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Pre-nimbus perplexity

Dave Reeder, Editorial Director, CPI

Just for once, let’s not talk cloud. Instead, let’s look at the technology initiative that, a few years back, was a destination in itself and is now, increasingly, seen as a halfway house: virtualisation.

Specifically, desktop virtualisation.

Ever since the days of the thin client, we’ve been used to the idea of transparent user access to behind the scenes compute power – a neat twist that returns control of IT to the techie guys and keeps the users away from messing with things they aren’t supposed to understand. The problem is, despite heavy marketing pressure and ever-simpler products, desktop virtualisation hasn’t really set the market alight.

And now the game gets even more complex, as the ‘bring-your-own-device’ movement among end users is driving a nascent mobile device virtualisation market. For example, a recent survey by telecom giant Mitel showed 90% of respondents expecting virtualisation to become more important in their organisations. So far, so expected. However, the shocker for many was the respondents’ prioritisation: mobile, cloud and then desktop.

It’s an issue that can only grow in importance, according to Frost & Sullivan. The analyst group believes that only 5% of the 18m+ tablets sold last year are being used in business, expected to reach 30% by 2015. A similar survey last year – again by Frost & Sullivan – showed that just under half of the respondents expect tablets and smartphones to become the end-user computing platform of choice within a few years.

Yet where are the virtualisation products to connect those devices securely to corporate networks? Forget the marketing hype, says IDC research analyst Ian Song – they’re just not there. The problem lies in the number and combinations of hardware and firmware, combined with the speed of the market. “Even if you’re going to stick with just Android, like VMware plans to do,” explains Song, “there are already a lot of different versions. And another comes every three or four months.”

Of course, both Citrix and VMware are both moving quickly to make smartphones and tablets good virtualisation clients, yet in different ways. VMware, as part of its Project Horizon mobile computing effort, is basing its mobile client on the Mobile Virtualization Platform – ie a hypervisor running on top of an existing OS to support one or more additional virtual-smartphone OS/application-sets. It would also manage multiple profiles, without losing configuration or applications set up for each.

Project Horizon basically creates a cloud-based set of personal configurations, applications and data that users can access from anywhere, from any device. Okay, truth be told, that’s not exactly a desktop virtualisation product, but it should do the job. And VMware and LG Electronics introduced a virtualised Android phone last December.

The trouble is that Type II hypervisors work well enough on PCs, but far slower than bare metal Type I hypervisors because of the additional layer of software on top of the operating system. Song believes that, because phones have much less processing power, Type I hypervisors could work much more effectively, but they depend on the ability of the developer to code them to an incredibly wide variety of hardware.

And that’s Citrix’ strategy. The company has been shipping bare-metal hypervisor clients in its Receiver product line since it shipped an Android version almost a year ago. It plans to continue expanding the line, delivering a new Receiver version any time a major new device ships.

Will that be enough? Even that won’t solve the overall problem of having no standard hardware or firmware, some industry watchers believe. Given Android’s openness, it’s not that difficult to virtualise; the problems come when you come to a more closed architecture. For instance, is it even legal to virtualise an iPhone at the hardware level?

Think you can get round that via software and a Type II hypervisor?

(On a related note, CNME will be conducting CIO roundtables on virtual computing – including application and desktop virtualisation – in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar in April. For more information on that get in touch with Sathya Mithra Ashok at sathya@cpidubai.com).

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