Microsoft and Citrix offer a “Rescue for VMware VDI”

On March 18, Microsoft embarked on a major offensive to focus the desktop virtualisation market away from VMware View. As well as announcing updates for their desktop virtualization technologies and solutions, including virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), Microsoft and Citrix Systems jointly announced two major promotions:

“Rescue for VMware VDI” – Starting in April 2010,  VMware View customers who have Microsoft Core CAL or Enterprise CAL suites with Software Assurance through Select, Enterprise & CASA family of agreements are offered the opportunity to trade in up to 500 licenses for free up until December 2010.

“VDI Kick Start” from March 18, if you’ve a Microsoft Core CAL or Enterprise CAL suites with Software Assurance through Enterprise and Select family of agreements you are eligible customers only pay $28 per device for up to 250 devices. If you’ve an Open Value, Campus Agreement or School Agreement (CASA) family of agreements you’ll be eligible starting July 1, 2010.

Are these announcements marketing hype or do they actually help deliver an improved VDI experience? Indeed, are you a VMware View house in peril?

Microsoft in ‘Licensing that is VDI Friendly’ Shock

It is interesting to note that while Windows 7’s U.S. sales were over 200%  higher over the first few days of its availability this could be attributed to heavy discounting, yet PC sales are lagging behind:  new PCs are failing to drive Windows 7 sales. Many businesses are willing to stay with Windows XP as the operating system – more so as its memory demands are far less than newer versions and more amenable to hosting on a centralised service.

Microsoft undoubtedly want to be in a better position to drive demand for Windows 7. VDI offers a means of deploying Windows 7 without the need to deploy new desktop devices.

The slew of announcements included:

  • Improved licensing model for virtual Windows desktop. From July 1, 2010, Windows Client Software Assurance customers will no longer have to buy a separate license to access their Windows operating system in a VDI environment, as virtual desktop access rights now will be a Software Assurance benefit. This is a boost to drive up-take and maintain interest in Microsoft‘s Software Assurance (SA) program. If you have  SA, you no longer need a Virtual Enterprise Centralised Desktop (VECD) license – and so you save the $23/device/year for your VDI implementation. For those customers that will not upgrade to SA, but still want to use the VDI model of desktop virtualization, you will need to subscribe to Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) which will replace VECD – this license will be $100 /device/year.
  • New roaming use rights improve flexibility. Again, from July 1, 2010, Windows Client Software Assurance and new Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) license customers will have the right to access their virtual Windows desktop and their Microsoft Office applications hosted on VDI technology on secondary, non-corporate network devices, such as home PCs and kiosks. This is of huge benefit if you’ve considering making use of your VDI infrastructure beyond your LAN. As we discussed  in our article Will Deploying Microsoft Office in VDI cost you dearly, Microsoft’s licensing policy focused on licenses per device and this could be an inhibitor to helping to deliver extended benefits of desktop centralisation by pushing desktop delivery to users beyond of your LAN environment – be they home users or mobile workers.
  • Windows XP Mode no longer requires hardware virtualization technology.  Windows XP Mode  is a virtual machine package for Windows Virtual PC containing a pre-installed, licensed copy of Windows XP Professional SP3 as its guest OS. Windows XP mode was not released for, and will fail to function on, any editions of Windows 7 below Professional Edition. While its fair to say the best performance will come when running on hardware with virtualization support, Microsoft acknowledge that hardware virtualization support isn’t as prevalent as they were anticipating. Again, in a drive to push Windows 7, Microsoft ‘s change simplifies the experience by making this virtualization feature that helps with maintaining applications that can’t move to Windows 7 more accessible to many more PCs.

Changes to Hyper-V

Ultimately, changing the licensing methods make VDI implementations cheaper to implement – but at present, there are a number of hyper-visors that can be utilized to host virtual  machines. Citrix and VMware both have offerings and despite being free its arguable Microsoft’s Hyper-V has, so far, been the lesser for enterprise consideration.

Two new features coming in Windows Server 2008 R2 service pack 1 are intended to remedy that, and also to assist in the drive to push Windows 7 sales through increased VDI take-up.

  • Microsoft Dynamic Memory will allow customers to adjust the memory of a guest virtual machine on demand to maximize server hardware use.  With 2008 R2 Hyper-V’s memory is allocated statically and a Hyper-V virtual machine – and all of the software running inside of it – has to be rebooted if more memory is needed for that VM’s software stack.  This is different from the memory-overcommit methodology employed by VMware in its ESX Server 4.0 and ESXi 4.0 hypervisors, with that overcommit, each VM and its software stack is told it has access to more physical memory than it is actually using. It is possible to overcommit the memory resources on ESX: yet it is at the moment unclear from Microsoft how Dynamic Memory will guard against this. How VMs relinquish memory when the server is under stress, or if limits on maximum VM memory are all questions yet to be fully answered.
  • Microsoft RemoteFX will enable users will be able to work remotely in a Windows Aero desktop environment, watch full-motion video, enjoy Silverlight animations, and run 3D applications – all with the fidelity of a local-like performance when connecting over the LAN. RemoteFX is  intended to deliver this rich experience from a broad range of client devices – rich PCs, thin clients and very simple, low-cost devices. RemoteFX does this via a technique known as host-based rendering, which means the entire final composited screen image is rendered on the remote host and then compressed and sent down to the client – more like Teradici’s PCoIP which is used by VMware, and less like the remote technologies that have been employed that see requirement for devices to have greater processing resource such as Citrix’s HDX or Quest’s EOP. The first implementation of RemoteFX will be focused on LAN scenarios. Microsoft has said they, or indeed their partners, will be able to extend RemoteFX to work in WAN scenarios – offering the likes of  Quest and Ericom – who already provide enhancements to RDP and Citrix with their HDX technologies an opportunity to keep adding value to the core Microsoft product set.

