Appliance Makers Simplify VDI Adoption

VDI is expensive and complicated; at least it used to be. Cost is no longer the issue that it was with the cost of data center hardware falling from over $1,000 per desktop a couple of years ago to a fraction of the cost of a budget PC today. Complexity however has been rising as multiple third-party components have been integrated into the mix to bring the price down. As cost falls so VDI becomes more attractive especially to budget conscious SMB customers, at the same time though as complexity has increased, the willingness and ability of these new customers to successfully deploy and maintain VDI has fallen. This has proven to be a boon for DaaS providers who can abstract the complexity of VDI behind a simple to consumer service, and are as a consequence seeing significant increase in traction.

However the growing availability of prepackaged VDI appliances is making this technology increasingly attractive for customers who value the benefits of VDI, but are still unwilling to consider DaaS as their primary desktop service. It is not only customers that benefit from this increased simplicity, smaller system integrators lack the appropriate skills to size and sell complex in VDI infrastructure environments can take advantage of these appliance-based solutions to compete with larger system integrators that have led the way in VDI implementation services.

So far most of the VDI Appliance traction is coming from VMware. At VMworld in San Francisco last month VMware was keen to promote its View Rapid Desktop Program. the goal of the program is to accelerate View sales and deployments by providing predefined or global VMware View physical appliances.VMware has cast a wide net opening the program to any OEM, channel partner or storage partner capable of providing a full View proof of concept solution. This broad membership base has resulted in a wide range of participants from enterprise incumbents Cisco, Dell, HP and VCE, through technology startups such as Nutanix, Pivot 3 (not exactly a startup but new to VDI), and V3 Systems, as well as system integrators such as Computex Inc. Pogo Linux and Presidio. Systems scale from branch office platforms such as Cisco’s Integrated Service Router (ISR) at the low end which is capable of supporting as few as 20-25 desktops, through to full-size VBlock systems capable of supporting thousands of desktops. The decision to encourage participation by storage partners may proved to be particularly impactful – Nimble Storage products feature in at least three of VMware’s View Rapid Desktop Program certified solutions, and systems using Nexenta storage also feature prominently. Storage has long been seen as the weak link for VDI, so by courting storage vendor participation in the Rapid Desktop Program, VMware is seeking to address the largest perceived problem with VDI.

Citrix’s approach to the VDI appliance market has been muted, while it was Citrix VDI-in-a-Box that Dell used to establish its VDI appliance direction to deliver the Dell DVS Simplified system that we covered at at the start of the year, Citrix has done less to promote this direction leaving marketing for equivalent virtual appliances in the hands of vendors such as HP. Instead Citrix is focusing most of its appliance initiatives on virtual appliances designed to simplify adoption of related Citrix technologies such as NetScaler, Access Gateway, Branch Repeater, and Cloud Gateway. Confusingly Citrix also markets Citrix Ready Desktop Appliances – thin clients that meet a Citrix specified functional and nonfunctional requirements for use in a virtual desktop environment.

This appliance-based route to market is designed both to reduce cost and complexity of implementation and shorten sales cycles. Given the breadth of choice in this market and the vast number of configurations possible creating a mismatched VDI environment is a major risk, Too many early VDI projects have stalled or failed altogether due to poor technology selection (most frequently seen in storage technologies), subsequently leading to extended technology selection times as the threat of failure becomes ever more visible. The appliance-based approach goes a long way to eliminates this risk with the technology vendors doing all the necessary pre-work to ensure that the technology is appropriately balanced. From this perspective it is reassuring to see Intel taking an active role in the VMware View Rapid Desktop Program. Recent discussions with Intel suggest that greater awareness of the performance characteristics of VDI workloads and the corresponding results requirements would help Intel develop reference platforms better suited to this workload.

With the exception of the V3 Systems and the Cisco ISR appliance, none of the solutions offered to date are particularly well suited to small branch office deployments. While the ISR will support no more than about 25 desktops, the majority of systems start at about 80 – 100 desktops and scale up from there. Only V3 offers a comprehensive range of appliances that scale from as few as 50 virtual desktops up to 400 virtual desktops per appliance. Nutanix could support smaller deployments by cutting down on the number of compute modules per chassis, but does not offer this as an option at present.

One thing that all appliance-based systems lack is a turnkey deployment process. All systems from the smallest Cisco ISR to the largest vBlock require either experienced IT personnel or professional services teams to support the migration from distributed desktops to VDI. A case in point is the Dell DVS “Simplified” offering. While Dell has done much to simplify the packaging of a balanced VDI appliance, unlike many other products that Dell offers (where  it is possible to buy a fully specified Dell PowerEdge R910 pre-loaded with vSphere EnterprisePlus 5 and costing upwards of $300,000) six months after Dell introduced the Citrix VDI-in-a-Box based platform, there is still no “Buy” button on the product web page, instead Dell provides an instruction to “Contact your Dell representative to get started” (I only single out Dell for attention here because this is in marked contrast to how easy Dell makes it to configure and buy its other products. For customers educated on the simplicity of online configuration tools that guide them through the complex process of sizing and configuring enterprise class hardware, dropping them in the void of “Contact your representative to get started” is no longer good enough.

At VMworld I had the opportunity to speak to product managers from several VDI appliance vendors, most of whom agreed that offering a “Buy it now” button could have a part to play in accelerating adoption of VDI appliances. However several voiced concerns that system sizing required expert assessment and until this obstacle was overcome “Buy it now” was unattainable. Another concern that was shared was that the number of system integrators with the in-house skills to implement VDI remains too low, and a “Buy it now” button would do little other than to shift the blockage further down the pipe or worse place the technology in the hands of inexperienced personnel exposing the technology vendors to negative publicity. Passing responsibility for success or failure of the technology to the field is, at best, short-sighted. All vendors need to do more to reduce both the cost of sales and more importantly address the uncertainties around system sizing and implementation.  This means providing better discovery and system sizing tools, and improved implementation methodologies. Given the richness of the desktop virtualization ecosystem today, this goal is within the reach of any vendor willing to commit to achieving this goal. Regardless of the technical merits of individual VDI appliances, whoever delivers the most comprehensive end to end package will be the one most likely to win in this highly competitive market.