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The pros and cons of small virtual desktop vendors

Your choice of desktop virtualization product should depend on your environment. Two IT pros discuss how they decided on virtual desktop products

The virtual desktop market is still taking shape, as vendors large and small stake their claims. But two IT pros chose small companies for different reasons, and they weigh in here on the pros and cons of each.

Lyle Worthington, CIO of Horseshoe Bay Resort in Texas, wanted to switch to virtual desktops because he thought it would save time and energy in managing about 150 desktops scattered over 7,000 acres.

After considering some options, he went with Austin, Texas-based Sychron because the product was priced lower than competing ones and offered some management features that he deemed better than those in Citrix XenDesktop or VMware View.

Sychron's OnDemand Desktop is a server-hosted desktop virtualization product based on Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). It supports both Microsoft Hyper-V and VMware ESX, but not Citrix XenServer. It can run on a variety of thin clients, adapted Macs or existing PCs, and it is priced from $165 to $175 per seat. Worthington said he had to consider critical features such as multi-hypervisor support, because he now runs VMware ESX 3.5 but is also testing Microsoft's Hyper-V. Since he runs a Windows shop, Worthington said he'll likely move to Hyper-V rather than upgrade to VMware's vSphere.

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So far, Worthington has installed four Sychron desktops and plans to switch more users over as opportunities arise. Worthington said he does not consider RDP ideal for end users who do media streaming or use rich applications such as Adobe Photoshop. But for basic, non-Flash applications and sites, RDP is fine, he said.

Having a personalized desktop is important at Horseshoe Bay Resort because of the nature of each end user's work. The resort will use some technology from Sychron and its partner RTO Software.

On the back end, virtual desktops are supported by four dual-core servers with 32 GB of RAM, each of which can support 45 to 50 virtual desktops. "That means a $9,000 to $10,000 server can replace 45 desktops," Worthington said. For his installation, Worthington added, the storage area network (SAN) and network-attached storage (NAS) requirements are minimal.

The job that took the longest during installation was copying the end-user data onto servers during the transition -- but that only happened once, he said. "Then, users can log onto their virtual desktop at any time, from any building on the resort," Worthington said.

Sychron's OnDemand Desktop focuses on the virtual desktop connection broker and management services rather than the end-to-end service in the same way Citrix and VMware do, said Simon Bramfitt, a desktop virtualization analyst and blogger at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group, an IT research firm recently acquired by Gartner Inc.

Since Sychron competes head to head with those bigger companies, customers should know they are taking the risk of investing in a firm that could be squeezed out of the market. Should this happen, customers can repurpose servers for use with a competing product, but not all offers include this option, Bramfitt said.

Zero client device as another option
Another desktop virtualization option is Pano Logic. The company's "zero client" device moves desktop computing onto servers that can be centrally managed in the data center, and users connect to virtual desktops via an Ethernet connection supplied to the small Pano Device that plugs into a keyboard and monitor.

When considering a desktop virtualization vendor, keep hypervisor support in mind. Pano Logic works only with VMware, so it isn't a good fit for folks using Hyper-V, XenServer or any other hypervisor.

Michael Goodman, IT director at North Carolina-based Crescent State Bank, opted for Pano because it suited the bank's needs in supporting 15 branches and 190 employees with a staff of two IT administrators.

Goodman will switch most -- but not all -- employees to virtual desktops. With zero-client products, end users who travel, run full-screen multimedia editing suites or graphically-intensive applications such as CAD/CAM, or have to run disks are better off on traditional PCs.

Using a zero-client product adds value for IT pros in the area of desktop management and cost savings. For instance, desktop virtualization will simplify their Windows 7 upgrade.

"We will be able to do a whole branch upgrade just by setting up a new template ... configuring the software and testing it and then cloning the image. Then it is just a matter of reassigning the users to Windows 7," Goodman said.

Moving to virtual desktops should save the bank a significant amount of money. The total cost of ownership for traditional desktop PCs over three years was about $44,000, but zero-client virtual desktops will only cost about $15,000 over a similar time frame. "By definition, it requires no management infrastructure, eliminating significant operational costs, even compared with traditional thin-client solutions," Bramfitt said.

But there are some drawbacks. For example, it is hardware, so it's difficult to take advantage of improvements in presentation protocols, Bramfitt said. "The only upgrade path available for Pano Logic's zero-client endpoint is rip and replace, an expensive and time-consuming proposition," he said.

IT pros should also be cautious about vendor lock-in, both in terms of endpoint hardware vendor and desktop delivery architecture. Plus, if you invest in a server-hosted virtual desktop infrastructure-based product, you won't be able to adopt client-side hypervisors without another wholesale desktop upgrade, Bramfitt explained. There are a number of other server hosted desktop virtualization options on the market, each with pros and cons. Finding the right virtual desktop offering means examining the organization's specific needs.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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