Nivio – Has Someone got Desktop-As-A-Service for Small Business Right?

niviologoNivio have announced a DaaS solution aimed at SME space. Offering access to Microsoft Windows on any device, rentable applications, and data storage in the cloud, it sounds as if Nivio’s service could be just the ticket for the tablet wielding, dead-PC shunning organisations with a workforce who have their own devices, and need to team collaboration with access to Windows based applications.

The thing is, this road has been trodden before: it is a rocky one. OnLive attempted to offer a solution and failed. Even Desktone had a strategy that attempted to directly appeal to this segment but found the return on effort too miserly.

Yet, Nivio have created a service offering delivering Windows applications to Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices. A web service providing common file storage to store user and group files for that can be syncronised to devices to work offline for editing directly, or automatically made available within the public cloud hosted Windows desktop service. A desktop service that has an on-demand, rentable application interface. User management is in your own hands. While Nivio are targeting their market at the 20-50 user sized organisation space which suggests small business, Nivio are getting a number of calls from project teams in larger organisations.

What are Nivio doing that is different? Will this model be successful? What, if anything, can be learned by other DaaS providers, and what in turn could be learned by Nivio?

What a DaaS Provider needs to Get Right

Key deliverables for DaaS providers are:

  • Allow new application support:  Delivering a Windows virtual desktop is known and scalable. But a desktop without applications is an expensive way to run Minesweeper. What is the cost model, and time-frame for on-boarding a new application in your cloud based desktop?
  • Security and authentication: Do you need a new domain and userid, or can you utilise your existing one? Is it to be separation from your environment or integration? Indeed, do you have a domain?
  • Access to corporate resources: moving to Win7 and Office 365 is all very well, but what about the archived documents? The last 5 years of sales data? Your CRM system? Your intranet? Your finance system? 
  • Persistence of settings  will your users spend 20 minutes a day setting up their email signatures, their printers, mapping their drives, their bookmarks: or is that user environment configuration automated?
  • Focus on experience – Have you considered how the user experience will be when the reliance is on a pure remote protocol delivery? It can be viable: but what do  you do when it isn’t? What experiences are sacrificed? Is it possible to report on that user experience so if (or when?) users say their service is poor there is empirical evidence of their experience?

In terms of what Nivio do for their current DaaS release, the answers are simple: “yes”, “no (but)”, “no (but)”, “yes”, and “ah, well…”.

Nivio – Cloud based Workspace

Nivio’s first release offering is relatively simple. Once you’re signed up you’ve access to a standard looking file share interface that has folders for your personal use (10GB per user, with a fee for additional space) and folders that can be shared among the users of your organisation.

nivio - user home page
nivio – user home page

This is the view across all devices. If you’ve installed one of the Nivio computer clients (Windows/Mac) you have the option of creating a copy of this folder structure  on your device’s drive for offline use. What isn’t available in this release is full integration of this file store with other desktop applications (you can’t Send To for example, or include a link to a file via email); or syncronise mobile devices (tablets/smartphones); or indeed, the facility to automatically sync this folder with other file sharing environments. But still, having the option to collaborate on files with a group, and then launch that file with a local application on the device is still a viable option.

You are also able to launch a Windows desktop using the Launch nDesktop link. Windows and Mac users can install a Nivio branded client; iPad/iPhone/Android devices can opt to install a free application from Wyse. Or, you can use a zero install HTML5 client if you have access to Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Launching the desktop gets you a Windows 2008R2 session host session. The desktop application setup and settings  remain persistent between sessions, and it is possible for users to switch an active virtual desktop between devices. Within the virtual desktop environment, you can access drive mappings that relate to the file share web interface  environment. You also have the option to add in a range of applications from Nivio’s nApp interface.

The nApp application set includes 37 free applications (the likes of Chrome, Open Office, Skype, Yammer), and 6 rentable applications (MS Office, Project, Visio and Quickbooks Pro) with all these having a rental period of a minimum of 30 days.

napps view
napps view

This dialogue can also be used by administrators to add additional users to the service. Using the nBusiness tab, admins can add users, define permissions for shares, and assign applications to users.

The authentication method is currently focused on a username/password dedicated to this environment: there is no integration with local Active Directory environments, or with other authentication services. Still, perhaps for the team, setting up new unique userids and passwords for this service isn’t overly complex.

There is a reporting service available although it is focused on reporting login counts and usage rather than user experience.

Nivio – more than a simple Cloud-based Windows Desktop? 

Nivio deliver an Amazon based cloud service running Microsoft Windows RDS with a customised environment  for load balancing. The service is built on Microsoft RDS, so it is a Windows x64 environment, a session based service rather than a dedicated desktop OS. There are advantages in having a dedicated desktop OS delivered as a virtual machine, but for the delivery of this type of application set, and to help keep costs low across devices, a session based (aka Terminal Services/Presentation Virutalisation) is the better platform choice.  You do have the ability to add applications into the environment, all be it the applications come from Nivio’s own application portfolio. In order to add additional applications you will have to speak to Nivio (there has been a range of policies and settings in place to block self-installs).

