Is Desktop Virtualization the Key to an Effective Windows 7 Migration?

Microsoft is due to ship Windows 7 this year. While normally the release of a new desktop OS would not be a major topic in the world of virtualization, it turns out that maybe this time it should be. For the follow reasons:

  1. Based upon early reports of the migration process, it is not going to be easy to migrate Windows XP desktops to Windows 7 (Vista Migrations are supposed to be easy). Windows XP constitutes by far the lion’s share of the installed base of Windows desktops, the early data says that this promises to be an extremely arduous and expensive process for enterprises worldwide.
  2. Once the process of migrating to Windows 7 is complete, will enterprises end up with desktop environments that are fundamentally more manageable than what they have today? The key to avoiding future painful migrations is to put management technologies in place that allow for wholesale changes to the end user computing environment to be much easier than they are today.

Let’s have a look at how a variety of different desktop virtualization and management technologies could help enterprises end up with a Windows 7 end user environment that is much more manageable, yet still user friendly than what exists with Windows XP today:

  1. Pure centralized desktop virtualization. One simple way to avoid a painful migration of a user’s desktop to Windows 7 is to not migrate it all. A solution is to create a Windows 7 virtual machine in the datacenter that the user can log into via a connection broker. This certainly avoids migrating users’ computers to Windows 7, but fall short in two areas. The first is that this approach alone only addresses a few of the ways in which users use personal computers. Specifically the lack of an offline “laptop mode” means that this approach will only work for the same kinds of task oriented always connected workers that can be (and are being) served by Citrix XenApp (Presentation Server). The second is that just migrating a user to a centralized desktop does not address the management issues associated with end user computing. These issues can only be addressed by layering the OS, the OS personalization, the applications, the applications personalization, and the user data in a manner that they can be independently managed from each other.
  2. Client side hypervisors. Client side hypervisors from companies like Neocleus, Virtual Computer, VMware (VCP), Citrix (XenClient) can abstract the OS from the underlying hardware, and allow for multiple guest OS’s to run on the user’s computer. This is an important step towards a more manageable end user computer, since it will allow corporate IT to have a desktop OS image that it manages, which can run alongside of a different OS image that is “personal” and belongs to the end user. However, just as is the case with centralized desktop virtualization, a client side hypervisor alone (even one with management of a corporate image) is not enough. What is needed in addition is the same layering technology that is mentioned in #1 above that separates the client side image into its components.
  3. Desktop applications virtualization. Microsoft (App-V), Citrix, Symantec End Point Virtualization Suite, InstallFree and a variety of other vendors offer technology that allows applications to be encapsulated in bubbles that isolate them from the underlying OS and from each other. Desktop applications virtualization could end up being a key enabler of the migration to a more manageable Windows 7 environment, IF a way could be found to virtualize all applications, and allow them all to talk to each other once virtualized. Once the “every application” question has been addressed, this approach combined with an approach to the central management of the OS could prove to be a winner.
  4. Next generation desktop layering and management technologies. This set of technologies holds the most promise for allowing a truly management end user computing environment to be constructed for Windows 7 in the enterprise. Some examples are:
    • AppSense (User Environment Manager) is the market leading operating system and applications layering solution. AppSense supports all three deployment models for desktops (locally installed OS, centrally virtualized OS, locally virtualized OS), and provides for effective layering of OS personalization, and application personalization data. AppSense does not support automatic migration of settings from one version of an OS to another (as does Tranxition), nor does it support the automatic backup of end user data, but these are logical extensions to the product given how widely it is deployed in enterprises worldwide today.
    • Ringcube creates a “virtual workspace” which is much like a combination of virtualized applications and their settings layered on top of the OS of choice. This would allow the applications and all of the personalization to be kept in the RingCube layer, and isolated from the underlying operating system – making future changes to the operating system much easier to deploy. RingCube has the advantage of being able to work in any desktop deployment scenario (centrally hosted, on a client side hypervisor, on a legacy OS directly installed on the PC hardware, etc.).
    • MokaFive goes one step further than RingCube and encapsulates an entire desktop OS, set of applications, and personalizations in an image which can then be layered on top of an existing OS (however deployed). MokaFive therefore represents a way to get an entirely new Windows 7 end user environment (with associated applications) out to end users without requiring that the existing XP desktop be upgraded.
    • Tranxition has announced and showed for the first time at VMworld 2009 a new offering that layers the OS, OS personalization, applications, applications personalization, and user data while backing each layer up and providing for migration between versions (Tranxition is the only layering technology that supports migrating OS setting and application setting data forward and backward). This could be a key technology for enterprises who wish to store the uniqueness of each user in a central database before the migration to Windows 7 and then apply that uniqueness back (to newer versions of the OS and the applications) after the user has been given a Windows 7 system to work with. The only issue with this approach is that it currently only works for connected desktops (no offline caching yet), so it only works for the centrally hosted desktop case today. But support for offline caching is being rapidly added to the product, and will likely be in the product before most enterprises entertain their Windows 7 migrations.
    • Wanova (also announced and shown for the first time at VMworld 2009) has a layering with centralized management offering that supports all three main deployment models for end user desktops (installed on local hardware, virtualized in a central data center, virtualized on the client side with a local hypervisor). Wanova layers all aspects of the user environment (including user data).
    • Unidesk did not announce, and did not exhibit at VMworld 2009, but they did provide private demonstrations of their layering and management solution. Unidesk will support any deployment scenario where a hypervisor is present (it requires either a hypervisor underneath the client OS in the data center, or one installed locally on the client desktop). Once this requirement is met, Unidesk provides extremely effective layering and management of the desktop environment, including the handling of cases that can prove difficult for other technologies (like desktop AV products, and printer drivers).

In summary, the effective use of a layering and management solution is essential for organizations that wish to use the migration to Windows 7 as a catalyst to get to a more manageable and flexible end user computing environment. Virtualization is therefore potentially an enabling technology that helps enterprises arrive at this destination. Virtualization of desktops is therefore not an end in an of itself (as was the case with servers) but rather when combined with the right layering technology a means to get to the real goal of the more manageable and flexible desktop computing environment.

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