If you've never heard of Intelligent Desktop Virtualization (IDV), you can be forgiven since this is a relatively new concept to hit the technology world and has the potential to turn the whole desktop virtualization game on its head.
Unlike VDI, under which all desktop compute resources are highly centralized in the data center with screens being sent to terminal-like devices, IDV takes a much more distributed approach to the operational compute needs while centralizing and streamlining the management and deployment functions.
VDI brings with it some well-known challenges, including pretty significant up front costs, technical challenges related to storage, uncertain long term total cost of ownership and, in many cases, a need to remain tethered to a network, making offline use somewhat difficult. Further, VDI imposes some limitations on the kinds of peripheral devices that can be used. After all, a peripheral device that consumes mass bandwidth can prove to be problematic in low bandwidth scenarios.
Of course, VDI also has much in the way of benefits, including the ability to deliver secure desktops to practically any device located anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. VDI also forces organizations to rethink and simplify their desktop strategy in order to provide a common desktop image across the environment... or as close to common as possible. These are most definitely worthy goals.
But, what if there was another way? What if there was a company that had developed a client-side hypervisor that could eliminate many of the challenges normally associated with VDI? You might have guessed by now that there is such a company.
So, what is IDV?
Relatively new on the scene, Virtual Computer has developed a product they call the NxTop Engine, which the company describes as "...a complete platform for the desktop that provides a more powerful, yet safe and secure Windows experience for the user." NxTop is described as a bare metal client side hypervisor, which allows organizations to run one or more virtual images on the PC without regard for the underlying hardware. If you've been in the desktop management business for very long, you will understand how hard it can be sometimes to get a common image to work across computers from the same line at the same vendor much less getting the image to work across vendors. Even without the inclusion of any additional features, this hypervisor allows desktop administrators to create and manage a single common master image across every machine in the organization even if the desktop pool includes a mix of desktops and laptops.
The hypervisor enables some features that are not always feasible or even achievable with VDI solutions, such as:
- Broad USB support. USB support is maturing in VDI solutions, but bandwidth limitations will keep full USB support from complete success. However, because access is granted via a hardware abstraction process, the solution provides granular management to all hardware components, including USB ports. This is particularly important in organizations that have strict security policies.
- High quality graphics. Again, bandwidth issues create major challenges in the realm of graphics in VDI. That said, vendors have made great strides with solutions such as PCoIP and TCX, but these workarounds still don't provide native graphics capability.
- True offline use. Many VDI solutions have add-on capability that provides offline use on thick clients. However, this capability is almost always enabled through the use of a type 2 client hypervisor, which isn't efficient and adds additional complexity to the desktop management equation.
In addition to providing a client-side hypervisor, the NxTop Engine includes the following components:
- NxTop Connect. NxTop Connect is an embedded virtual appliance that includes applications such as Google Chrome, Skype, and an RDP client. It can run standalone on the desktop as a thin client or alongside locally executing virtual machines. This allows an NxTop Engine-bearing client to be useful within seconds of booting.
- Full disk encryption. One of the great security features that VDI brings to the table is data security; no data leaves the data center, which means less worry about security breaches due to lost devices. With IDV, images are actually housed on the local machine, not in the data center. By providing native full disk encryption, the solution addresses a major security concern. Of course, by now, it should be standard practice to encrypt mobile device hard drives, but it's never a bad thing to make encryption the default.
This is where you might start asking yourself why you would consider a solution like this rather than just stick with your traditional desktop environment. Well, there are some pretty good reasons. The NxTop Engine solution enables some additional scenarios beyond straight business use. Because multiple images are supported, it's feasible for an end-user to choose a different desktop based on the need. For example, a user could conceivably have a business partition as well as a personal partition with no leakage between the two. The ability to use multiple images also enables more powerful testing opportunities. Now, IT administrators can create a "beta image" that is used by more than just a few pilot users. If there are issues with the beta image, users can simply choose the previous production image and lose no work time. Finally, migrating to a new operating system version becomes a matter of user choice... to a point. A user can use his comfortable Windows 7 image for as long as he wants and then boot to the Windows 8 image once he's become comfortable.
Of course, there is a server component. Without it, administrators would be relegated to managing NxTop Engine-based devices as individual units and that wouldn't make much sense. The management component - NxTop Center - manages all of the endpoints and enables some pretty interesting capability. For example, with NxTop Center, endpoints are protected through transparent periodic data backups. Further, the product includes remote PC troubleshooting components baked in.
The centralized management server is also the image distribution point and control/policy server.
If you're wondering if your existing PC fleet can use the Virtual Computer IDV solution, take a look at the company's comprehensive hardware compatibility list. A very wide range of computers has been tested by both the company and its customers and are fully supported, so it's more than likely that you'll be able to leverage your existing investments.
Of course, IDV is but one more possible tool in the desktop arsenal and, for many, it will provide a massively streamlined desktop management process. But, that doesn't mean it's a fit for everyone. If you want to provide non-employees with anytime, anywhere, any device access to your desktop image, a VDI solution may be a better fit.
If you'd like to give this "IDV" idea a try, Virtual Computers provides a free 5 PC license so that customers can give it a test drive. Check it out!
Personally, I'm pretty intrigued by the concept and can see a multitude of use cases for the technology. What do you think? Does a solution like this merit consideration in your organization?
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at email@example.com.