Microsoft sweetens pot for the virtual-desktop curious

Microsoft offers new licensing and technology to spur virtual-desktop usage

In an effort to capture what it sees as a growing market for virtual desktops within enterprises, Microsoft is simplifying some licensing agreements and enhancing its virtual-desktop-related software.

"When we're talking with customers, we're seeing a huge interest in reducing the total cost of ownership of the desktop environment," said Dai Vu, Microsoft director of virtualization solutions marketing.

Vu noted that many organizations are still running Windows XP and looking to upgrade to Windows 7, though they are wondering whether some sort of virtualized desktop setup may be easier to manage.

"Customers are thinking about how they will approach the management of their desktop and applications more broadly," he said.

Microsoft is taking a number of steps to entice users to try virtual desktops.

For one thing, the company will simplify licensing, in particular its Virtual Enterprise Centralized Desktop (VECD) licensing, which was introduced in 2007 for licensing desktops that are run from a data center.

Previously, the license was "access device-based," Vu said. For example, if the OS were accessed from three different client devices, then the customer would need three licenses.

Now, Windows Software Assurance customers can access desktops hosted at data centers from multiple locations with no additional licensing fees, Vu said.

Additionally, customers will be given "roaming rights," which will allow users to access their virtual desktops from airport kiosks, hotels, home PCs and other secondary points of access.

In addition to the simplified licensing, Microsoft has also partnered with virtualization software provider Citrix to offer two introductory bundles of the companies' software.

In one package aimed at new users, current customers of the Microsoft client access license can get a deal on the two companies' products. For 250 users, they can get the Microsoft Virtual Desktop Infrastructure Suite, standard edition, and Citrix's XenDesktop VDI Edition at about half the typical annual license cost for the first year. That comes out to about US$7,000, or $28 per user.

"They can try it, let users experience it, and then decide how they want to proceed with virtual desktops," said Sumit Dhawan, vice president of product marketing at Citrix.

The other package was assembled to poach disgruntled VMware customers using VMware's View VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) software. Users can trade as many as 500 VMware View licenses for an equivalent number of licenses to the VDI Suite and XenDesktop, use of which will be free for one year.

In addition to these licensing changes, Microsoft is also upgrading some of the technology used with its virtual desktop offerings. Upgrades to RemoteFX and Dynamic Memory, both of which are components of the upcoming Windows Server 2008 RC 2 SP1 (Release Candidate 2, Service Pack 1), will increase performance of virtual desktops, Vu said.

Using tools developed by Calista Technologies, which Microsoft purchased in 2008, RemoteFX acts as a virtual GPU, which can improve the quality of the display on the virtual desktop by using GPUs on the server to render the display graphics.

Microsoft is hoping to attract partner companies to work with RemoteFX, Vu said. It aims to get thin-client device makers to offer RemoteFX-enabled hardware and VDI software makers to use RemoteFX as part of their own offerings. To this end, Microsoft has entered into a deal with Citrix that will allow Citrix's HDX (High Definition User Experience) remote display technology to use RemoteFX.

With Dynamic Memory, the memory usage of each program running on a server (including each virtual machine) will be monitored, and unused memory will be carved off and returned to the server's pool of available memory. This will help servers run more virtual desktops, Vu said, especially because after booting the operating system, much of the working memory of a desktop machine remains unused and could be reclaimed for other purposes.

The new technologies will allow Microsoft to make some inroads into the VDI space, observers said.

RemoteFX, for example, can bring Microsoft's RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) up to par with other remote access protocols, in terms of visual rendering of the desktop.

RDP "has always had the ability to do basic [graphics] for things like drawing windows on a screen," said Eric Hanselman, who is the chief technology officer for VDI broker software provider Leostream.

RemoteFX is exciting insofar as it allows RDP to do advanced displays, such as displaying Flash movies or DirectX images. "This brings RDP into the same class as a lot of the higher-end viewing environments, like Citrix's and VMware's," Hanselman said.

Microsoft plans to reveal more details of these licensing and technology changes in a webcast on Thursday.

Tags Microsoftvirtualisationvirtual desktops

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Joab Jackson

IDG News Service

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