In its first appearance at VMworld, the Mississauga, Ontario–based company Sphere 3D looks poised to create a whole new technology classification with Glassware 2.0, a hyperconverged cloud client app hosting appliance.
When describing something fundamentally new, analogies can be your friend, so think of Glassware as “XenApp, in a box, for dummies!” “XenApp” because it’s a Windows client application delivery platform, although with aspirations for more than just Windows applications. “In a box” because it truly is in a box, offered only as a dedicated converged infrastructure appliance. “For dummies!” because, taking a lesson in user-experience management from current-generation cloud platforms, it has done much to hide the power and complexity of the platform behind an easy-to-use web-based management console that, according to Peter Bookman, founder of V3 Systems and now head of global strategy for Sphere 3D, distills the application installation and publishing process down to just six clicks.
Although the parallels with XenApp are obvious, Glassware is not just another Windows Server RDS management and presentation overlay in the same vein as VMware Horizon 6 RDS hosted apps, Quest vWorkspace, or even Azure RemoteApp. Sphere 3D founder John Morelli has taken a fresh approach that appears to bear at least a passing resemblance to Bromium’s microvisor-based approach to security, which allows a process access to only those resources it needs to run. Glassware was not designed for security; instead, it was designed for performance, with its microvisor controlling access to the underlying Windows Server OS. Exactly how this works, Morelli isn’t saying, although his description of Glassware sitting between the base OS and the application would suggest a Type 2 microvisor, if such a taxonomy exists.
In the run-up to VMworld last week, Sphere 3D gave me access to a sandbox environment in which I was able to put Glassware through its paces. The six-clicks-to-publish claim might need revision, depending on when you start counting. I counted three clicks to select the application to install, one click to start the installation process, one to confirm that the installation was done, and two to finally publish the application. Regardless of the number of actual clicks involved, the process was simple: choose the app, run the installer, identify the executable you wish to associate with the published application, and you are done.
Installing a Glassware appliance is, if anything, even easier. Take it out of the box, put it in the rack, plug it in, assign an IP address, optionally authenticate against Active Directory, and take the rest of the day off. You can even configure it to use a DHCP-assigned IP address, if you are looking for bleeding-edge simplicity.
Sphere 3D claims that a single 2U Glassware server can deliver as many as 500 concurrent sessions. This is higher than I would expect for a similarly configured server running raw RDSH sessions. However, I was unable to do any scalability testing on the sandbox. Glassware’s microvisor-based segmentation of user processes and application installation mechanism meant that I was unable to use Login VSI, the de facto standard for benchmarking hosted apps and desktops, to compare Glassware’s performance with that of other, more conventional RDSH solutions. And without independent performance testing, all numbers are open to challenge. That being said, Glassware is fast. When I connected via cable modem from home to a Glassware server over 2,000 miles away in Mississauga, new sessions launched nearly instantaneously. Moreover, Sphere 3D’s RDP-based remoting protocol performed well enough not to draw attention to itself as something significantly lacking in comparison to Citrix’s HDX, at least when accessing a range of office applications.
Glassware didn’t offer the same snappy user experience that Citrix HDX achieves for viewing fullscreen HD video. It wasn’t clear how much of this was a limitation of the platform, display protocol, or network connection, although the display protocol appears to be tuned for fidelity over throughput, with playback speed suffering at the expense of maintaining lossless quality. One of Sphere 3D’s first customers has been Novarad, which is using Glassware to power its NovaGlass radiology image-viewing system, for which lossless image display is essential.
Hyperconverged infrastructure appliance as a VDI delivery platform is nothing new, and indeed, it is an area in which Sphere 3D has acquired some expertise. Sphere 3D last year acquired V3 Systems, one of the first to recognize that the VDI IOPS challenge is perhaps best addressed through a well-balanced hardware appliance that eliminates the need for complex hypervisor or flash SAN–based IOPS accelerators. Taking the converged infrastructure approach to old-school application hosting, however, is new, and it brings with it both opportunities and challenges, not least of which is the question, “Is there a market?”
Dedicated-function plug-and-play appliances are invading data centers everywhere. You can’t swing a cat at VMworld this week without taking the risk of maiming someone touting the benefits of hyperconverged somethings. From this perspective alone, there should be some degree of opportunity for Sphere 3D. However, that’s by no means all of the story. When Kaviza launched VDI-in-a-Box, its simple scale-out architecture was immediately hailed by many as “VDI done right”—so much so that Citrix was compelled to step in and acquire Kaviza, if only to keep the genie in the bottle. Glassware shares this simple scale-out architecture. Start with one server (two and a load balancer if you need high availability). Then to increase capacity, just add more servers wherever you need them. Each server can perform management and connection-brokering services as well as being a session host. At the same time, Glassware supports siloing of apps into groups of appliances, if warranted to improve manageability in larger, more complex environments.
Aside from its being a hardware appliance, it is its inherent simplicity that is Glassware’s first key differentiator. Provided you know how to plug in a network cable and assign an IP address, you can install a Glassware appliance. If you know how to install a Windows app, then installing and publishing an application on Glassware shouldn’t present any problems. In short, with Glassware, anyone can manage their own enterprise-class application hosting environment.
Glassware’s other big differentiator is its flexibility in distributed and hybrid cloud deployments. Building a multi–data center application hosting service requires advanced knowledge of both the core RDSH platform and external load balancing services to ensure connection requests are routed to the most appropriate server. Morelli’s approach with Glassware is to allow the customer to place servers wherever they are needed—be that in the cloud, a data center, or a branch office—and have the software take care of the rest.
Glassware looks to be a good fit for almost any organization that recognizes it needs an RDSH-style application hosting solution but is unwilling to take on the complexity of current-generation solutions. ISVs looking to take their shrink-wrapped software and deliver it as SaaS may also find Glassware attractive, especially in environments where the customer is looking for SaaS pricing and management, but with the performance and availability assurances that an on-premises deployment can bring. Glassware can’t challenge XenApp in terms of its ability to address the edge cases of enterprise application delivery, which is where XenApp excels, and there’s no VDI component to Glassware, which could be a big mark against it with some potential customers. Sphere 3D has chosen VMworld as the venue at which to relaunch the V3-developed VDI appliance and Desktop Cloud Orchestrator software, which, if memory serves, was a contender for Best of VMworld a couple of years back. However, as yet, neither product appears to integrate with the other.
As attractive as it is, Sphere 3D has some major challenges to overcome before its success is assured. Twenty years after Citrix was founded, software vendors still push back when it comes to supporting their desktop apps on a server OS. This problem will be doubly acute for Sphere 3D with its unique approach to application hosting, and it is one that will require careful management to address. However, while Sphere 3D’s approach to application hosting may be new, the challenges it faces are not. Sphere 3D is readying a vendor certification program to allow ISVs to self-certify their applications for use on Glassware—something that took Citrix many years to address. With this in place, the tight control that Sphere 3D has over the Glassware platform should help facilitate identification and resolution of any compatibility issues as they are uncovered.
Amongst the many thousands of products on display at VMworld 2014, all but three were no more than incremental updates to established products. CloudVolumes, while not strictly debuting this year, will create major opportunities, especially when it grows out of its EUC launch platform and takes over in the data center and cloud. The NVDIMM technology that SanDisk demoed will launch a new generation of hyperconverged platforms an order of magnitude faster than current SSD on PCI implementations. And Glassware, a hyperconverged app-hosting appliance, makes enterprise-class web-scale application hosting available to everyone.