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Microsoft dives in for the kill on virtual desktops

By padding its feature set, revamping its licensing and designing promo deals with Citrix Systems, Microsoft shows it's serious about virtual desktops.

Good news for IT pros using virtual desktop infrastructure and Windows: Microsoft is now serious about this game. The company improved its memory management and Remote Desktop Protocol technologies, and officially overhauled its virtual desktop licensing rules to be more affordable for its Software Assurance customers.

For many years, Microsoft did not have a full desktop virtualization portfolio, and there are still areas where third-party products are needed to supplement Microsoft's technology. But the company now has enough technologies in its arsenal to be a real player in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), said Rob Horwitz, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft.

"They realizes they have to play in this game, because they don't want a VMware, which is doing something that looks an awful lot like an OS, to have an opportunity to continue moving outward against Windows," Horwitz said.

As previously reported by, Microsoft improved its licensing for virtual desktops and stepped up its game with a Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) add-on that delivers rich media to virtual desktop users.

Two years ago, Microsoft acquired Calista Technologies, a company that was developing technology to improve RDP's ability to deliver graphics and streaming media performance.

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The fruit of that acquisition is a technology called RemoteFX, which will ship as part of Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.

RemoteFX is not a new standalone product from Microsoft, but a set of RDP technologies being added to Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1. According to Microsoft, RemoteFX and RDP can deliver video and 3-D applications to end users with local-like performance when connecting over the LAN, Microsoft said.

During a company Webcast, Microsoft acknowledged -- and even demonstrated -- how poorly RDP delivers rich media before showing off RemoteFX performance. It will also be available with Citrix XenDesktop and integrates with Citrix's HDX protocol, which will extend RemoteFX's capabilities to remote users over wide area networks.

Microsoft also introduced a new memory management capability called Dynamic Memory. It will be available with Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 in addition to RemoteFX. The technology appears similar to VMware's memory overcommit feature, which Microsoft has long dismissed as unnecessary and described as bad practice before coming out with its own version.

When asked about its change of heart, Microsoft representatives said the company's memory management technique goes beyond what VMware offers.

"It works using ballooning and unballooning techniques, so there isn't a huge memory performance impact the way there is with VMware's memory overcommit feature," they said.

Dynamic Memory for Hyper-V means could aid VDI implementations with improved memory resource allocation on the back end, minimizing the need for additional memory capacity.

This feature requires guest operating systems to have the "hot-add" feature, and the supported operating system list is relatively short compared with VMware's memory management feature, which works for a broader range of OSes, said virtualization expert and blogger Rick Vanover.

Microsoft unveiled other changes to its portfolio, including that Windows XP Mode, Virtual PC and Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) no longer require hardware virtualization technology. The company also ditched its Virtual Enterprise Centralized Desktop (VECD) licensing plan, but only for Software Assurance (SA) customers.

Beginning July 1, 2010, Windows Client SA customers will no longer have to buy a separate license to access their Windows operating system in a VDI environment. Now, virtual desktop access rights are included as a Software Assurance benefit.

Windows Client Software Assurance and new Virtual Desktop Access License (VDAL) customers will have the right to access their virtual Windows desktop and their Microsoft Office apps hosted on secondary, noncorporate network devices, such as home PCs and kiosks, the company reported.

Citrix and Microsoft also launched a head-on attack against rival VMware, urging VMware View users to replace it with Microsoft and Citrix VDI for free. The "Rescue from VMware VDI" promotion lets eligible customers trade their VMware View licenses for same number of Microsoft VDI Standard Suite subscription and Citrix XenDesktop VDI Edition annual licenses, up to a maximum of 500, at no cost.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer, or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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