Growing Business Demand for Linux VDI

Last month at the VMware EUC analyst day in Boston, I had the opportunity to discuss VMware’s extension of support for its Horizon VDI platform to enterprise Linux desktops. While what was shared is under NDA, it’s worth looking at why VMware is making this move.

According to NetMarketShare, Linux has cornered just 1.53% of the worldwide desktop operating system market. Hardly worth chasing after—but then, good-quality data on Linux adoption is hard to come by. Actually, let me rephrase that: good-quality data on any OS adoption is hard to come by. I’ve seen recent reports suggesting that the unloved mongrel OS Windows 8.1 has amassed 20% of the desktop market, which is simply ludicrous. NetMarketShare, which is supposed to be the leader at this type of reporting, has OS X market share falling 10% in the last twelve months. So, take all these numbers with a large pinch of salt. Nevertheless, pegging Linux at less than 2% worldwide is probably a safe bet.

Even so, there are some markets in which Linux is doing relatively well. Linux adoption in Central America, Africa, and BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) is significantly higher than in other parts of the world, frequently led by large public-sector implementations. The Indian State of Tamil Nadu, for example, addressed the Windows XP end of life by replacing it with Linux. It ran a pilot program in 2009 deploying 100,000 Linux laptops throughout its schools. Europe has also seen a significant number of high-profile Linux deployments. The French National Police Force, La Gendarmerie Nationale, has moved 72,000 PCs from Windows to Ubuntu Linux, citing an opportunity to save €2 million per year from the switch. Linux migrations aren’t a one-way street, however. After a heavily publicized move to Linux in 2004, the city of Munich, Germany, made switch to Linux, viewing it as both cheaper and more reliable than Windows. However, ten years later it decided to move its 9000+ desktops back to Windows, citing concerns about higher application development costs needed to plug gaps where appropriate Linux apps were not available. The German Foreign Office went through a similar set of transitions, moving to Linux in 2005 and reverting to Windows in 2011.

Among IT professionals, there’s a perception that there’s little point in exploring VDI for a “cheap” enthusiasts platform. However, that position fails acknowledge the benefits that VDI can bring to all platforms. A decision to adopt Linux on the desktop does not eliminate the performance challenges, remote access issues, security concerns, and management complexity that led to the introduction of Windows-based VDI solutions. Just as enterprises have adopted VDI and SBC to address Windows application delivery challenges, so too the need for Linux-based VDI stems from the performance, security, remote access, and management challenges that come from deploying Linux in the enterprise.

Reversals in Europe accepted, you only have to look at where VMware made the initial announcement to understand why it is making this move. VMware chose vForum China to announce that it was starting work on VDI for Linux. As in the other BRIC nations, the combination of a young, technically adept workforce and a relative lack of history of large-scale Windows deployments makes Linux particularly attractive. The distrust of US technology companies that has arisen in the post-Snowden era won’t hurt Linux adoption, either. China has banned the use of Windows 8 on government computer systems after denouncing it as spyware, which makes a large captive market for Linux. Professor of Computer Science Ni Guangnan of the Chinese Academy of Engineering announced plans for the wholesale replacement of Windows with NeoKylin, a Linux variant derived from Ubuntu. Whether the plan to replace Windows-powered machines at a rate of fifteen percent per year will amount to anything is unclear. Nevertheless, it signals a level of enthusiasm for Linux that is absent in the West.

Linux VDI isn’t by any means new. Netherlands-based LISTEQ has supported Linux on its BoXedVDI platform for years, as have Cantivo and NoMachine. Some of the world’s largest VDI implementations have chosen Linux. Back in 2009, the Brazilian government chose a partnership between Brazilian company ThinNetworks and Canadian low-cost VDI vendor Userful to deliver 357,000 Linux desktops across its schools. The Userful implementation is better thought of as a Linux alternative to Windows Multiseat Server and NComputing vSpace than as a full-blown hypervisor-based VDI platform. Thus, it should not be seen as an indication of future growth patterns. However, the increasing interest being shown in Linux as a mainstream business computing platform makes it clear that the time is right to look beyond of Windows and be ready to support this growing market. It remains to be seen whether or not the rest of the VDI ecosystem will make a move toward Linux. However, the introduction of Windows-style user environment management tools for Linux indicates that Cisco and VMware think the market is truly worth fighting over.

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