SMBs – Desktops in the Cloud, or Symantec Endpoint Virtualization?

Given the hype in the press, most SMBs are now starting to be curious about what the “cloud” means for them. They may be surprised to realize they are already partially in the cloud.

  • They have a website which is managed separately from the main IT function and hosted on some server somewhere in the cloud.
  • Their email may or may not be in the cloud, depending on whether they have on-premises Exchange or hosted Exchange/pop/imap.
  • They may use some hosted line-of-business ISV applications, for example a CRM or a project management application

Whilst new SMBs may be dabbling with online application suites, the bulk of the established SMB workload, however, is done in desktop applications, typically Microsoft Office, running in various flavours of Windows with a Windows Server. This is definitely not in the cloud, and there are lots of very good reasons why it won’t be, and less radical solutions  are likely to offer more benefit.

The first two problems are about bandwidth. First, in most areas there are very limited options in sourcing bandwidth. The detail here is based on UK experience, but is likely to be transferable to other geographies. Using mobile bandwidth is not going to be cost-effective for the volumes of data you will need. You will be able to buy land-line bandwidth from multiple providers, but the physical wire into your office will only come through one “cabinet” – typically belonging to the encumbent telco. There will be exceptions where both cable and encumbent telco operators are present, but only in areas of mixed use (residential/office). What this means is that if the cabinet or the local phone exchange develops a fault you lose connectivity and your whole office goes home for the afternoon.

Second, you will be buying asymmetric bandwidth. If you are really lucky there may be as much as 15MBit/s download (on a notional 20MBit/s link), but there is unlikely to be more than 500kbit/s upload – even if you take up more expensive options like SDSL (at 2Mbit/s Upload) and leased lines, they will not actually deliver the upload speeds at which they are quoted. This problem is not going away, it’s down to cross-talk between signals on copper wires in the cabinet (or exchange). There is often (but not always) fibre from the cloud to the cabinet, but never beyond, and paying to have fibre extended to the offices of an SMB is usually prohibitive.

The nature of the asymmetric bandwidth problem is not immediately apparent. You can actually get remote desktops in the cloud to work quite well because they transfer their graphics on the download stream, and very little data (keyboard and mouse events) on the upload stream. Performance is fine (except for graphics-intensive applications, and this is improving). There are two problems that arise.

  1. How do you get data into the cloud? Without IT controlling things, data has proliferated uncontrolled in SMBs. In many Professional Services organizations (lawyers, accountants, architects, surveyors) you can easily have 10Gbytes per employee, and the data access paths are client-based not time-based so it’s hard to prune it to a manageable data volume. To upload 100Gbytes (for just 10 employees) on a 500kBit/s link takes weeks. In reality you will need to ship a hard drive to somewhere in the cloud and get someone to copy it for you.
  2. Partial cloud migrations don’t work – it’s all or nothing. If you have in-cloud desktops reading data from the premises or on-premise desktops writing data to the cloud you will be using the upload channel, and it will be too slow (in principle you could replicated data, but that adds a lot of complexity).

The third issue is about licencing. Your line-of-business desktop application licences (e.g. Sage) may well migrate to the cloud, although some of them are a bit picky about Terminal Services, but as an SMB you will generally have bought OEM licences for your Microsoft operating systems and applications. These do not migrate, and you will have to buy them again. If you had to buy one-off Retail licences for each migrated desktop, it would be prohibitively expensive, but Microsoft offers a mechanism for the cloud service provider to “rent” licences to SMBs for a monthly fee under the Service Provider Licensing Agreement (SPLA) which can get swept into the overall costs of the hosted solution.

There are, however, some issues with SPLA. First, it is not possible to rent Windows XP under SPLA. Second, it’s usually cheaper (and generally more convenient all round) for the Service Provider to deliver Terminal Services under SPLA than a hosted desktop operating system.

So, desktops in the cloud have this value proposition for established SMBs:

  • It has a single point of failure in your local telco
  • It’s all-or-nothing
  • You may have to migrate your desktop O/S
  • You lose control of your data
  • You gain manageability but not functionality

Desktops in the cloud are thus not actually very interesting for most established SMBs. However, the SMB is left with a bunch of unmanageable desktops, typically bought on an as-needed basis and thus of different ages from different suppliers with different drivers and different applications and/or application versions, and even different operating systems. There is no standard build and provisioning a new desktop involves a laborious manual process.  Machine-by-machine it’s far worse than anything in any corporate environment.

In this mix, some slightly less radical technologies can solve the core problems without putting the desktops into the cloud. Many SMBs are already familiar with Symantec, but may not be familiar with their Endpoint Virtualization suite. Workspace Streaming involves delivering applications on demand to desktops and removes the tedious manual build step. Workplace Virtualization involves isolating applications from the underlying O/S and reduces application conflicts and incompatibilities. Obviously there are other vendors, but Symantec is well placed to sell these technologies as the SMB is often already a customer for their antivirus software.

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