Red Hat virtual desktop technology heads into beta tests

Company says open source emphasis will help differentiate its virtualization products

Side-by-side Windows displays might be the last thing you would expect to see taking center stage at Red Hat's booth at the recent Interop show in Las Vegas. But it makes sense when you consider they were part of a demo showcasing the company's pursuit of what it sees as a huge opportunity: the emerging virtual desktop market.

Don't get the wrong idea, though. Red Hat isn't giving in on physical or virtual Linux desktops. It's just being realistic about the role Windows will have in virtual desktops given its dominance in physical desktops.

Red Hat's virtual desktop infrastructure technology heads into beta testing in coming weeks and is slated for general availability around the time of the company's annual Red Hat Summit, which will be held in Chicago in September. The company will offer virtual desktops and servers, plus a common management platform.

"Virtualization is a major strategic focus for us," says Jim Brennan, senior product marketing manager for management and security at Red Hat.

The company's virtualization scheme going forward is based largely on technology obtained via its acquisition of Qumranet last fall. However, Red Hat has been offering virtualization based on the Xen hypervisor as part of Red Hat Enterprise Linux since RHEL 5.0 shipped in March 2007 and will support Xen until at least 2014, according to Brennan.

The company calls its line the Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization (RHEV) portfolio. Red Hat's effort, which it outlined in February, includes building on the open source KVM hypervisor (now part of the Linux kernel) and zippy SPICE communications protocol (an alternative to RDP or Citrix's ICA) developed by Qumranet. Red Hat touts the ability of SPICE, which stands for Simple Protocol for Independent Computing Environments, to handle heavy-duty graphics and video as well as plain old office applications.

"It is an adaptive remote rendering protocol in that it is able to determine the amount of graphics processing power resident within client machines (thin clients or PCs), as well as within virtual desktops and the RHEV Hypervisors on which they're hosted. SPICE then processes graphics at the most optimal point in order to deliver an exceptional end user experience," according to Brennan.

Initially, Red Hat's hypervisor technology will be server based, but down the road the company plans to offer KVM on clients themselves so they can run when not connected.

Red Hat's Interop demo featured a Devon thin client box running embedded XP, side-by-side Acer full-color monitors and a couple of Red Hat servers, including a Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization system hosting the hypervisor.

Early adopters for the technology will likely include call centers and help desks, Brennan says. The technology can support 50 to 60 virtual desktops per server with 32GB of RAM, he says.

Companies attracted to this technology seek more control over desktops and data, Brennan says, and to that point Red Hat is focusing much of its development efforts on management tools. The Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Manager for Desktops tools will enable administrators to keep tabs on CPU usage and memory, support granular USB security policies and enable administrators to provide pools of virtual desktops that can be provisioned on the fly.

Brennan says Red Hat's offering will be differentiated from competing products in a number of ways, including the company's dedication to open source technologies that benefit from the community's innovation. He adds that Red Hat's emphasis on security and management will help the products stand apart, as will its delivery of virtual server and desktop products.

Red Hat isn't necessarily top of mind for virtualization industry watchers, though outfits such as Burton Group are planning to take a closer look given Red Hat's increased emphasis on the technology. A recent Burton Group study on enterprise hypervisors crowned VMware king.

Red Hat, of course, is looking to gain more attention this year. "The stars are aligning around server and desktop virtualization," says Nick Carr, a Red Hat marketing executive. "The timing's good for us."

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