Before VMware's VMworld conference in August, most of the anticipation focused on the expected announcement of greater cloud-management capabilities and the ability for end users to launch their own new virtual servers in the cloud or an ordinary data centre.
In the days after, the focus changed to a SaaS and cloud-based application provisioning application that could also change the way customers buy and distribute IT.
"Before VMworld there was more of a sense from VMworld that they were focused on servers and clouds and management," according to Ian Song, research analyst at IDC. "Right before, and especially after, you got the sense that they're focusing a lot more on integrating end user computing as not just being the virtual desktop any more. It's part of end-user computing as a whole&based in the cloud."
Right now desktop and server virtualisation are still relatively separate from one another, and more importantly, separate from cloud, SaaS and other methods used to package and deliver virtualised technology, notes Chris Wolf, analyst with the Burton Group.
Citrix's lead in desktop virtualisation, analysts say, is due to its long history with terminal-services remote-application viewing and the speed with which it was able to deliver products that allowed customers to virtualise an end-user's experience in a variety of ways. These range from viewing a Web front to an HR app on an internal Web site to streaming the OS, apps and user profile to a client based on his or her role or identity, not based on the hardware being used.
Rather than try to catch up on that front, VMware is treating desktop computing like any other application and building provisions for it directly into its cloud-computing architecture. This lets cloud customers choose their approach to virtual desktops in the same way that they choose task-oriented software that streams to their computers only at the time they need it, Song says.
"The challenge is really about managing the conversion from traditional architectures and delivery methods to this new picture where SaaS solutions could connect to applications published on a VMware app farm using a single sign-on component, and allowing IT to see and manage applications from many different sources, including XenApp or XenDesktop, and manage that from a single pane of glass," Wolf says.
VMware's Project Horizon - a still-developing product set that doesn't have a proper name or firm feature set - is designed to provide that integration of private and public cloud, virtual applications, and virtual desktops, delivered to a range of desktops, handhelds and other clients, all using rules and policies set by IT to protect data and make the best use of networks and resources, Song says.
"It's a ways off, but I really see it as a game changer," Song says.
Specific product details are still thin, but analysts see five ways in which VMware hopes to edge Citrix and bump the desktop virtualisation leader into the role of selling obsolete concepts for both desktop and server virtualisation:
1. Think "user" not "hardware"
The connecting service among a variety of other virtualisation and delivery technologies is an on-premises directory service that keeps track of end users and metadata about them, including the applications they're allowed to use, whether they should be provisioned with full VDI desktops or just a few streamed applications. They would also be able to install applications of their own, customise their environments and store personal data, all in a profile that launches as part of the environment they use, launched on demand from wherever they are.
It's an enormous step beyond the current capabilities of VMware 4.5, which VMware touted as bringing it up to par with Citrix, because the VMware product satisfied the requirements of Gartner/Burton Group's definition of enterprise-ready desktop virtualisation.
"VMware View 4.5 is really more of a stopgap," IDC's Song says. "It keeps them competitive until they can get more of the profile management features and other technology they got in the RTO [Software] acquisition."
Citrix will almost certainly have an answer or challenge to the Project Horizon pitch, and maintains close relationships with companies whose software is designed to store user profiles and metadata, Song Says, but it has not articulated a specific response to Project Horizon yet.
2. Forget the golden image
Provisioning in most virtual infrastructures depends on the golden image - a set of server or PC images, usually stored on a SAN, that hold the OS, programs, configurations and applications of a virtual machine. One problem: many companies get overwhelmed with the number of golden images they save, waste time sorting and managing them, and waste storage space by keeping dozens or hundreds of golden images on file, each tuned to a slightly different purpose, according to Mark Davis, CEO of Virsto, which makes software to conserve storage space and reduce the time it takes to read and write data between VMs and SANs.
Project Horizon's approach is to reduce the importance of golden images, in favour of VMs assembled dynamically in a similar fashion to many Web pages. When a user logs in, the back-end management software notes his or her location, the network connections involved and the rules IT has set for access under those conditions. Then it builds the desktop environment and delivers it to the user - by either streaming software across the net or simply allowing a view of a server-based app, as on a Web site.
3. Focus on simple configuration
While more dynamic desktop virtualisation is clearly a priority, the first stated goal of Project Horizon is to change the average IT infrastructure from a confusing maze peppered with barriers of arcane language and connection protocols into the kind of application-download site that many people already use for smartphones, according to Brian Madden, analyst and main author of BrianMadden.com, a desktop virtualisation information site.
While the descriptions of Project Horizon include rich, cloud-based user-profile management capabilities, VMware did not manage to fulfil its promise to include in View 4.5 the profile management functions it acquired with RTO Software in February. Analysts said at the time that the acquisition was designed to counter Citrix' existing User Profile Manager.
Horizon would allow IT to create profiles for each user, point and click to assign to that user a range of applications from VMware servers, external SaaS providers and any other source compatible with the cloud platform. Extending user profiling beyond desktop configurations, personal data and files to include non-VMware-based server and desktop software would be a tremendous leap in both virtual-desktop implementations and centralised virtualised asset management, Wolf says. (VMware has not clarified the specific degree of compatibility that Project Horizon will offer with virtualised server technology from rivals such as Microsoft and Citrix.)
That consolidation theoretically makes configuring user machines and applications from many sources nearly as easy as provisioning a Windows app, but there's no guarantee it will work, Wolf says.
Citrix supports the cloud-based approach, but focuses more on the variety, effectiveness and performance of its delivery methods, allowing VMware and Microsoft to spend their efforts fighting for market share within the cloud.
4. Don't put things in the cloud; make the cloud supplier of everything
By turning the normal assumptions of IT around to make an abstract storage and provisioning service that's able to identify and deliver applications, VMware turns the cloud into a central source for IT resources, Wolf says. This also goes a long way toward making the cloud an enforcement agent for corporate IT policies allowing or limiting use of data, hardware audited security and usage reporting, and other critical functions, Wolf says.
This approach also almost eliminates the difference between internal resources and external, allowing customers to make more efficient use of the resources they have available, according to James Staten, analyst at Forrester Research.
5. Keep it simple
If Citrix has one weakness compared to VMware, it's the variety of delivery methods offered by its various virtual app and virtual desktop products, and the amount of hard design work that goes into making those networks function effectively, Staten says.
Project Horizon aims to make the whole question simpler, by putting all the things employees use up online, allowing them to pick and choose the applications that they want and allowing IT to create life cycle plans that limit the amount of time a particular VM can function, what kind of employees get privileges for which apps, and a whole host of other conditions critical to companies trying to save money and stay compliant with federal regulations.
VMware aims to make this user set-up personalised, cheap (because cost is based on usage), simple to use and relatively easy for IT to maintain.
"It's a huge challenge for them," Song says. "Citrix relies maybe a little too much on only talking about products that are already shipping, so they lose out on some of the buzz. But this is still a ways out for VMware and it's not really clear yet when or how they can deliver it."