VDI review: Pano Express

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Pano Logic's all-in-one bundle makes desktop virtualization a snap to deploy, from VMware hypervisor to proprietary zero clients

The Pano Express hardware and software bundle is a complete soup-to-nuts VDI deployment that can be up and running in less than an hour. Although Pano Express does rely on a third-party hypervisor -- either VMware ESX/ESXi or Microsoft Hyper-V -- the Pano system is far more than just a connection broker. Pano Manager provides complete lifecycle management of virtual desktops, while the Pano Direct protocol connects the zero-client Pano Devices directly to the guest virtual machines. Pano Express is a good solution for small to medium-sized installations -- as long as remote access to the virtual desktops via Web browser or thick client isn't required.

Pano Express includes a back-end server running VMware ESXi 4.1 with 50 client access licenses for Windows XP or Windows 7, plus the Pano Manager virtual machine and 50 Pano Devices, all for $24,450, at $489 per user. When deploying to end-users, IT only has to provide a USB keyboard and mouse and an analog monitor to deliver a complete virtual desktop with no DVI connection. For organizations that wish to install the Pano Manager and Pano Devices in an existing VDI infrastructure, Pano Manager will work with VMware 4.1 and Microsoft Hyper-V. (Note that Hyper-V installations require Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager, an additional $869 purchase.)

My Pano Express test system included an HP ProLiant 1U server with dual Xeon E5620 quad-core processors, 48GB of RAM, and seven 146GB SAS hard drives in a single RAID5 array. I also received 10 of the zero-client Pano Devices. Setup of the system, which took me just over an hour to complete, included an easy-to-follow, scripted setup routine that assigned IP addresses to all of the major virtual components: the ESXi host, the Pano Manager virtual machine, the setup VM, and the VMware vCenter VM. Note that each Pano Express solution requires four static IP addresses on the local network.

Pano Express virtual desktops
Once the server installation was complete, I was able to plug in the rest of my Pano Devices and access the preconfigured Windows XP Pro and Windows 7 Pro guest VMs. As with the NComputing solution, performance was great over the LAN, but suffered when the virtual desktops were accessed over a WAN link. Kaviza was the only solution of the three that worked well over the WAN, due to its use of the RDP and HDX protocols. The Pano Logic and NComputing solutions are effectively LAN-only solutions. 

The secret sauce to the Pano Logic system is Pano Direct, a patent-pending technology that effectively extends the PCI bus from the guest operating system across the LAN to the Pano Device. The Pano Device endpoint essentially becomes a hardware extension of the guest operating system over the LAN. The Pano Direct UDP protocol talks to the Pano Direct Service (Pano DAS) running on the Windows virtual machines. The two pieces provide the connectivity layer as well as allow the guest VMs to detect and work with other USB devices plugged into the remote Pano Device.

At 2 by 3 by 3.5 inches, the Pano Device draws only about 3.5 watts on average, cutting power usage dramatically when compared to a traditional desktop computer or even a laptop. It comes with three USB 2.0 ports, one DB15 VGA port, a 10/100 Ethernet port, and a 1/8-inch mini jack for external speakers (no microphone). With no moving parts, it does not generate any heat, and hardware failures promise to be few and far between.

As with NComputing, access to the virtual desktops is completely proprietary. The only way to connect to a Pano-hosted guest VM is with a Pano Device. Because of the reliance on the Pano Direct protocol, remote users cannot connect to a guest VM via Web browser, software client, or smartphone. Pano Logic has published a zero client reference design to allow OEM vendors to develop devices that will talk to Pano Express, so this may help broaden the range of available clients in the future. For example, Fujitsu is shipping a monitor that incorporates the Pano technology.

Pano Express virtual desktop management
Administrators have complete control over the guest VMs through the Pano Manager. As I found with Kaviza, getting new VMs into Pano Express takes a bit of work, but once in the system, creating new virtual machine "collections" (called "templates" in Kaviza) is straightforward. To help streamline the ongoing management process, I would like to be able to create new virtual machines from within the administration UI and not have to go through the hypervisor's native tools.

Like both Kaviza and NComputing, Pano Express is geared to delivering standard desktop images to multiple parties, and it works with Active Directory roaming profiles to apply personal settings -- the My Documents folder, Outlook email settings, printer settings, desktop icons, and so on -- to the virtual machines when users log in. As in Kaviza, admins can define how many VMs to automatically spin up initially, the maximum number to deploy, and how each VM is assigned to a user or Pano Device. Whether a user logs on to a pristine VM built anew from a golden image or a persistent VM assigned to their specific Pano Device depends on the type of collection. Unfortunately, persistence is assigned to the entire collection and cannot be done on a user-by-user basis.

Pano Express is a great soup-to-nuts solution to VDI. For first-time deployments or virtualization novices, the bundle makes it very easy to get VDI in place with a minimum of time, effort, and expertise. For enterprises that already have server virtualization in place, Pano Logic's system will fit in well and help extend the virtualization to desktops. Like the NComputing solution, which also relies on proprietary endpoints, Pano Express is suitable for LANs only, not WANs. 

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