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Client hypervisor executes desktops locally, uses centralized storage

Virtual Computer's updated client hypervisor supports diskless workstations and VM transparency. Gabe Knuth digs in for an early look at NxTop 4.

Last week at VMworld 2011, Virtual Computer showed off the latest version of its client hypervisor and virtual desktop management software, NxTop 4, which has entered Release Candidate phase and will probably reach GA in the next 30 to 60 days. I wrote a review of NxTop 3.1 earlier this year, so I thought I'd follow that up with some information on the new features in the latest version.

The most significant change in NxTop 4 is one that enables the use of NxTop on diskless workstations that support iSCSI boot. Admins can now provision and manage NxTops to diskless endpoints so that the entire image (the NxTop client hypervisor and the virtual machine images) is streamed from the data center to a device with no local storage, all while managing it with NxTop Center.

What this means to admins is that they can now give their users an experience that is actually local -- even though the desktop and all the applications and data surrounding it is located in the data center -- without worrying about remote protocols and such. Organizations considering VDI for a local-only scenario might be inclined to avoid the complexity of VDI altogether in favor of this kind of technology.

The biggest drawback is that, unlike the other features of NxTop, it requires the endpoint to have a specific capability -- iSCSI boot -- since the hypervisor and the VMs are streamed to it. Virtual Computer has always been about making NxTop work on as much hardware as possible, and while NxTop will run on anything, this (very useful) feature doesn't.

Part of the reason is that NxTop itself doesn't yet have the ability to mount/boot iSCSI VMs, not to mention that a diskless workstation needs to somehow have NxTop installed on it in the first place. I asked Virtual Computer about this, and I was told that they are planning on adding that functionality in a future version.

Ultimately, this kind of technology is really cool and broadening it to support all hardware and not just a subset of hardware will make it that much more appealing to organizations.

Also new in NxTop 4 is the ability to pass credentials through to the virtual machines from the NxTop launcher. Version 3.1 added the ability to auto-start a VM, which streamlined the startup process for the user. Now that the user only has to log in one time, it becomes that much more transparent to the user.

On the topic of transparency, Virtual Computer also added a new control panel to their NxTop Tools package that gives direct access to change settings (Wi-Fi networks, power management, etc.) on the hypervisor itself. Until now, users had to drop back down to the launcher, make the changes and then pop back into their VM. Now, this is all available in a familiar-looking environment within the guest VM, rather than in some unfamiliar, Linux-y window.

It's hard to give Virtual Computer enough credit for what they've done. We hear from major virtualization vendors that it is difficult to create a client hypervisor that runs on all the client hardware available in the world and about how users don't want to have multiple machines (or at least don't want to KNOW that they have multiple machines). Virtual Computer has, by far, the most mature piece of client-side virtualization software on the market.

They've found success in this niche because they're not selling just a client hypervisor -- they're selling desktop management that just happens to be using a type 1 client hypervisor.

If you're interested in seeing some of the features, you can check out the video I shot on the Solutions Exchange floor at VMworld 2011. You can also check out site editor Bridget Botelho’s Q&A with Virtual Computer's Dan McCall where they talk at a high level about the challenges and inroads Virtual Computer is making in the space.

Read more from Gabe Knuth

Gabe Knuth is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as "the other guy" at He has been in the application delivery space for over 12 years and has seen the industry evolve from the one-trick pony of terminal services to the application and desktop virtualization of today. Gabe's focus tends to lean more toward practical, real-world technology in the industry, essentially boiling off the hype and reducing solutions to their usefulness in today's corporate environments. 

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