Throwaway Desktops

Imagine logging on to your computer and within seconds getting an up-to-date operating system, complete with the software you need, freshly generated from a central repository. No malware. None of the superfluous junk that accumulates through the life of a system. None of the registry rot that slows you down over time. And all controlled and updated by IT — all you need to do is log on and get to work.

That’s VMware’s vision with its just-released Workspace Suite: VDI without the hassles of VDI. The suite combines VMware’s Horizon 6 virtual and remote desktop solution, and its recently-acquired AirWatch mobility management software and enterprise file sync and share. Stir in VMware Workspace Portal, which provides an enterprise app store, single sign-on, and policy enforcement for any app on any device to complete the package.

Kit Colbert, CTO, end user computing, VMware
Kit Colbert, CTO, end user computing, VMware, with Sanjay Poonen, GM, end user computing, VMware

The most exciting piece, however, manifested itself in the form of a technology preview of something called Project Fargo, from the vSphere team. VDI has suffered in the past from painful slowness, with boot storms dragging performance down to a crawl as large groups of people hit the server at the beginning of the day. That made it awkward to use in environments such as labs and classrooms, where class switchovers cost precious teaching time. But if the demo on stage at VMworld (VMware’s annual user conference) during the keynote is any indication, VMware has made major strides in mitigating the problem. Kit Colbert, CTO, end user computing, launched a generic desktop in seconds, and then, with another click in the management console, published Microsoft PowerPoint to that machine.

So what, you yawn. One app — that’s nothing. Well, how about 100, in a couple of seconds; that was Colbert’s next demo. Thanks to technology from another acquisition, announced in mid-August, CloudVolumes, software can be delivered and used without actually being installed on the virtual machine. It’s so fast that VMware is talking about generating a fresh desktop at every login, and throwing it away when the user ends the session (The user’s files and such are still preserved, of course). It calls it “just-in-time desktops”.

It’s a whole new take on virtual desktops. Today, each virtual desktop is a discrete file that has to be downloaded to the client machine. Multiply that by a thousand or so, and you have a whopping chunk of data to store and distribute, hence the staggering amount of network traffic at 9 am when an entire office tries to log in and launch desktops.

Fargo instead clones a running generic virtual machine, sharing its resources. When the user logs in to Horizon, it decides what apps and other resources to allocate, gets them from CloudVolumes, and grants access to resources based on user permissions. If the user installs software or changes something that alters a system file, that data is preserved, but the rest of the desktop can simply go away when the user logs off, to be recreated at next login. That radically cuts down overall storage and memory requirements. And it’s transparent to the user.

In an additional twist, the upcoming Project Meteor will allow all this to happen on any device with an HTML5 browser, something VMware’s chief competition in the virtual desktop world, Citrix, already delivers.

A third facet comes thanks to a partnership with Google and NVIDIA: virtual desktops that can even run graphic-intensive applications like CAD or video rendering (until recently just a dream in a VDI environment; again, Citrix got there first), on upcoming Chromebooks equipped with NVIDIA chips. They will be managed by AirWatch, touted as the single pane of glass for managing mobile devices of any kind.

VMware Workspace Suite screen_ shot_1


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