VMware campaign to kill off desktop PCs picks up steam

VMware's latest desktop virtualization products make it that much more difficult for enterprises to justify PC hardware purchases

News has been trickling out steadily from VMware's Barcelona conference about its new acquisitions and network virtualization offerings. But it's the desktop that VMware is attacking -- sorry, "virtualizing" -- aggressively, giving enterprises fewer incentives than ever to replace existing desktop hardware. Which, in enterprises that are fast becoming populated with tablets and smartphones, might not be such a bad idea after all.

Some of the pieces for this assault have been in place for a while now, courtesy of VMware's Horizon View product. Back in March, the company introduced a new feature called HTML Access, which allowed people using any HTML5-compliant browser to access a Horizon View desktop: no plug-ins, nothing to download. The protocol VMware created for this -- named Blast -- now also supports streaming audio and works on Google Chromebooks. It still doesn't support attached USB devices, but that's a hurdle I doubt can be overcome without the use of a native client or, at the very least, plug-ins.

The 5.3 revision of VMware Horizon is said to bring a slew of user-experience improvements that are designed to make working on a virtualized desktop as close as possible to the real thing -- such as using VMware's vDGA technology for high-performance graphics, where GPUs on the vSphere host can be assigned to specific virtual desktops and perform direct pass-through to the host. (vDGA even supports CUDA and OpenGL.) Apparently, among the folks who gave VMware the most feedback about this were people doing CAD and other high-end graphics work on their systems, and they wanted as close to a native desktop experience as possible.

Most of the complaints about virtual desktops have revolved around end-user performance. Obviously, the best performance for vDGA comes when you use a platform-native VMware access client, but given the way HTML5 continues to advance by leaps and bounds, I wouldn't be surprised if in time the performance available through a browser comes close enough to the VMware client to make picking one over the other trivial. What will not happen any time soon -- barring some kind of major revolution in the way browsers can talk to their hosts -- is, again, support for the kind of advanced hardware connectivity only possible with a native client or browser add-ons.

Still, all this adds up to one fewer reason to pick a particular kind of machine to provide access to a virtual desktop, especially if the enterprise in question happens to have plenty of tablets lying around with better graphics power than its last fleet of (now-aging) desktops. Those machines almost certainly will have native clients available for them as well.

The other half of the assault on the desktop -- the admin side -- comes by way of VMware's Horizon Mirage 4.3, which makes the management process for virtual desktops a lot easier for the folks in IT. Mirage lets you split a system image into multiple layers: a base image that's standard throughout a company, for instance, with an app image layered over that for applications, and yet another layer for a user's initial preferences and apps. Removing the management headaches for virtual desktops makes one less reason to not use them. (It comes as no surprise that CEO Pat Gelsinger has said that VMware's next frontiers are automation and management.

Conventional wisdom has been there would always be a reason to have full-blown desktop systems: the form factor, the local processing power, the difficulty of providing all that across the wire from a back end. VMware is not likely to ever completely displace all that -- especially not in the minds of users who simply want a full desktop with none of the hitches of virtual delivery -- but it's making it that much more difficult for an organization to justify replacing or even purchasing PCs at all.

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