What with Hyper-V and System Center 2012 -- not to mention Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows 8.1 -- Microsoft might like us to believe there's no reason to wander away from under its umbrella when it comes to deploying a virtual desktop infrastructure.
But Hyper-V and System Center are far from the only game in town. There are oodles of options available to those seeking VDI deployment that lack a Microsoft label or origin. Let's take a look at the rest of the market as it stands today.
VMware and Citrix: The elephants in the room
VMware remains the market leader for most things virtual. The company's Horizon Suite supports more operating systems, applications and data on more kinds of devices than ever before (including iOS and Android, subject only to the limits of their screen real estate and graphics handling).
For more conventional platforms, VMware's Horizon Mirage enables organizations to manage physical laptops and desktops. Mirage also combines those capabilities with the ability to capture and manage virtual copies of user endpoints in a data center, to better facilitate centralized image management of PC platforms with independent, local execution at those endpoints.
One problem (or perhaps just a cost of doing business) with VMware for many IT pros is that it adds its own cost structure to that for Windows server and desktop licenses. Plenty of organizations have anted up for VMware VDI anyway, because they and their IT staff have been willing and able to shoulder the burdens involved.
By virtue of its longevity in the market- and mind share, Citrix is judged by some to represent a "best of breed" VDI offering, based on ease of setup and configuration, degree of control and security, and overall usability. Not only does the company offer its XenDesktop product, but also Citrix VDI-in-a-Box for small and medium-sized businesses interested in VDI.
After the elephants -- a whole herd of wildebeests
Other players in the Windows VDI space include Oracle and Ericom, both of which have features that make them worth considering. Oracle offers Secure Global Desktop and the open source VM VirtualBox; plus, it adds support for non-Windows OSes (including Unix, Linux and Mac OS, with client support for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android) to its bag of tricks.
More on VDI deployment alternatives
Alternatives to Citrix and VMware for VDI
Low-cost platforms for VDI
Options for VDI software and hardware
The Ericom PowerTerm WebConnect, or PWTC, excels at client support: Windows XP and all newer versions, Linux, Apple OS X versions 5 and higher, iOS, Android, Windows CE and Embedded, and Google Chromebooks can all use its Gateway server through multiple entry points that include an Applications Portal Web interface, an Application Zone that launches apps via Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol, Ericom's Blaze protocol or AccessToGo.
Other noteworthy players include Cisco, whose UCS is gaining traction as a VDI alternative to other players already named, along with such long-time players as Symantec, Zirtu (which touts its affordability as a major feature), NComputing, Parallels (for Mac virtualization), Navisite, NGenx, Nimsoft Nimdesk and many others.
A new VDI wind blows: DaaS
There is also no shortage of players moving into the Desktop as a Service (DaaS) space, which essentially offers a cloud-based and hosted replacement for conventional VDI (where desktops are hosted in a data center under one's own control). VMware acquired Desktone, a pioneer in the DaaS market, so it can be expected to make a continuing play for VDI even if it is renting those desktops to you instead of selling you software upon which to run them. This is a niche where players pop up on a near-daily basis, including technology developers, business innovators and service providers, all of whom now can easily build, buy or otherwise acquire the key ingredients involved: management and provisioning tools, hosting resources, and desktop licenses. Even Amazon has gotten in on the game.
It's hard to say how DaaS will compare to in-house VDI, but what's certain is that economics, convenience and flexibility play toward the cloud side. Given the proliferation of DaaS players, it's just a matter of time before VDI and DaaS become synonymous, and DaaS takes the mantle of "the right way" to deliver virtual desktops to endpoints, no matter where they may be or what kinds of devices may be used to access them.
About the authors:
Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year IT veteran who's worked as a developer, networking consultant, technical trainer, writer and expert witness. Perhaps best known for creating the Exam Cram series, Ed has contributed to more than 100 books on many computing topics, including titles on information security, Windows OSes and HTML. Ed also blogs regularly for Tech Target (IT Career Jump Start, Windows Enterprise Desktop), Tom's IT Pro and PearsonITCertification.com.
Earl Follis is a longtime IT professional who's worked as a technical trainer, a technical evangelist and a network administrator, and in other positions for a variety of companies that include Thomas-Conrad, Tivoli/IBM, Nimsoft, Dell and more. He's also contributed to numerous books, including For Dummies titles on Windows Server and NetWare, and has written for many print and Web publications. His primary areas of technical interest include networking, cloud computing and unified monitoring.