I started out this week with a trip to San Francisco and a briefing by Dell for its new line of zero clients and enhanced VDI (Virtual Desktop) solutions. Now zero clients are one step more advanced than thin clients in that there is no software that is locally resident. Thin clients have an OS and typically a browser that have to be patched and updated. Zero clients have neither and they represent what may likely become the ideal client in an ever-more hostile, ever-more connected world inundated with malware, hackers and less-than-careful employees.
In a way though, zero clients are also the closest thing to a terminal that the client server industry has yet created and it clearly proceeds a return to the mainframe way, pushing data away from the client, while retaining some client/server functionality in that the data can reside anyplace in the cloud.
Let’s talk about the zero client and Dell’s VDI solution.
The issue with any client architecture, whether it is PC, smartphone or tablet or based on another device, is securing the data on the device. The best initial way to do this is to not put anything on the device to begin with. That way, if the device is compromised and the data on it read, the attacker/thief won’t have anything there to steal. You can also typically tie devices like this to the service that provisions them, making the hardware worthless to a thief as well.
For instance, a few years back I reviewed a massive hardware theft in India of a huge room full of thin-client devices. The following night they were dumped back at the company because the thieves could not figure out what to do with them; they simply didn’t have the market value of a PC.
One of the most impressive demonstrations I’ve ever watched, in terms of getting personally excited about a technology, was of the old Sun Ray One. In this demonstration, Scott McNealy would begin working at one terminal, shut it off, move to another terminal, swipe his security card and finish working from the exact same spot. The problem with the Sun Ray One was that it was incredibly costly and it couldn’t really do graphics.
Current VDI architecture coupled with the right client can not only do graphics, in the case of these new zero clients from Dell, they can also handle up to four screens. This gives you very few disadvantages from a regular desktop, but with the enhanced advantage of providing a way to leave the hardware in the office and being able to log into your session again from a new location and carrying on as if you were still at the point of origin.
Cards have improved to include those that can be read when they are in close proximity, tapped on the reader or read in the old-fashioned way by swiping the magnetic strip on it. But this same wonderful experience of being able to leave the hardware in the office or in the home while being able to move seamlessly between locations remains pretty phenomenal.
But the real benefit to VDI solutions like this has little to do with specialized clients; it provides the only real way to provide the kind of support users want for iPads and smartphones without creating a security nightmare that will never end. This means the solution is actually more important by far than the desktop hardware and Dell’s announcement, fortunately, and end-to-end elements either provided directly by Dell or through partners that include storage, servers, networking and software heavily using VMware on this last.
In the end, if you can supply an adequate desktop experience on a zero client, you certainly can supply it on an iPad and that was part of the message Dell was delivering this week.
We’ve been getting ever closer to desktop virtualization, but one of the big remaining problems is that many of the virtualized applications just don’t lay out well on smartphones or small tablets because they were designed for larger screens. As screen resolution increases, some of this is being addressed, but unless you were born with or still have really sharp vision, the small type that can result can be very painful to use.
The end result is that while the desktop may increasingly be remote, the applications that use this technology will also increasingly move from being traditional PC apps to those that were designed to be virtualized and automatically adjust for screen size.
So while this is certainly, with VMware this month, the month of VDI, likely the year of VDI and maybe even the decade of VDI, much of the true value will be coming to us as the user experience becomes once again optimized for the hardware users. This is just the start.