September 23, 2009

8 Min Read
Desktops in the Clouds

By Khali Henderson

What do you get when you cross a virtual desktop and a cloud? A hosted virtual desktop. It’s not much of a punch line, but it is popular or at least threatening to be. IBM Corp.’s stated plans to roll out hosted virtual desktop services this month (October) have elevated the concept to new “cloud-level” heights.

But the reality is only 5 percent of companies have deployed virtual desktops — whether hosted or not, according to research from InfoTech Research Group. However another 35 percent are in the process of deploying it, and only 17 percent have decided against it primarily on the limitations of supporting mobile users and graphic-intensive users, said James Alexander, senior vice president of the Indaba Division on InfoTech. He added the naysayers may change their minds by 2011 when these shortcomings should be overcome.

If I lost you back at virtual desktop, you are not alone. So, let’s start with some basics:

  • A virtual desktop is created when a company hosts its employees’ desktop operating system and applications in a virtual machine on a central server where they can be accessed using a thin client via a Web browser, Win32 or .NET, etc.

  • A cloud is not white fluffy stuff, but in some ways equally nebulous description for the various network pathways connecting to end points. Think Internet. Technically, clouds can be internal to a company, but most often are thought of as external and operated by a service provider. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on the service provider cloud.

  • So, hosted virtual desktop, then, is when a company puts its virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) into a cloud, and under the care and feeding of a service provider rather than doing it themselves. Think of it as Desktop as a Service.

That term, by the way, is trademarked by Desktone Inc., a company that provides the platform on which service providers can deliver hosted desktops. IBM is using Desktone’s software — along with other important VDI components (a hypervisor from VMware Inc. and a connection broker from Citrix Systems Inc.) — for its new IBM Smart Business Desktop Cloud. This is no maiden voyage for Big Blue; it’s been hosting VDI for companies on a custom basis for some time. But this is the first time IBM will offer a generally available hosted virtual desktop package with subscription-based pricing.

If you are now wondering whether hosted desktop is the same thing as cloud computing, you are not alone. The answer is yes and no.

According to Forrester Research there are three layers of the cloud services stack:

  • Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) — end-user applications, delivered as a service rather than as on-premises software

  • Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) — application platform or middleware on which developers can build and operate custom applications delivered as a service.

  • Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) — compute, storage, or other IT infrastructure delivered as service rather than as dedicated capability.

Hosted virtual desktop fits in the IaaS segment, according to Jeff Fisher, senior director of strategic development for Desktone. In other words, he said, hosted virtual desktop is not cloud computing, but it is a component of it.

If you are now wondering how hosted virtual desktop differs from hosted applications (SaaS), again, you are not alone. We’re all in great company being utterly clueless about cloud services. But, let me try to clear that one up for you as well.

OK, here goes: SaaS and hosted virtual desktop both enable on-demand applications in a subscription-based service model, but they do it in very different ways. Fisher explained that SaaS requires enterprises to change their architecture to get said benefits of anytime, anywhere access to applications. So while only certain applications are available in a SaaS model, a business’s entire Windows environment and suite of applications can be cloud hosted in the DaaS model. Fisher said this has implications for the ability to personalize, customize and integrate applications. In the SaaS environment, it’s limited; in the DaaS environment, it’s the same as a traditional computing environment. Another big change SaaS requires to the traditional computing model is moving the data along with the applications. In a cloud hosted desktop environment, the data remains in the control and security of the enterprise data center. So, for example, the Microsoft Outlook client would be hosted, but the enterprise Exchange server would remain with the enterprise.

“The important thing is that companies can start to adopt this model and they don’t have to move their core infrastructure — their file servers, their mail servers, their application servers – in order to start reaping the benefits,” said Fisher, noting over time companies may consider turning over server hosting (or even virtual server hosting) to a service provider like IBM as well.

The key benefits, as with any hosted service, are anywhere access, the ability to scale up or down and predictable pay-per-use model. Plus it’s a lot cheaper than deploying VDI on your own, analyst Alexander said. He said customers making the switch to hosted when they normally would refresh their desktops report as much as 25 percent savings. But the real advantages are in offloading building and management of an environment capable of hosting large numbers of virtualized servers.

On the surface DaaS seems like an ideal service for SMBs due to their limited technical staff, but because DaaS is not shared infrastructure, service providers are looking for greater scale that comes from medium and large companies, Fisher explained. In addition, the larger enterprises are more likely to afford the required Windows licenses for virtual desktops that come at a premium. A hosted terminal server model is a better fit for the SMB.

If you are now wondering about the difference between hosted terminal servers and hosted virtual desktop, you are not alone (to use the lazy writing device one last time). Unlike hosted virtual desktops, hosted terminal servers are not based on virtual machines. In the terminal server model, a copy of Windows server is installed on and using remote desktop services capability, 20-40 employees access and share the OS and applications. “There are lots of limitations around personalization — from things as mundane as having your own background to installing one-off applications,” said Fisher.

In contrast, he said a virtual machine gives users access to a full Windows XP, Windows 7 or Vista environment that they can personalize as they would a local machine (following company policies, of course.) “Hosted desktops are like remote terminals on steroids,” said InfoTech’s Alexander.

If you are a channel partner, you might be asking yourself, so what? How does the rise of the hosted virtual desktop impact me in any way, shape or form? I’m glad you asked. Now that the technology is maturing and demand is increasing, service providers are beginning to look to channels to sell their hosted virtual desktop services.

ICC Global Hosting, for example, announced Aug. 3 at the CompTIA Breakaway 2009 event the launch of the ICC Partner Program for IT consultants, VARs and integrators to sell the company’s hosted virtual desktop solution.

ICC’s Partner Program includes two partnership levels. Consulting Partners provide sales support and may bundle the ICC solution as part of an overall solution or provide the ICC solution as a private-labeled service offering. Consulting partners maintain a customer relationship in both pre-sales and post sales support and earn an initial provisioning fee along with a margin on recurring revenues. Mark Moeller, vice president business development, for ICC Global Hosting, said partners can make three to four times as much money reselling as by providing the service themselves.

For those companies that are not as tech savvy, there is an opportunity to get paid on leads as well. Referral Partners introduce the ICC hosted virtual desktop solution to a customer without providing pre-sales or ongoing support services. Referral Partners earn an initial provisioning fee (one-time monthly recurring charge) for their efforts.

Also at Breakaway, Zlago announced the launch of the Zlago Authorized Partner Program, which includes hosted Microsoft Windows desktops, Exchange e-mail, collaboration, SaaS business applications, virtual servers, VoIP phone service, security, backup, storage and more.

The Zlago partner program includes three levels of participation:

  • Solution Providers can bundle their own service offerings with Zlago services and can customize their level of service from Zlago by choosing to have Zlago provide billing and administrative services.

  • Private-Label Partners can integrate Zlago services into their current product and service offerings and sell them under their existing brand or co-brand with Zlago. Private-label partners are responsible for billing and administration as well as service and support for their customers. Zlago provides private-label partners with 24/7 tech support.

  • Independent Solution Consultants without a technical service background can sell the complete suite of Zlago services while Zlago provides all the technical and administrative services required to support customers.

“Zlago is helping us get to market with this new business while avoiding additional build-out and investment in expensive infrastructure ourselves,” said Larry Baum, CEO of The Computing Center.”

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