There are local clients (I experienced a layout issue with the Android version of the Wyse client that is apparently being fixed). Or web based with an HTML5 browser which utilizes Ericom’s Access Now HTML5 technology (which has come on commendably since I looked at it in 2011). As a Windows 7, Samsung tablet and Chromebook user, I found the experience of connecting to the service reliable. Only, if only, audio in HTML5 was bi-directional, then I could actually use Skype on my Chromebook <shakes fist at sky>.

Yes, not all applications are supported: but there are reasons for this. If you’ve experienced Amazon’s app store in comparison to Google’s wider Play store – you’ll have had a similar experience. In order to test and validate applications, both for compatibility and licensing, Nivio manage the available application list. That said, for many, the range of applications will make this desktop experience viable: Office productivity is there, in both Microsoft and non-Microsoft guises; if you want or need  access to Java or a Silverlight in a browser on your tablet, from or your Chromebook – that is available too.

But, what about performance? The service is no better or worse than a well resourced session based/hosted desktop service. If you’ve a stable wi-fi connection, broadband, or a good 4G signal performance is typically acceptable. 3G is usable, although prone to pausing and lagging. The HTML5 client gives a fair attempt at video and audio delivery. For sure, 3D rendering applications aren’t available, but do will the majority of the target market need  them?  The Wyse client has a tidy mouse and keyboard interface which makes tablet use of the service tolerable. Smartphone use is frustrating: but really, a Windows desktop on <7″ screen size? You’ll go blind.

Most importantly.. what about the SLA? For corporate desktop users Nivio’s terms and conditions will give concern. Storage “may be” in the USA it reads.  The service is provided “as-is”,  “with all faults” and “as available”. Then again, perhaps for collaborating on documents between a team using a range of devices, these particular issues aren’t overly important in comparison to the more pressing need to start collaborating.

Nivio – Cloud-based Consumerised Workspace?

The focus from Nivio is on marketing their solution to small organisations (30-50 users). These businesses are unlikely to have custom applications. They want to share documents. Very likely they want to be able to run use a tablet/non-Windows device as well as a laptop/PC/Mac. Their application demands for a Windows environment will be common, and custom applications more likely to be web-based.

Yes, there are issues for printing or bi-directional audio when using the HTML5 client. Yes, there are issues in areas of poor data connectivity. Ideally there would be a more comprehensive collaboration environment. Yet, for the user sizes of the target market while these features might be on a future requirements list, what is available now can be good enough.

That said, the need for data protection and access for a small company is high: lose the data, or lose access to the service and business is lost: and lost business is lost money. Again, perhaps this is a service that compliments existing environments; allowing a syncronisation between laptops and tablets rather than a sole service. It is competitively priced. As a version 1, go to market service the usage experience is slick. Encryption of local data, allowing access to data from other applications on tablets, backup and recovery: such services can be added if demand requires.

What Nivio’s service as-is shows, is the concept of providing one service (a virtual desktop) is be limited. In-a-box solutions are not going to win business serving this number of users: the start-up costs and service delivery is high. Pure virtual desktop services need to be able to cater for off-line working. There are a range of DaaS providers who offer virtual desktops at a similar service price: GoCloud, Vesk, for instance: it may well be there’ll be comments and suggestions on others. These providers are also offering similarly priced services, but with a focus on delivering all components within the virtual desktop.

Nivio’s impressive setup, configuration and collaboration experience is appealing as it doesn’t rely on a pure VM based service. That said, Nivio’s SLA for data sharing and VM access could be an Achilles heel. We’ve asked before what should a cloud based SLA look like. Vesk, for instance, offers a 99.9% SLA for the virtual desktop instances in their datacentre, with multi-site data replication and additional service options for dedicated fail-over links. As Nivio takes more users on-board, its reputation is ever reliant on availability and access.

That said, Nivio’s ability to offer of a set of services for both off-line and on-line use across a range of devices is key. Their provision of administration directly to account holders is also different. Their use of HTML5 as a zero client is an option that more than just me will find more. In this respect, a service more useful to smaller organisations than a pure virtual desktop service.

All of these components are available to other service providers, but its the first time I’ve seen them all joined together effectively within a generally available DaaS offering. There is definitely a sizeable market wanting to use such services. I’ve seen similar attempts but not as complete. Which is perhaps odd. Citrix resellers for example have a range of XenApp, ShareFile and Podio services. Microsoft partners have RDS, Skydrive and Office 365 to call on. Ericom are not the only company offering a viable HTML5 client. A question for Nivio is how long will it be in this relatively unique service offering position.