Virtualization Pro

Sep 23 2008   2:44PM GMT

Are offline desktops really that necessary?

Kutz Profile: Akutz

I am sure by now that I am getting a reputation as a downer or naysayer at this VMworld, but as one of my colleagues pointed out, we look around and wonder how many of these products and features we see are simply solutions searching for problems. That said, I look at something like VMware View, a new product in their vClient initiative, designed to help offer offline desktop images, and I wonder, why?

Jan Stafford and I were discussing that fact that if we do not have access to the Internet we really can not do that much in the way of our jobs. She is a journalist and I am a programmer. She uses the ‘Net for research, and I use it for avoiding my job by way of YouTube :). VMware View is not the only product that promotes offline desktop use, take a look at any of the VDI solutions and four out of five of them will tout their ability to download the virtual desktop to your laptop for when you are out of the office. What does having your familiar environment provide you with, however, when you are no longer connected to the Internet?

There are three prevailing thoughts on the matter that I would like to discuss:

  1. Offline desktops are a cure for network latency
  2. Users demand a familiar environment
  3. Offline desktops provide better application management

Curing Network Latency
The argument is that sometimes you do have an Internet connection, but it is not strong enough to access a remote desktop, so having an offline desktop will provide you with your familiar environment without the need for the fat pipe. An offline desktop, however, is not necessary to the result, as we shall see in a minute.

Familiar Environment
Users only think they need a familiar environment because they have never experienced any alternatives. What users really need is a way to access their information when they want to, how they want to, and in a secure fashion. I think offline virtual desktops are a little overkill for that (there are exceptions, for example, Windows on a Mac for a Visual Studio developer).

Better Application Management
No, no, no. Offline desktop images do not provide better application management. At that point I have to maintain an entire OS image to maintain a set of applications. Application virtualization software such as VMware’s ThinApp or InstallFree provide application management.

A Simpler Solution
As I said, offline desktops are a way to provide a way for users to access the information they want and how they want it, and in a secure fashion. Ultimately though I think that this is using an atom bomb to control the Alaskan wolf population when a single governor in a helicopter with a high powered rifle will do. I kid, I kid. But offline desktops are overkill. To me the solution is much simpler — synchronizing files and settings. Although Apple’s MobileMe has not had the best launch in the history of services, it certainly has the right intentions. I use it and it successfully keeps my files and preferences in sync across many computers. I don’t need the overhead of a local hypervisor to run my virtual image, I can access my files when I need to, how I need to, and securely. And perhaps most importantly I am not beholden to an OC-12 line. It’s a win-win.

Offline desktops… They’re a great idea, and they have their purpose. I just think people are using a wind tunnel to dry off their hair after a really long shower.

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  • SeM
    Dear Andrew, As a system integrator, I have been using VMWare (free one of course) since 1999 to deploy OS (Linux & Windows), Lotus Domino, Exchange and MSSQL/Oracle server setups for our development teams. In the past, we used to have the Server applications installed at the developer workstations together with the development platform and utilities. This was an incredible mess. Each developer had different ways to install the servers, applied different patches and at the end of the day, I had to go to the customer site to resolve "stupid" problems mostly caused by missing patches. So introducing Virtual Desktops (servers in our case) helpded A LOT! In my current job, I use Virtualization mostly for what I call "Parasite computing" that is, little servers and legacy systems running on a modern Host Server taking very little resources from the host server. This solution helped us get rid of extremely old servers which we wouldn't be able to repair or even reinstall if the server broke down. When it comes to the desktop, I find it useless to waste computer resources to have a computer within a computer. Nevertheless, if there is a strong security requirement, using virtual desktops makes sense. Imagine you are connecting into a datacentre server where you provide a 99.45% uptime. Would you use your PC (with all that it contains) and risk failing your SLA?. The obvious answer should be NO. In my previous job I have experienced a couple of viruses that got their way into the datacentre through a developer desktop. Same applies to Closed Networks, where the system resources are usually highly critical and thus, antivirus and patches do not fit into the equation. A couple of good examples are SCADA and TAS (Terminal Automation Systems). Offline desktops? I must agree with you. I don't really understand what is the point of cloning an entire system into your computer just to work on a couple of files during the weekend. If we continue using virtualization without thinking, soon we will be reading things such as "Virtual Desktop Theft" instead of laptop theft in the SANS Institute newsletter. Being human as we are, we will relax our host computer security and rely entirely on our safe, pristine virtual desktop. Because of that, Encryption of the Virtual Desktop will become a need and the only thing we will gain out ot that is a need for more powerful computing so that we can continue de-optimizing it again and again... Those are my thoughts.
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