Onlive Desktop: VDI cannot be DaaS until Microsoft say so.

OnLive is on the verge of making a game-changing move in the VDI space. The game focused application delivery company announced their OnLive Desktop service at CES this year. OnLive Desktop claims to deliver a seamless Microsoft Windows desktop experience with cloud-accelerated web browsing and full Adobe Flash. The marketing talks of “instant-response multi-touch gestures“, “complete and convenient viewing and editing of even the most complex documents” and “high-speed transfer from cloud storage or Web mail attachments“.  Sounds like something a CFO would bite your hand off for.

Still, delivering a ubiquitous desktop environment is a complex undertaking. Desktone tried punting to end users and then thought better of it. The default position when delivering desktops is to deliver a Microsoft Windows workspace: that’s what most users need and want to run their applications. However, a “use any device” model gets hampered by Microsoft’s VDA yearly license cost, and further constrained by the lack of a viable way of policing/validating VDA assignment. VDI can leave an enterprise open to Microsoft beating them with a stick for a host of additional end device licenses.

Have OnLive taken an impressive application delivery model and tried to apply it to windows desktops without necessarily thinking licensing through? Will the scalability and experience that Onlive have mean that VDI vendors should re-think their technology? Will the buzz that OnLive has created mean an new level of engagement with Microsoft, perhaps even a shotgun wedding? Will Onlive Desktop be the technology that prompts Microsoft to get its licensing-of-vdi house in order, properly enabling a Desktop-as-a-Service market: what better way to laugh in the face of Apple than to have most iPads running Windows 8?

What Does Onlive Desktop Offer?

The OnLive Desktop app is free, along with OnLive Desktop Standard service, which includes Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Adobe Reader and 2 GB of cloud storage: but no web browsing. For web browsing you’ll beed OnLive’s current premium (i.e. paid for service) which is Desktop Plus, which gives access to a browser and thus, external cloud storage (e.g. Dropbox) files. Pro and Enterprise versions are on the table.  However, before you sign away all your desktops to charity and shelve that Windows 7 migrations bear in mind OnLive Desktop is currently only available for tablet devices (both iOS and Android) – support for smartphones, PC, Mac, TVs via an “OnLive MicroConsole thin client”, and on connected TVs  is “coming soon”. Perhaps most importantly, the OnLive Desktop service is only currently only available in the US.

I am an OnLive consumer: in the UK. I’ve been very impressed with the ease of client set-up and the performance of games on devices. Granted – access from my Android tablet on a 2Mb home broadband connection can be a little clunkly at times,  but the ease of set-up, the performance and the interface is eye wideningly good. I’ve used game delivery methods from Origin and Steam – OnLive blows them away as, bar the client, very little is required of the end device. This is what virtualised application delivery should be.. when everyone has fast broadband access.

To achieve this, the delivery of the applications service is entirely proprietary. OnLive have created their own own OS environment, developed their own remote display protocol, their own broker and their own agreements with service providers.  In terms of ‘traditional VDI’ OnLive’s approach has been far more innovative than the existing vendors: and with an approach where it is application delivery first, workspace delivery second.

Microsoft Called to Level Up?

If OnLive can scale a delivery model then what does that leave as a hurdle? Desktop OS Licensing? Microsoft OS desktop licensing if we’re being honest: while other operating systems are available its Microsoft that the majority will work with. We’ve discussed before that Microsoft’s VDI Licensing isn’t rocket science, nor is it friendly to desktop virtualisation: especially to desktop-as-a-service service providers.

How does this impact vendors such as Citrix, Desktone and Quest? Does it vindicate Ericom who have been pushing their AccessNow HTML5 client capabilities for ISVs? To an extent far down the line; how does this impact VMware? For Citrix, Ericom and Quest – in fact any provider that supports a Presentation Virtualisation environment – they support the ‘desktop-as-a-service’ friendly Microsoft solution. But, there is no Service Provider License Agreement (SPLA) for Windows 7. An SPLA program would allow DaaS providers to deploy Windows 7 to any user at any organization, and it’s something that the industry has been waiting for. Desktone have an impressive stack for VDI delivery, but as of today, the only way to deploy the same copy of Windows to users in different organizations is with Remote Desktop Services on Windows Server 2008 R2 (and prior versions). Sure, with the proper policy settings you can make RDS look like Windows 7 – but it still isn’t Windows 7. If your solution only relies on delivering a desktop OS you are to an extent going to have to stand up more infrastructure as each of your customers needs dedicated hardware to support their environment.

For Windows 7, there would need to be a change in the current MS Licensing policy. Perhaps this is happening. Microsoft have blogged that they are “actively engaged with OnLive with the hope of bringing them into a properly licensed scenario, and we are committed to seeing this issue is resolved“.

Should Microsoft change their mind, what else does a service provider need to make VDI delivery of a Windows OS as a service easier?

VDI is not Desktop As A Service

A desktop-as-a-service needs more than simply a virtualised Windows instance. Features to consider include:

  • Removing a “Remember me” feature at login.  From a security standpoint you want the user to authenticate every single time they launch the workspace, not leave the door open.
  • Validate the device the user is logging in from.  Force the user to confirm that it is really them logging in from three different devices.  From a protocol perspective everything must be delivered over SSL.
  • What is securing the workspace? As a paid subscriber what is being used to provide protection from viruses, malware or just from going to wrong webpage?  Can service consumers have the ability to set levels of browser security and be able to scan files, or files that exported/transferred out?  Is my image encrypted, my data encrypted?  Can encryption be added to a file or folder (PGP type of functionality)?  Corporate consumer’s comfort levels rise knowing that not only is the connection secure, but so is the environment.

OnLive’s initial offering may have links to Dropbox and other on-line file storage, which is great to edit some family pictures and maybe update your resume, but for the business user who could use this to review company documents, pro versions need more than a bigger folder.

There would need to be ties in with solutions like Citrix’s ShareFile, Oxygen, or TeamDrive to give those conscious IT folks some sense of security about the files that are accessed from this platform.  A bigger problem here, as with any DaaS solution in general, is that pure external services often lack of federation with a user’s company directory.  If there was, there’s an option to give access to other applications, files and data.

DaaS – the hard stuff is just in the Licensing?

The stuff that can make delivering VDI as a service character building can include scalability, the user experience, security integration and delivery. But at the moment, the most character building element for DaaS providers is to accommodate the  licensing of the Microsoft desktop OS while allowing the solution to hit the right price point.

OnLive’s delivery capability is a wake-up call to the ISVs and SPs who are trying to penetrate this market.  OnLive managed to get the buzz out on a service less than two months old, while others with more established offerings are still trying to find an audience.  With the license battle is about to ensue, Microsoft has the heads up display and is the one holding the shotgun. Perhaps OnLive can finally convince Redmond that it’s always more fun in multiplayer mode.