While these are impressive sounding features,  it is interesting to note that the specification of when SP1 will be available was absent. Moreover, sadly, we appear to have returned to the dark days on NT 4 when service packs, not Releases, introduce new features.

The Rise of Hyper-V?

A number of Citrix (XenDesktop) and indeed Quest (vWorkspace) VDI implementations actually run on VMware’s ESX. Yet, to use RemoteFX, that VM must be running on Hyper-V.

Not Citrix XenServer.

Not VMware ESX.

Microsoft will be making the RemoteFX capabilities (on both the host and client side) available just like any other platform capability, so partners will be able to embrace and extend it as they see fit. Citrix have already announced that they’ll ship a RemoteFX-enabled HDX  stack six months after Microsoft ships RemoteFX.

RemoteFX is not in itself going to be a huge driver for increased take up of Hyper-V on its own. If you’ve already a sizable investment in ESX it is unlikely you’ll move for that one feature. However, for those organizations with a small or no investment yet ESX Hyper-V’s new hype and new features mean there is going to be less of reason to only consider VMware’s offering. Going forward it is possible that it is going to be harder for VMware to generate new sales.

One thing is for sure, Citrix’s XenServer has its work cut out to keep it in the corporate eye.

Will These Announcements Springboard Demand for VDI?

VDI deployments will undoubtedly benefit as VECD effectively is gone. You only need SA, which many Microsoft customers have.

Will that drive VDI?


The license cost has been reduced by $23/ device. For many organisations – the license cost for VECD is going to be a relatively small component of the overall cost of moving to a VDI environment. Office licensing has been included if you’ve SA – always a problem extending out – but again, rarely a barrier.

What are barriers?

  • Understanding and accommodating the impact of migrating to and managing a centralised desktop deployment environment.
  • How applications are delivered to those desktops – do you install applications as part of the image, do  you virtualize your applications? How do you integrate this with application deployments for your non-VDI environment?
  • How user’s workspaces are controlled and deployed – how do you persist their settings between sessions, how do you migrate settings from a user’s desktop to
  • How a user’s desktop experience alters using remote display protocols rather than a working directly at a device – is there a delay when typing, how does the service operate over WAN links, can they plug in their USB drive, their camera, their microphone?
  • How does remote printing work?

All of these factors can combine to grind a Proof of Concept or early implementation down.

While some long standing licensing issues have been addressed the features offered today are hardly a sea change in overcoming these hurdles.

Do View Users Need Rescuing?

Just because you’re a View customer doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be a Microsoft customer – its likely you’re hosting your XP or Windows 7 VMs and you’ve SA. View users are going to be able to take advantage of these licensing announcements so to an extent, they’ve already been rescued.

RemoteFX will undoubtedly be a better experience than existing versions of RDP on the LAN. It may even be a better experience than PCoIP. But, as a VMware View customer you are only in peril, you only need rescuing, if your users are unhappy with the experience they have in their environment.

If you are struggling to deliver a usable experience over your WAN for instance, it is likely than RemoteFX will not be of use – perhaps you should consider Ericom’s Blaze, or Quest’s EOP enhancements to RDP – perhaps even Citrix’s ICA. If you are struggling to persist your user’s environments, manage your licenses, manage the VM disk use – none of these announcements will help.

And indeed, if you have ESX and you’ve a management infrastructure and an investment in staff and resource Hyper-V’s only new up and coming feature is an equivalent to something you already have.

How Will VMware Respond?

VMware believe View 4 is “the only virtualization solution specifically built for delivering desktops as a managed service“. The announcements from Microsoft and Citrix do little to impact on this statement especially when we consider that, licensing changes aside, this announcement is an announcement of things to come, not an announcement of things available now.

It is however likely that the greater impact will not be on existing implementations but rather a method of highlighting that View is not the only option available for VDI. Perhaps this is the greater threat to VMware, while sizable implementations exist,  many VDI solutions are still in very early stages, at strategy stage, design , proof-of-concept stages. There is understanding that implementing a VDI service is not a an inexpensive undertaking.

This is less of case with these announcements – and the implementation cost will be much reduced when using Hyper-V’s in its free version. But, as has been said, the licensing cost is a small part of the overall project.

It is likely that the management facilities of VDI solutions will be more heavily promoted. And indeed not only VDI – but all desktop delivery services together – be they VDI, Presentation Virtualization or traditional desktops. It will be interesting to see how Quest, Ericom and Systancia promote their offerings – all of which offer solutions to manage all three components – not just VDI.

What is missing from the mix of products and marketing announced today is a bare-metal hypervisor for the PC itself. VirtualComputer have NxTop but Citrix’s XenClient is still not yet ready, despite it being a project Citrix and Intel have been working on for some time.

Businesses don’t simply want a VDI solution for their desktop strategy, a number are considering streaming not only applications but whole PC images down to a ruggedized VM container on corporate PCs allowing the blending of centralisation and off-line/remote working.

Perhaps an effective rescue for VMware’s VDI will be to for VMware to deliver their client side hypervisor first and offer a single management environment for a business desktop delivery, regardless of device. And should this happen, Microsoft still get to drive sales of Windows 7.

For the full Microsoft press release on the announcement’s – read Microsoft Accelerates Desktop Virtualization

View the Microsoft and Citrix’s joint that explores the announcements in more detail

from a broad range of client devices – rich PCs, thin clients and very simple, low-cost devices