Evaluating remote desktop connection brokers

In part three of our virtual desktop toolbox series, we explain remote desktop protocols and how to choose the best connection broker for your environment.

Desktop virtualization promises to save enterprises from rising data center costs and management headaches. IT administrators, however, have had to contend with immature technology, inconsistent terminology and executive and user reluctance. Fortunately, you can get the most out of virtualization by assembling a toolbox of assorted technologies.

The connection broker

Five or six years ago (an eternity in this business), the concept of virtual desktop infrastructure began taking shape. We had virtualization, remote display protocols, Terminal Server-based solutions and powerful enough hardware to begin thinking that we could get away with virtualizing desktops in the data center.

At the time, the benefits were promising: Desktops in the data center could reduce power, allow you to use more applications than you could with Terminal Services, eliminate the need for individual silos and increase desktop security. VDI was also expected to solve a wide array of other problems associated with server-based computing and traditional desktops. All that was needed to pull it together was something called a "connection broker."

Microsoft had just released a connection broker as part of Terminal Services (TS) in Windows Server 2003. This connection broker was unaware of desktops, as was any other TS-based product on the market. The concept of a desktop-oriented connection broker was so similar to that of a TS-based connection broker, though, that it wasn't long before they started appearing.

By 2006, Provision Networks (now Quest Software) began talking about how its Provision Management Framework brokered connections to any kind of device -- TS, virtual desktop, physical desktop or blade PC. That product grew into what is now Quest vWorkspace, one of the top products in the market.

Citrix had already been working on a project called PortICA, which "ported" the ICA client to desktop operating systems. In 2007, the company released this as Citrix Desktop Server, the product that would eventually become XenDesktop after the acquisition of XenSource.

Having a head start on the virtualization side, VMware opted to purchase a connection broker from U.K.-based Propero. The vendor had to pretty much remake the product after buying it, so it didn't introduce VMware VDM (Virtual Desktop Manager) until early 2008. By the end of 2008, the company renamed the product  VMware View.

Microsoft also updated its Terminal Services Session Broker to accept desktop connections. To reflect this change in the name of the feature, Microsoft renamed all Terminal Services roles and services to Remote Desktop in Windows Server 2008.

Sun/Oracle, Leostream, Virtual Bridges, Symantec (by way of the nSuite acquisition) and Ericom all have their own connection brokers, as well. In just a few years, we've gone from a world with zero desktop connection brokers to at least 10!

The early adopters were quick to buy the first connection brokers that were available. Now, however, people aren't so focused on the broker. Many exist and they all work just fine. The choice of a connection broker has been folded into the selection of the overall desktop virtualization platform.

So, what makes for a good platform? It depends. No longer is the desktop a device sitting under your desk. The desktop, at least as it pertains to desktop virtualization, is an abstract concept. I don't care where my desktop comes from or how it gets here, as long as it looks the same and behaves as if it were coming from the device sitting right in front of me. In today's world, the platform that can offer that experience (and the capabilities to manage it all) wins.

There is a common subset of connection broker features that all vendors offer:

  • Great local display protocol performance
  • Application virtualization support
  • Support for capable hypervisors
  • Windows 7 support
  • A vast, opinionated fan base that thinks its product is the best

Still, the best connection broker is the one that meets your current and future needs. If you've deemed Hyper-V as the hypervisor for you (choosing a hypervisor is a whole other conversation), then you're going to have to pick from Citrix and Quest, because VMware View works only on VMware ESX. The reverse, however, is not always true. All three major virtualization products have at least some support for ESX, so you may have to move on to other criteria.

Maybe the display protocol is the most important feature for you. Local users who require 3-D processing capabilities will probably want support for Microsoft RemoteFX (Hyper-V only, so Ericom, Quest or Citrix) or PC over IP (VMware View).

The bottom line is that the focus is no longer as simple as which companies do or don't have the ability to broker desktop connections. Now, you need to ask yourself:

  • Does the remoting protocol meet my local and remote needs?
  • Is the provisioning system a good fit for my organization's requirements for storage, image creation and machine preparation?
  • Does the management system give me the granularity to assign roles as needed?
  • Does the licensing model fit with my use case (concurrent versus per-user)?
  • Does the connection broker integrate with my application virtualization setup?

Asking those questions and keeping an open mind are critical to choosing the correct product. You should try them all to see which ones (or which features, at least) meet your needs. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution on the market, but there are enough products for you to find something that works for you.

Gabe Knuth is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as "the other guy" at BrianMadden.com. 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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