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Free VDI products aren't a myth

Free VDI? It might sound crazy, but don't dismiss the idea too quickly. There are free VDI products out there for Windows and Linux environments, some of which have the same features as tools from virtualization big shots.

VDI is probably best known for its high cost, but it doesn't have to be expensive. Free VDI options such as Linux Terminal Server Project, QVD Community Edition and even a version of Citrix XenDesktop are available.

Big-name virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) products typically come with a big price tag. That can be a huge barrier to adoption, even if your use cases suit VDI. But VDI does not necessarily have to be expensive to implement.

There are a number of free VDI products available. Each one has its own unique feature set, capabilities and limitations, so it is important to evaluate the available options and choose the one that best meets your needs.

Linux Terminal Server Project

One of the better-known options for free VDI is the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), which has been active since 1999. The open source software works by adding thin client support to various Linux servers. In fact, the LTSP software is baked directly into at least four different Linux builds including Debian, Gentoo, OpenSUSE and Ubuntu. You can use the Linux Package Manager to deploy the software.

Although not every flavor of Linux is officially supported, the LTSP source code is available for you to download, which means that you can compile it to use on otherwise unsupported Linux distributions. The company also provides information about using the software with Linux distributions such as Fedora, Red Hat and Centos.

The LTSP focuses squarely on Linux, but you are not limited to running Linux as the virtual desktop operating system. It's also designed to work with Windows. LTSP is licensed with GPLv2 licensing terms. As such, the software is completely free. Linux does accept donations, however, should you find the software to be useful.

QVD Community Edition

QVD Community Edition is a full-fledged, free VDI product. It's geared primarily toward testing and development environments, but QVD Community Edition is well-suited for small to medium-sized organizations that want to do VDI.

The software works in both Windows and Linux environments, and it supports many of the features that you would expect to find in high-end, commercial products. For example, QVD supports automatic virtual desktop provisioning, remote access and disk image expiration. It is worth noting that QVD Community Edition lacks some of the features and capabilities that are included in the paid version, such as support for X.509 certificates and custom disk images.

Citrix XenDesktop Express Edition

Citrix has a free VDI product for small deployments called XenDesktop Express Edition. To use it, you'll first have to download the trial version of XenDesktop. When the trial expires, you will either need to provide a retail license key or license the software to run as Express Edition.

XenDesktop Express Edition is very similar to the retail version. The biggest difference is that Express Edition is limited to 10 virtual desktops. Needless to say, you won’t be able to run an enterprise off of XenDesktop Express Edition, but the software is a great option for small shops that only need a few virtual desktops.

Other free VDI options

There are a number of other free VDI products, but many come with significant restrictions. For example, Liquidware Labs has free desktop virtualization software, but not to everyone. To qualify for 25 free licenses of ProfileUnity FlexApp, Stratusphere UX Solutions and an NFR license for Flex-IO, you must be an IT consultant or work for an organization that is actively pursuing a Windows migration or desktop virtualization project.

The company 2X Software also has free VDI software, but it too has significant restrictions. When you download the trial version of 2X Remote Application Server, it supports 50 concurrent users. After the trial expires, you can continue to use the software with the free license, but the free version only supports three concurrent users.

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