VMware Acquires CloudVolumes: What It Means for the Future of VDI

ElasticBox.VMwareThe biggest end user computing news of VMworld arrived a few days early, with the August 20 announcement that VMware has acquired storage layering startup CloudVolumes. In one step, this redefines VMware’s position in the end user computing marketplace. 

The technology is relatively simple: a Windows file system filter driver creates a virtual disk volume that captures disk changes to either a VMDK or VHD disk image. When one of these volumes is subsequently mounted, CloudVolumes intervenes again and merges the contents of the volume with the already-running disk image. This entire process is transparent to the operating system. Files within a CloudVolumes VMDK or VHD disk image appear as though they are on the OS’s C: drive, as they do when one uses a mount point in Windows to add a new volume, but without the restriction of having to reside in an empty NTFS folder. This means that no additional drive letter mappings are associated with the CloudVolumes disk images, and thus there are no limits on the number of CloudVolumes disk images that can be mounted. Along with the file system filter driver, CloudVolumes incorporates a Windows registry virtualization driver to capture and merge back any changes made to the registry. With these used together, the obvious application for CloudVolumes is application management, but the technology is equally applicable to any change to the base OS file system or registry.

The volume-mounting process does not copy data from the CloudVolumes image, which means that it is fast. As soon as the volume is mounted, it is immediately accessible to the OS. The process is so fast that it can be performed during Windows logon in most cases without any appreciable impact on logon times. Again in common with the use of Windows mount points, CloudVolumes images can be mounted and dismounted at any time. It is not necessary to restart or even log off and log back on again for changes to CloudVolumes images to take effect.

CloudVolumes has low resource requirements. Disk images are read-only, which means the same disk image can be shared across many host operating system instances, with very limited storage demands. A simple Flash-cached NAS array could support tens of thousands of virtual desktops, which, if needed, could scale out by replicating copies of the master image to additional storage arrays. Disk image replicas also can be distributed to provide local copies for branch-office environments. While CloudVolumes handles applications, it is not designed to address the broader challenges of VDI IOPS availability. For that, you can turn to any of the many hardware and software-based IOPS accelerators competing in the marketplace today (although that may well be changing).

One of the first fruits of the CloudVolumes acquisition is VMware’s Project Meteor. Meteor is an outgrowth of another VMware project, Fargo, which forks a running virtual desktop to create new virtual desktops in memory without the IOPS overhead of booting a new desktop from scratch. Project Meteor takes Fargo, uses it to create a base VM, and incorporates CloudVolumes to provide the applications needed to personalize the environment. If VMware can successfully productize Project Fargo technology, anything delivered from Project Meteor could dramatically change the economics of the virtual desktop.

Although the acquisition was led by VMware’s End-User Computing Group, CloudVolumes has far broader applications than as a virtual desktop layering solution for VMware Horizon. Dell has been partnering with CloudVolumes to deliver server workloads in conjunction with Dell Wyse Streaming Manager (WSM) since July 2013. In this configuration, WSM streams the server OS to bare metal, without recourse to use of a hypervisor, with CloudVolumes then delivering the server workload.

The fact that CloudVolumes is equally at home delivering desktop and data center workloads to virtual and physical servers is an indication of its power and value to VMware. Through CloudVolumes, VMware can offer single image management of any Windows workload. CloudVolumes gives VMware the means to develop products for managing any and every Windows workload. It is not even restricted to Windows; the technology works just as well with Linux, although the CloudVolumes team has not yet brought a Linux version to market.

Further, as the name implies, CloudVolumes is not just for desktops and data centers. Prior to VMware’s acquisition, CloudVolumes was working to develop a solution for both Microsoft Azure and Amazon EC2. Obviously, VMware’s cloud will now be added to that list, and there’s no reason why it should stop there, although whether it will continue down this route remains to be seen. Certainly, CloudVolumes as an application management solution for Microsoft Azure RemoteApp would be a major improvement over the cumbersome server image management that Microsoft offers today.

Getting back to end user computing, CloudVolumes, like other pure layering solutions, is not an application isolation solution. However, it will work in conjunction with application isolation products, such as ThinApp or App-V, to create disk images that contain an application isolation package, which CloudVolumes can then manage. CloudVolumes’ Harry Labana took pains to point out that there are no plans to extend CloudVolumes in that direction, instead positioning CloudVolumes as the management and delivery mechanism for all application isolation solutions.

At the same time, Labana made it clear that the VMware acquisition would not prevent current Citrix XenDesktop and XenApp customers from incorporating CloudVolumes into their application management stacks. Keeping the door open for Citrix customers to use CloudVolumes technology makes good sense. CloudVolumes could be a highly effective way for VMware to get a foot in the door at even the most diehard XenApp and XenDesktop shops. For Citrix’s biggest customers, those managing fleets of hundreds or thousands of XenApp servers, CloudVolumes offers capabilities that are essential to improving data center operations, lowering costs, and reducing change error and risk, not to mention simplifying disaster recovery and business continuity operations: things that cannot today be delivered using Citrix solutions with anything like the speed and simplicity that CloudVolumes enables.

With its flexibility and power, CloudVolumes is a cornerstone technology; it does more than just offer incremental improvements to its current Horizon Suite. Instead, it should be seen as something with which to create entirely new products that have the potential to significantly improve the lot of enterprise IT administrators everywhere.

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