How to deliver Linux desktops using VMware Horizon

VMware added support for Linux VDI in Horizon View 6.1. It still has some work to do to match the functionality of Windows desktop virtualization.

Some organizations want or need to deliver virtual Linux desktops and applications, and VMware's Horizon for Linux product lets them do so.

VMware added support for Linux as a client in 2012, introducing the View Client for Linux in View 5.0.1. This feature enabled Linux PCs running Ubuntu to access Horizon desktops in the data center. What's new as of version 6.1 is that companies can host a Linux operating system in the data center and deliver it to users virtually. Horizon 7 then added support for more powerful graphics delivery.

Citrix also put its toe in the Linux VDI waters with Linux Virtual Desktop for XenApp and XenDesktop. The fact that these two major VDI players have added Linux support gives gravity to the idea that this is a service customers want. Still, there are a few drawbacks to deploying Linux virtual desktops instead of Windows ones.

Linux VDI restrictions

The first thing to note is that VMware still requires organizations to use some components of the Windows operating system. VDI shops must use Active Directory for authentication, and the connection and security servers must be Windows servers.

The next thing to know is that VMware only certified certain Linux distributions -- specific versions of Red Hat, Ubuntu, Centos and NeoKylin. Other Linux distributions and versions will probably work on Horizon 7, but VMware makes no guarantee of function or performance for unapproved versions.

Also, Horizon does not create Linux VMs, so any provisioning has to occur before bringing Linux desktops into the platform. VMware provides some PowerShell scripts for cloning Linux VMs and deploying the Horizon agent; oddly, these do not cover the whole workflow in one script or add the VMs to desktop pools.

Comparing Windows and Linux desktops

There are also differences in functionality between Windows and Linux desktops with Horizon. The extremely useful single sign-on feature does not work with Linux desktops. Users need to provide credentials to the Horizon client first and then to the Linux desktop.

Keep in mind that the first Windows desktops in Horizon had limited feature sets as well. VMware has the technology, via Project Lightwave, to use the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol for authentication rather than Active Directory. I doubt that adding any of these features to Linux desktops is impossible; it's more a question of whether VMware will devote its development resources there. Over time we may see more feature parity between Linux and Windows desktops.

Horizon 7 supports hardware-accelerated 3D graphics, which is important to CAD and CAM users as well as scientific applications, and oil and gas exploration. All of these applications provide significant value, so the capital cost of deploying VDI isn't a huge impediment. Users of these applications probably also have a Windows desktop for office automation tasks. Delivering Linux virtual desktops removes the need for two computers on each desk.

Linux has not conquered the desktop by any means, but there are still applications that are only available for Linux. Both VMware and Citrix have worthy options for organizations looking to deliver virtual Linux desktops and apps for those users that need them.

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