Tradeoffs in Desktop Virtualization: No Showstoppers.

27 September 2008

In a recent post on ZDNet.co.uk, Jason Hiner, says that the cloud is not ready for desktop virtualization.

I’m more confident in the success of virtualized desktops.  I have, along with many others, been using them for years as remote desktops.  First with GoToMyPC and later with Microsoft remote desktop.  I would leave my desktop computer running at work and then access the desktop remotely from home or on the road.  My primary access method was a laptop connected on my home’s wireless network or the hotel Internet.  Never needing to transfer a file or install software, after two years, my laptop was in the same condition it was when I bought it.

Yes there were limitations.  Editing a Power Point presentation was annoying and multimedia files were poorly displayed.  If the Internet was slow, the mouse and keyboard screen updates could be jerky.  If I didn’t have Internet, I couldn’t work.  But there were always work-arounds and compromises.  For Power Point, I learned to turn off the background graphics or use a different template altogether.  I spent more time on content than format.  For surfing, it was often better to do the surfing locally – but not always.  I read on the plane and worked in the airport terminal.

However, the benefits of a single working desktop, of not having to sync files, of always being able to get to the desktop no matter where I was or on what machine:  these things outweighed the reduction in the “user experience”.  I was willing to put up with less in order to get these benefits.  It was a classic cost-benefit trade-off that I think many people and companies will make in the cloud’s favor.

I’d also like to point out that many companies are not using state of the art multimedia machines as desktops.  A quick walk through some local offices shows 14″ monitors, e-mail and word processing, two-tone text based data entry screens that look like they were programmed in 1970, no multi-media capabilities – basically bare bones corporate only workstations.  These are also the targets for virtualization.

What I am looking forward to with the virtualized desktop approach is being able to get rid of the corporate desktop altogether.  Virtualization has been a key term in servers since it allows servers to be consolidated.  If I had 10 servers, I may be able to get away with five or three or even one with the appropriate virtualization technology.  If you can virtualize the desktop as well, consider the additional savings.  How many computers are there out there in total?  What is the ratio of desktop computers to servers?  Its a probably more than 2 to 1.  If employees have a desktop at work and a laptop for home or the road, the number of non-server computers is even higher.  Now consider that desktop virtualization can reduce the number of redundant computers by up to a 50:1 ratio (as claimed by Qumranet’s President Rami Tamir in April.)  Yes, there will still need to be terminals with screens and keyboards but these can be much cheaper than the multi-cpu, multi-core machine that currently sits on my desk.  In all, this means a dramatic reduction in the amount of desktop hardware out there with a concomitant reduction in the IT support requirements.  The savings are too hard to ignore.

I agree with Jason that the importance of latency in the network will be important.  But just as working with remote desktops in a hotel, it is still possible to do even with tardy connections.  In return, the bandwidth requirements are significantly reduced.  A terminal for a virtual desktop will only need a fraction of the Internet bandwidth since it handles no files, transfers no data and only displays updates to the graphics.  The server in the cloud, on the other hand, has access to the Internet backbone and can deal with files over a high-bandwidth link.  For many companies, the server may have access to more Internet bandwidth than their own servers.

Jason’s article also mentions a bridge approach from MokaFive.  I realize the appeal of MokaFive’s approach, but I have lost (and given away) more USB keys than I can count and would not want to be dependent on one in order to use my computer.  I want the freedom of the web even with its restrictions.

What would you be willing to sacrifice to implement virtual desktops in your company?

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Bootstrapping your IT

23 September 2008

If you are a new startup that requires several people to work together, just how cheaply can you set up your IT network?  Very cheaply it turns out.

You will need computers – but just about any old computer will do.  You can use the cast offs from other companies that are upgrading – they often pay to have them removed.  The software on the machines is not important as long as they have a browser and a functioning Internet connection.  Don’t go buy the latest machines loaded with expensive software.  If you have to purchase computers, try to purchase used ones.  If you really want a new one, get the cheapest model with the least software.  Don`t get a laptop until you really need it.

Next you will need Internet access.  Start-out with a dial-up connection – it may work with the other suggestions I’ll make below and it is cheaper than highspeed DSL.  If you have wifi, find a free drop and work from there.  (Note that two café lattés from Starbucks cost as much as a month of cut-rate DSL.)

If the other employees are also working at the same location, you will need a router to share the internet and some cables.

Don`t buy a server!  You won`t need it.

For the software, use the web.  There are fantastic services out there that can support a new company with collaborative tools and software that is free to use or extremely cheap.  They are either web based (web2.0) or hosted desktops.  Here is my short list of hosted desktops:

  • Ghost (G.ho.st)– provides a web desktop via a browser with 5 gb storage and 3 gb of mail.  It is a fully hosted solution aimed at personal users.  It just released a version accessible from mobile devices.  It includes a full suite of applications as well as Zoho and Google apps (see below).  Very cool stuff and probably good enough for starting up.
  • Ulteo– a open-source free personal desktop that can be shared with others. It is Linux based and comes pre-loaded with applications such as the Open Office suite.  Desktop sharing is useful for collaboration and as a web conferencing application.  The number of invites is limited and fees apply as more are added.  There is no corporate shared storage.  The desktop is hosted by Ulteo or can be downloaded and run locally.  File synchronization is supported between local and server storage.
  • (TBD) – there are other services coming.  Stay tuned for more.

For web 2.0 solutions, check out the following list:

  • Central Desktop– a web2.0 collection of team collaboration tools.  While there is a free version, the memory available is limited to 25 MB – not alot.  Fees increase with the number of users, projects and storage.
  • Google– Google provides Google Docs and the more complete Google Apps which provides business e-mail, collaboration tools and on-line storage.  Very popular. Has a 30 day free trial and then its $50 per user per year.  If you can put up with advertisements, there is a free standard edition that is supported by ads.
  • Jooce– an online system for nomadic computer users.  Limited in scope and aimed at social networking from any Internet terminal.  However, it is free and there are (currently) no storage limits.
  • QTask – an web based project coordination tool.  First 5 users are free for the first year, then it is $50/user/month.
  • ThinkFree – a Korean company that provides on-line office software.  There is a free office suite and a workspace edition (in beta) for corporate use.  The applications are high quality  and look very similar to Microsoft Office.  Mobile devices are supported.  While they support on-line access, their main target is self-hosted solutions.
  • Zoho– a suite of web2.0 applications that provide most of what a small business needs.  There are a wide number of generic applications that can support small businesses.  Zoho is very similar to Google Apps but has a broader selection of applications.  Collaborative document editing is possible making it an excellent choice for a micro business.
  • Zooos – A web 2.0 office application suite.  Looks to be still in development but the blog and other parts of the site appear inactive.

Other interesting solutions that require a server:

  • EyeOS – EyeOS provides an open-source server solution that allows your company data to be accessible from everywhere.  However, they do not host the server – you have to do that.

If these solutions don’t solve your problems then you may have to purchase a server and set up a LAN.  Just beware of the costs and complexity involved.  The above solutions can be up and running in minutes.  A LAN will take days and cost you many hundreds if not thousands of dollars.  Then add the software.  By the time you get file servers, security and enterprise e-mail with MS Exchange Server installed, you can easily spend $30,000.

If you know of other web 2.0 or hosted business solutions out there, I’d like to hear from you.