Horizon Suite: VMware Inches Towards The Virtual Workspace

VMware took one small step towards the realization of its desktop strategy with the launch of Horizon Suite yesterday, but failed to to make a giant leap.

There’s no doubt that VMware is serious about its ambition towards owning the desktop as well as the data center. It’s been hinting at that long enough; View is making significant inroads in the enterprise market competing head-to-head with Citrix XenDesktop (something that Citrix is still less than happy to concede). Now though it is setting its sights beyond the desktop and looking towards the virtual workspace with Horizon Suite as the first product on that path.

The Horizon Suite comprises three components:

  • The headline grabbing and long-term strategy mainstay Horizon Workspace 1.0.
  • The inevitable re-branding of   Wanova Mirage 4 as Horizon Mirage 4
  • A worthwhile if not earth shatter updates for VDI in Horizon View 5.2

Taking them in reverse order.

View 5.2

View gets a new name and some new features. Now dubbed Horizon View 5.2, the headline new feature is the incorporation of the AppBlast HTML 5 support that VMware showed off at VMworld last year.  “Blast” drops the “App” part of the name along with support for straight up application delivery in its first production outing; providing instead a simple all HTML remote desktop experience for ad hoc access where it isn’t possible to count on availability of a full blown View Client with PCoIP support.

Seamless remote app support via HTML 5 may have been the headline that sold AppBlast, but the real business need is anywhere access and this is what View 5.2’s Blast aims to deliver. Google learned this with the zero-install Chrome browser that delivers a personalized Chrome experience without actually installing Chrome. Blast gives VMware View customers just enough access to View to get the job done without breaking out of the browser sandbox and requiring a full client installation. This means that there’s no USB support, no VoIP, no ThinPrint, a minimal solution to get the job done when other richer alternatives don’t work. Given this, Blast is likely to see significant adoption and VMware has worked hard to ensure that it plays well with current PCoIP-based deployments. Blast runs right alongside PCoIP at every step. It’s a platform native protocol not an after the fact translation, and it can be routed through a View (now Horizon) remote access gateway just the same as PCoIP.

Also high profile, is the integration of another previously demonstrated technology AppShift into View. AppShift is VMware’s solution to the challenging interface dynamics of attempting to run pointer driven interfaces on touch-centric devices. It’s going to be interesting to see how that pans out as it reaches production.  The lukewarm response to Windows 8 makes it difficult to speculate as to it’s importance.

Closely linked to Horizon Workspace is support for the SAML open data format for exchanging authentication and authorization data. In effect enabling both single sign-on from Horizon into View managed desktops, and more importantly a single point of control for conventional Windows desktops, SaaS, Web apps, and data. This integration between Horizon View and Horizon Workspace is going to become increasing important as focus moves beyond the the desktop and organizations shift toward virtual workspace environments  as being central for mainstream productivity.

VMware is clearly not finished with View yet. It has  been advertising for staff engineers to work on technologies that will enable it compete more directly with Citrix’s mainstay XenApp remote desktop services technology. Looking for staff to work both on application publishing and and Windows Server RDSH technologies. How soon these directions will deliver results remains to be seen.

Horizon Mirage 4

Until now the strongest message that VMware has desktop ambitions was the Wanova acquisition. There has been real interest is in seeing what VMware can do to incorporate Wanova Mirage into a cohesive end-user computing vision.  Mirage is a rare beast, one of the few products that show unequivocally that desktop virtualization is a lot more than VDI. Understandably, Wanova struggled to compete against entrenched desktop management attitudes. No fault of the product or the company, just the reality of attempting to introduce new ways of thinking into a now mature enterprise desktop hierarchy. In VMware’s hands however, it has new opportunity and now as part of Horizon Suite that opportunity may be fulfilled.

Wanova Mirage 3.0 showed great promise as a way to deliver a real virtual desktop without the encumbrance of a desktop hypervisor, but it lacked flexibility. In its 3.0 release Mirage was delivered as a three layer platform; Base (OS), Apps (enterprise management applications), and User (user installed applications). This three layer model worked well for less complex deployments, but it can quickly become unwieldy in large environments where departmental application layers proliferate and a single application update could mean rebuilding many departmental application layers. Mirage 3.0 administration did not scale well.

Mirage 4 introduces an n-layer model,  allowing any number of applications to be packaged, managed and deployed separately, while still allowing multiple applications to be grouped together into a single layer. The other big change in Mirage 4 is the introduction of support for VMware ThinApp application virtualization technology to enable isolation and encapsulation of Windows applications. ThinApp has seen considerable success as a stand alone application virtualization solution, and giving Mirage the means of deploying ThinApp packages could significantly simplify the workspace virtualization on-ramp for many existing ThinApp customers.  Mirage 4 also gains VMware DNA in the form of Fusion Professional, so IT administrators can deploy Mirage managed corporate images and applications to virtual machines running on Mac- or Linux-based desktops and laptops. With Apple winning the lion’s share of employee purchased PC sales, there’s a clear BYOD hook here, but what about those of us looking for BYOD with more business appeal. While the purist might say that with Mirage VMware doesn’t need a type -II hypervisor to deliver enterprise management to employee owned Windows PCs, VMware does offer a way out. The Fusion Pro license includes rights to run VMware Player in a corporate environment. Although I’m sure there are many IT pros who would prefer to see a VMware Workstation license offered alongside that of Fusion instead of the less flexible VMware Player.

The one thing that VMware hasn’t done with Mirage 4 is provide support for View. While using Mirage to replace View Composer might appear to be an obvious next step, VMware has been quick to squash any discussion of such suggestions in previous discussions. The structural challenges of channeling IOPS hungry Mirage technology into a VDI environment will not be easy to overcome, although perhaps now with Virsto on board, VMware might be up to the challenge in time for Mirage 5.

Horizon Workspace 1.0

Fittingly VMware’s first attempt at a real virtual workspace aggregation solution is itself assembled from now familiar past projects. Project Octopus, Horizon Data, Horizon App Manager, and what looks very like bits of Horizon Mobile have come together to provide the central management service. The basics are all there; Windows, SaaS, Web, and data provisioning and control all work and show great promise, but they count for nothing without the core services and it is here that Vmware has dropped the ball.

The data service may be OK for the 0.1% of organization that haven’t lost enterprise data to Dropbox, but getting enterprise users who have experienced the freedom of Dropbox to give it up in favor of Horizon will be a difficult battle. Web based file editing services that are a staple of the new crop of enterprise startups are missing, leaving only the Horizon Client or manual download/upload as the only way to go. This is not going to win it any converts.

Past promises that Horizon would provide a front end controlling access to XenApp hosted applications have not yet been met and previous support for Microsoft RDSH is missing. Remote desktop access is another promised technology that has failed to emerge, something that is especially noticeable given the past promises of AppBlast.

Horizon Workspace 1.0 looks for all the world like a tech preview not a product.

In Summary

VMware has done a good job of developing both View and Mirage, both products offer worthwhile improvements on current releases and Mirage in particular should see a marked up tick in interest on the back of these updates.  Horizon Workspace thought has failed to hit the mark. While the core management platform looks good, the secondary services fall short. Delivering a data management service that fails to compete with current consumer services will make it difficult to entice the Dropbox generation back into the enterprise fold.

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