't even know Oracle offered VDI, but the company decided recently to cease development of Oracle VDI, Oracle Virtual Desktop Client software and Oracle Sun Ray software, all based on technology from its Sun Microsystems acquisition. Those products didn't get much traction, either because they couldn't compete with Citrix and VMware, or because customers were scared away by the price tag.

For a comparison between some of these lower-cost options and more well-known products, such as XenDesktop and View, check out this VDI smackdown.

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