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Virtual Computer's CEO dishes on virtual clients, Microsoft and Intel support

Virtual Computer's chief discusses client hypervisors, industry trends, server-based VDI and why Microsoft, Intel and Lenovo support client virtualization.

Dan McCallPresident and CEO of Virtual Computer Dan McCall

Many enterprises have tested server-hosted VDI products over the past few years, but ditched these projects due to their high cost, complexity and performance issues. But those companies still want to virtualize -- and client virtualization could be one option for them.

Virtualizing the desktop using workstation software or a client hypervisor that runs directly on endpoints is easier than building a server-based virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). Client hypervisors run directly on laptops or other devices with computer resources, and IT centrally manages the virtual desktops from the data center.

One manufacturer of bare-metal client hypervisors is Virtual Computer, in Westford, Mass., with its NxTop. Dan McCall, president and CEO of Virtual Computer, recently discussed with the evolution of client-side virtualization, server-based VDI and how big vendor support will help client virtualization. Virtual Computer is the most mature client hypervisor company in the market, and yet you have only been around for three years. How has  competition from big companies, such as Citrix and its XenClient, impacted the business?

Dan McCall: There are hurdles to overcome when you enter a new market -- one of them being that we needed to be supported on the platforms customers use, and we have been able to do that. The other challenge is that we have to change the way people do things. In our case, we are going up against the 30-year-old PC business.

So when you say the company doubled the number of customers, are you talking about going from 50 to 100, or 50,000 to 100,000? There's a big difference.

McCall: We are in the former category. We are still a small, private company, but we have grown and reached an inflection point.

What percentage of your customers fell off the server-hosted VDI bandwagon?

McCall: All of our leads in the enterprise market came to us after hitting a wall with server-based VDI. Either they can't use it for a certain class of machines but want to virtualize them, or they bought thousands of seats and said, "Hmm, yeah, I'm not so sure this will work for us after all."

In the mid-sized enterprise market -- 1,000 to 2,500 seats -- there isn't a strong VDI conversation, so the uptake is limited. But, we have Lenovo and Intel supporting us and carrying their message of "Intelligent Desktop Virtualization" to customers, which is really the opposite of VDI. Having them behind us and selling our product directly to their big customers has helped us gain market credibility.

It makes sense that Lenovo and Intel stand behind client-side virtualization, since this type of virtualization means selling more vPro chips and laptops. With server-hosted VDI, customers don't necessarily need those things. They can use thin clients.

McCall: That's right.

Who are the customers using client virtualization and what are they using it for?

McCall: Healthcare and financial services are our two biggest verticals. Many of the features of our platform -- like the ability to lock down and encrypt environments -- are really valuable to those industries. Also, lawyers and accountants who carry laptops to customer sites can't succeed with server based VDI, so they use us.

Customers use us the way they use a PC. We run Windows, Linux and we will run Android in the future. And Microsoft likes our model because we take advantage of their software. We just joined Microsoft's Systems Center Alliance, and we are friendly to their software -- Forefront Security and App-V.

So, Microsoft doesn't have a problem with you separating Windows from PC hardware?

McCall: When we talk to Microsoft in the field, they love us because we solve problems for them. We promote the idea of "one PC, two lives," which means letting people deliver a corporate Windows environment and a personal environment on one PC. For Microsoft, that means selling two licenses.

They are ambivalent about desktop virtualization at best, but they see a sales value in what we promote.

Are many of your customers actually running two Windows environments on one PC, though? That must require serious desktop resources to deliver two Windows VMs with good performance.

McCall: That is why Intel likes us -- because running more than one Windows environment requires more CPU resources.

There's been some debate about whether buying vPro for client virtualization is worth the price. Does vPro actually improve performance?

McCall: We find that the vPro chip offers around 20% better [NxTop] performance than the chips without vPro. It has a lot to do with the architecture and how Intel pipelines data. Plus it has other benefits, like encryption.

We are also working on technologies with Lenovo and Intel to take advantage of some other things that you would only use with vPro -- which I can't get into -- but enterprises will find really useful.

Looking ahead, what are some of the technological limitations Virtual Computer needs to overcome? One problem I’ve heard is that there's no direct access to hardware devices, such as graphics accelerators.

McCall: On the device side, we are close to supporting 90% of everything you would use on a PC.

On the graphics side, we take advantage of acceleration, but we use a graphics chipset and a driver that displays in Windows to translate down to the hardware. We are 50% done there.

We have accelerated OpenGL mode and we are working on an Accelerated Graphics Port. We are also working on a way to share a graphics card among multiple VMs, the way you would do with a server VM. Over the next two years, we should have that available.

But graphics developers will take the problem off the table for us first. There is stuff coming down the line.

If you aren't doing CAD or PC gaming, and if you are running on Windows, it looks and feels like Windows to the point that you would never know you are running on the hypervisor. You get so many additional benefits by virtualizing this way and the things you normally use, like VoIP -- they just work.

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

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