Virtual Computer just might have a perfect solution to the XP-to-Windows 7 upgrade problem: its new, affordable, (and very cool) bare metal desktop hypervisor. The desktop hypervisor supports Windows 7 (among other operating systems) on the client while providing a sophisticated set of management tools on the server. These support Windows Server 2008 and Hyper-V. Ironically enough, the client bare metal hypervisor is based on Xen. Want more irony? The product, dubbed NxTop, more-or-less competes with Citrix's not-yet-released bare-metal desktop Xen hypervisor, XenClient (formerly code-named Project Independence). And yet in January Citrix invested in Virtual Computer.
With the Virtual Computer bare metal hypervisor, a desktop can run multiple operating systems side-by-side including various versions of Windows such as XP and Windows 7. While it is true that PCs can do this with Microsoft's Virtual PC (and other tools), Microsoft is not aiming Virtual PC at the enterprise VDI market, with all the support tools of a one-to-many infrastructure. Virtual PC 2007 has been swept under the rug while Microsoft waves its magic wand at Windows Virtual PC, a version of the software that is a feature of Windows 7 aimed mostly at allowing XP to run on Windows 7 (not Windows 7 to run side-by-side with XP, Linux and so on). In Microsoft-land, as you gain in sophistication (MED-V, available only to those who have signed up for Microsoft's Software Assurance protection plan), you add cost and complexity.
In contrast, NxTop, which is available now to participants in the company's NxTop Now! early adopter program, carries a list price of $150 per managed PC for a perpetual license.
While Citrix's exact dollar investment Virtual Computer wasn't disclosed, (it was part of the $15 million garnered in round two financing), there is yet another wrinkle in this weird relationship. Citrix is tightly aligned with Microsoft. Microsoft literally sends its users that want VDI to Citrix. And, at the same time, Microsoft isn't ready to have desktop virtualization alter the client market the way VMware has altered the server market. So by investing in tiny Virtual Computer, Citrix can stimulate interest in desktop virtualization without completely ticking off its giant partner in Redmond.
In the meantime, Citrix's own XenClient isn't expected to be out until year-end and is waiting on the day PC hardware makers release wares that support it. That's one of NxTop's biggest advantages. NxTop's hypervisor includes a virtual video card that let's virtual machines access all of the hardware, including the video card, natively, so that the VM performs about as fast as a fat client. (See demonstration video below.)
I first saw the new NxTop product at VMWorld two weeks ago. What I found especially cool is that it doesn't require the desktop to maintain a full-time connection to the virtual desktop infrastructure in order to function as if it were connected. When the connection is restored, the client will automatically synch with the sever.
Virtual Computer sees Windows 7 as its big opportunity and has optimized itself for the new Windows OS. NxTop allows the desktop administrator to create a single master image of Windows 7 and deploy it to all users. Future updates can then be done once on the master image and rolled out in the background to desktops when they are linked with the server. Virtual Computer promises that they have remembered the network, and eliminated excessive chattiness, and will transfer the smallest amount of data possible.
VMware is beginning to climb the desktop virtualization tree, too, but hasn't made it very far. Its own VDI wares don't yet support its latest, greatest server, vSphere.
A friend of mine, Phil Hochmuth, a senior analyst covering desktop virtualization for the Yankee Group, also spied the NxTop product at VMWorld and had this to say about it: “While the virtual desktop infrastructure is a trend that has gotten a lot of buzz, in a lot of ways it goes against the larger trend of enterprise mobility. A lot of the large VDI vendors are talking about virtual desktops while enterprise employees are becoming increasingly mobile and using laptops more. Virtual computer is ahead of these larger rivals in the client-side hypervisor race, which addresses the mobility issues of VDI. They also seem to have a clever provisioning and management technology that should appeal to organizations with large numbers of laptops and mobile employees. But they're up against some powerful competitors who have client side VDI on their roadmaps. This gives Virtual Computer a short window to differentiate.”