December 2, 2009

Building a Virtual Bridge to Linux Migration

What if your desktop could be available to you on any machine, anywhere in the world?

That's the promise of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology, a promise that's been heard for quite a while. But networking constraints and software compatibility have proven to be formidable obstacles to the goal of portable desktop interfaces.

Recent announcements from Google and IBM have breathed new life into the potential of VDI, with mentions of "cloud desktops" and "persistent user interfaces" as the underlying technology for Google's new Chrome OS and IBM's Client for Smart Work. Chrome OS will deliver a portable desktop for users with web-based applications in a browser framework. But IBM's Smart Work system will truly be VDI technology, thanks to Virtual Bridge's VERDE platform.

VERDE (Virtual Enterprise Remote Desktop Environment) is at the heart of IBM's new solution: instead of just delivering an Ubuntu desktop natively on these clients, the VDI tool is included that will allow users to access the same environment wherever there is a machine that can connect to their company's network. This is done by the user booting to a USB key containing a full Linux environment with their VERDE settings mixed in. By using persistent data on the key, the user can immediately access their desktop from their company's VERDE server.

The benefits to this approach are immediately clear: the user is presented with a completely familiar work environment with access to all of their tools and files. But, more importantly, by holding desktops on a central server, IT staffers now can repair any problems once and propagate the solution out to multiple users the next time they log in. Routine maintenance tasks are taken out of the hands of users, too, further reducing the load on help desk workers.

This ranks as a pretty nice convenience for any administrator of Linux desktops, which are known for being technologically well-behaved. But, outside of the the IBM Smart Work program, which offers Linux desktops only, the VERDE application itself can host Linux and Windows clients. As Jim Curtin, Founder and CEO of Virtual Bridges explained to me, when you can extend these exact same benefits for users of Windows desktops, the rank is promoted from convenience to off-the-charts.

If Curtin's name sounds familiar, you're not imagining things: before Virtual Bridges came into being in September 2006, Curtin was CEO of Win4Lin, the virtual client for Linux upon which some of the VERDE technology is based. "Some," because initially Win4Lin relied on QEMU. According to Curtin, when the company shifted its virtualization focus to VDI around 2005-06, they also noted the KVM virtualization technology getting more stable--stable enough for a commercial offering.

The idea of VERDE is very simple in concept: admins can create "gold masters" of Linux or Windows clients that are then disseminated to logged in users, along with the user's persistent data stored elsewhere in the VERDE system. During the login process, the desktop is coupled with the data and the user's unique desktop is created on the fly.

By effectively managing a set of a few gold masters, IT administrators can massively cut costs. Instead of dealing with 1,000 different desktops across 15 departments, for example, VERDE admins can much more easily manage 15 desktops, one based on each department's workload needs.

Curtin insists that the solution offered by Virtual Bridges is more effective than other virtual clients on the market. XenSource, he maintains, uses server-oriented architectures to try to solve desktop issues, while VERDE can come in at one-fifth the cost of VMWare products.

While it may seem odd for a Linux-based company to tout the benefits of its Windows client hosting, Curtin fundamentally believes that VERDE clients will ultimately be able to use the VDI technology to migrate away from Windows.

First, the Linux hosts (both server and client) upon which VERDE runs will prove to be worry free, and IT managers will see that. Next, the immediate savings VERDE users will get from reducing support costs will prove the worth of a virtual-based solution. But the real long-term benefit will arise, Curtin explained, as users access their applications from a central server. By monitoring application use, admins can quickly see which apps are getting used the most and which are not.

If users are using applications that have Linux equivalents, then they can be softly transitioned to open source apps (such as on their guest Windows clients. Once proficient in these applications, the next step to transition them to the Linux desktop can be made--made all the more easier by the fact that Linux is already installed on their machine, since it's required to run the VERDE client. Or swapping their Windows guest client for a Linux guest. There are several paths with which VERDE can be used to assist in a Linux migration, Curtin said.

With a name like VERDE, the environmental benefits are also present. As PCs die from obsolescence, they can be reclaimed as thin-clients with more speed and power than they ever had as PCs.

VERDE is a solution that could at last make good on the promise of portable desktops and cloud computing.

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