VDI: The Depressing State of Statelessness

Desktop virtualization (VDI) is a huge topic in data center discussions lately. I’ve worked with it somewhat in a limited fashion (such as virtual desktops for instructional courses) as well as dealing with some of the fallout  from infrastructure requirements (HULK NEED IOPS). Just before Christmas, I got a briefing from a colleague who teaches VDI on the current status of VDI, from both a Citrix and VMware perspective, and I can tell you this: VDI is insanely depressing.

Why is it depressing? Because it’s 2012, and yet the current slate of VDI solutions are a convoluted mess. Both Citrix and VMware offer comprehensive solutions (and many opt for both: A VMware base and a Citrix presentation layer). However, the bending-over backwards both companies need to do to work within the Microsoft world is astounding. And it’s not the fault of Citrix or VMware. The fault is entirely that of Microsoft.

Dude, You’re Getting A Dell. Or Else.

This guy represents the antithesis of VDI

Microsoft, for what is likely a variety of reasons, seems to absolutely despise the very concept of VDI and statelessness. They’re just fine and dandy with the opposite of VDI: Dude, you’re getting a Dell. Everyone gets an individual PC, with Windows and Office, and every PC that ships results in Microsoft getting a check. Not bad work if you can get it.

Back In My Day

I had perfect VDI 15 years ago. In 1996, I worked for a company called digitalNATION as a green Unix admin and doing dial-up tech support (Trumpet Winsocket… eghh).

Even today, The Networking Stack That Shall Not Be Named is only mentioned in hushed whispers

Every employee had a NeXT workstation, from the receptionist to the CEO. The NeXT workstations could be run independently, or they could be completely stateless, with my home directory stored on an NFS server. Steve Jobs called it “NFS dialtone”.  I’d sit down at any workstation, log in, and have all my files, email, etc. at my disposal. The profile even knew that I used my mouse left-handed.

Oh, hello. You sexy workstation you.

Everything could be centrally managed. It was a desktop managers dream, and represents everything that an enterprise wishes Windows could be like.

Of course NeXT didn’t really take off and floundered for years until they got bought and took over Apple, and NeXTSTEP became the basis for Mac OS X and iOS. Sadly, with Apple being a consumer company, they never really pursued this marvelous statelessness. It just didn’t make sense at the time for consumer devices, especially given the networking infrastructure in 1997. Even today, it’s still a bit iffy, as the Google Chromebooks have shown.

NeXT wasn’t the only company that had functional statelessness. Sun had it with their Sun Rays (Scott McNealy recently lamented the loss of his stateless Sun Ray), and Oracle also tried a while back. Microsoft has nothing like this, and it doesn’t seem like they have any plans to have it in the near future.

But boy do enterprises want it. So much so that a huge industry has sprung up (at least in the hundreds of millions, possibly billions per year) that essentially attempts to drag Windows Desktops kicking and screaming into something that vaguely resembles stateless.

Enterprises beg and plead for it, and what does Microsoft do? They put out studies on why VDI is more expensive.

Thermonuclear Licensing

The weapon that Microsoft is using in its subtle but undeniable battle against VDI is licensing. Brian Madden (who is the king of all VDI) has a great piece on the absurdity of Microsoft claiming that VDI is 11% more expensive than “Dude You’re Getting A Dell”.  The root cause? Microsoft makes it more expensive with licensing.

The licensing scheme is also quite convoluted, and ever changing. There could probably be a certification based just on MS licensing for VDI, and it’d be a tough one, too.

Microsoft is afraid of killing its twin Golden Geese: Windows and Office.

Windows has a lock on the desktop because of the Win32 API. This has been the dominant way to get applications on the desktop for the past say 20 years. While you can certainly argue about the quality of Microsoft Windows, you can’t argue with its pervasiveness.

But with web applications, HTML5, and the like, Win32 is less significant than it used to be. And by itself, it could be usurped.

But Microsoft has another trick up its sleeve: MS Office. Office has been holding our documents, spreadsheets, and slide presentations hostage for even longer. It’s the ubiquitous format for sending documents, and it would be tough for any organization to eschew it in favor of another format. It’s simply too pervasive. Some document exchanges can be replaced with PDFs and HTML(5), but Office still has the lions share of document exchanges.

As others have, through the years I’ve tried to get rid of Office in favor of other office suites (Apple’s suite, OpenOffice, etc.). All of those suites are capable applications that do exactly what I need them to, but even with the ability to read and write Word/Excel/PowerPoint, the workflow just sucks. There’s too many little details that don’t translate well. All of us who’ve tried have had mangled spreadsheets, weirdly formatted doc files, and PDFs with funkiness. Let’s be clear here, Office doesn’t do anything the other suites can’t do functionally. In fact, it probably does too much which is why it’s such a bloated mess. But everyone uses it, and nothing else gets the formating 100% right. Many get it 95% right, but that extra 5% is a hassle.

That’s the most depressing part. Nothing so far as made a dent in Office’s dominance. So Win32 is relatively safe. So Windows isn’t going anywhere for a while. So VDI is going to be a miserable mess, until Microsoft decides to do something about it. Which they likely won’t.

I need a drink.

One Response to VDI: The Depressing State of Statelessness

  1. There are two certs related to MS licensing that I know of: MCTS: Volume Licensing Specialist, Large Organizations and MCTS: Volume Licensing Specialist, Small and Medium Organizations. That’s sad.

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