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Virtual desktops go local with VMware Horizon FLEX

VMware will combine existing technologies for Horizon FLEX to deliver offline desktops. But how widespread its use will be remains to be seen.

IT shops looking for an alternative to VDI for BYOPC workers may soon get an option that supports both online and offline virtual desktops -- whether they run on Macs or PCs.

VMware Horizon FLEX offers end users virtual desktops that run locally and support a virtual machine (VM) centrally managed by a policy engine server. It utilizes several existing VMware type-2 hypervisors including Fusion, Workstation and Player.

Horizon FLEX will support both Macs and PCs; Citrix's DesktopPlayer only has a Mac client available and a PC client currently in tech preview. Another vendor, Moka5, offers a similar product that is also based on the Fusion hypervisor.

Horizon FLEX could be most effective for employees who use their personal Macs or PCs for work, or contract workers who need access to corporate information for a predetermined length of time. IT can use Horizon FLEX to manage that access and set an expiration date for the virtual desktop image.

For some organizations, Horizon FLEX is an alternative to both Horizon 6 -- where customers build their own apps and VDI environments inside their data center -- and Horizon DaaS (now rebranded as Horizon Air), which is delivered from VMware's public data center.

[VMware has] always provided the tools to be able to do this, but what's been missing is legitimacy.
David Johnsonanalyst, Forrester Research

Before Horizon FLEX, it was mostly consumers or "prosumers" (consumers using professional products) who used the type-2 hypervisor technology from Fusion that delivers Windows desktops and applications to Macs, said David Johnson, analyst with Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass.

"Putting the enterprise IT management capabilities around [Fusion] is vital," Johnson said. "[VMware has] always provided the tools ... but what's been missing is legitimacy."

Horizon FLEX will get those management capabilities using the policy engine server with features such as remote kill to disable virtual desktops, image expiration, and network and USB controls. Horizon FLEX uses Mirage to manage desktop and application images as layers that admins can update without affecting end-user data or personalization.

Horizon FLEX could lead to simpler device management for IT, especially in companies that encourage bring your own device (BYOD) initiatives that include workers' personal laptops (BYOPC) and Macs.

"Nobody that buys a new Mac or PC or Ultrabook wants to have somebody to come in and rip the operating system off it and put a corporate one on," Johnson said. "This is a better way to do it."

IT administrators can deploy a virtual desktop to personal or corporate-owned desktops without worrying about what is on the underlying hardware with Horizon FLEX, said Jon Howe, systems architect with Parata Systems, a pharmacy automation technology company in Durham, N.C.

"For companies that have a [BYOPC] policy, I can see this as a game-changer for them," Howe said.

Horizon FLEX concerns around memory space, UX

There are some drawbacks to FLEX, however. Some users may not understand having a Windows environment running on top of an existing PC, Johnson said.

"It's not a natural motion," he said. "Even though [VMware] has done a good job with Fusion of working Windows applications into the Mac environment as icons, for example, it's still not something that's going to be seamless."

Another issue could be the memory necessary to run a Horizon FLEX virtual desktop on the physical machine. Admins can deploy Horizon FLEX desktops either through a network or on a USB drive.

"You're going to [need] quite a bit of memory and CPU and drive space to be able to do this, unless you're going to have a USB key hanging off the PC," Johnson said. "A corporate Windows image can be hundreds of [gigabytes] in size."

Memory requirements depend on the needs of the individual organization, however. Most physical machines can handle a VM running basic Microsoft Office and legacy applications, said Matt Kosht, IT director at a utility company in Alaska.

"If you can plan for it, it's not that big of a deal," Kosht said.

VMware expects Horizon FLEX to be generally available later this quarter, and it will be licensed per device at $250. The policy engine server is a lightweight server, and is the only piece of additional hardware shops will need, a company spokesperson said.

VMware adds DaaS DR, CloudVolumes standalone

As part of the rebranded Horizon Air, VMware also plans to add a desktop as a service (DaaS)-based disaster recovery (DR) option. Customers will have access to cloud-hosted desktops and applications in the event of a catastrophic failure or outage, which could reduce the need for physical desktop DR products.

"If you have someone out in the field who [breaks] their machine and you can drop down a new image without them having to bring it in, that's pretty appealing," Kosht said.

Horizon Air Desktop DR will be available this quarter and will be licensed on a per reserved desktop basis starting at $5 per desktop per month. Once a DR event is declared by the customer, VMware will turn on the reserved cloud desktops with an additional weekly charge (based on how many desktops are reserved and their size) while the customer is rebuilding the lost environment.

VMware is also rebranding its recent CloudVolumes acquisition as VMware App Volumes. Later this quarter, it will be integrated with Horizon 6 Enterprise (the highest tier version of Horizon 6) and as a standalone product for $150 per concurrent user. VMware App Volumes will continue to support non-VMware environments, including Citrix.

Also, Horizon Air support will be extended to France and Germany in the first quarter of 2015. It's already making its way to the United Kingdom this year.

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Would you consider locally-running virtual desktops as a VDI alternative?
I'd consider it as a supplemental service option. In the PC space, I currently do something similar, as my PC footprint is now entirely virtual, but that's because I have a MacBookPro that acts as my mooring point for everything else. Much as I like to have a virtual presence where possible, there needs to be a foundation I can take with me anywhere and, most importantly, off line.