A couple of weeks ago, I moderated a discussion between Cisco and EMC on desktop virtualization (you can see the video of it here). This is one of the mega trends cutting through the industry at the moment because of the advent of BYOD (bring your own device) because it allows a business to provide a consistent user experience regardless of the user device.
The related solutions try to achieve that perfect balance between the device choices that users are demanding and the consistency that IT needs to provide cost-effective solutions for them. Typically you’d need a comprehensive vendor like HP and IBM are currently and that Dell is trying to be to address this market, but Cisco and EMC, along with partners like VMware and, more recently, Lenovo, are providing a partner-based solution that appears to be very competitive.
Let’s explore this.
The historical problem with best-of-breed approaches, or creating a solution that crosses specialty vendors, is that it turns the customer, or a reseller, into a mediator. In effect, because specialty firms often don’t even speak the same technical language, if they weren’t under the same corporate umbrella (and often even if they were), the customer had to find a way to keep them from blaming each other for interoperability problems, often resulting from vastly different internal processes, and to instead focus on fixing customers’ issues.
This is why product suites from one vendor typically win out; at least there is one point of contact, one throat to choke, and these inter-divisional issues stay in the vendor. However, the advantage of best of breed is that the components of the solution individually stand out as being better.
EMC, to compete with firms like HP and IBM, had to recreate the partnership and with VCE created the first large-scale enterprise virtual umbrella company. Consisting initially of Cisco, VMware and EMC, later adding Intel, and finally having firms like BMC and Lenovo as junior partners, EMC found a way to emulate an umbrella corporate structure over a partnership so the customer gets that single point of responsibility and the benefits of best of breed.
EMC then focused on its end of the solution to tune existing storage products to fit the unique requirements of virtualized desktops. This isn’t linear performance because a virtualized desktop solution is about massive I/O and low latency. It has to provide similar performance to a dedicated desktop system, which isn’t trivial particularly with the advent of flash drives in PCs. It requires a specialized tier structure of storage technologies ranging from high-speed flash to cost-effective, high-capacity magnetic media, coupled with the ability to switch dynamically based on loading and user requirements, which can vary dramatically outside of the normal start of day and return from break cycles. And do this all globally if necessary.
Cisco is even more interesting, because VDI appears to hit it where its servers are strongest. It is the only server vendor that designed from the standpoint of a communications benchmark. Its servers are unique because they were optimized for low latency. The reason it did this is that in the communications business, it isn’t linear performance that is critical, it is latency. What makes desktop virtualization so different than normal server loading is that any significant latency is highly objectionable to the user who expects the screen to instantly react as it did on their localized PC to keyboard or mouse input so the user can’t really tell their session is virtualized. This has turned out to be just as critical with the emergence of tablets (iPads) in business because it can be very disconcerting if the screen can’t respond in real time to input.
Beyond the solution, I find the approach that EMC, Cisco and VMware are taking to provide the benefits of best in class and the benefits of an integrated company to be a very unique partnership. The end result is a unique solution, which is not only a showcase for how a best-of-breed solution could be built, but for the unique partnership approach that rivals integrated firms.