Virtual desktop infrastructure is a hot topic for a number of reasons. Companies familiar with server virtualization are looking to extend to the desktop. Microsoft is delivering virtualization capabilities in Windows 7. And VDI offers a way to control desktop costs, improve security and management -- even deliver enterprise apps to phones and other mobile devices.
With VDI, end users call up a terminal-like session on a remote host machine. Client sessions can run on Mac or Linux operating systems, but typically they run Windows. On the server side, the host runs Windows Server, often a full instance of a virtual machine.
We tested six software-based products that are designed to provision, authenticate and manage VDI sessions. We also tested three hardware-based virtual desktops. We looked at the client side experience and the server-side maintenance and administrative qualities of each product.
In the past, terminal services sessions were plagued by choppy screen refreshes and slow response times, partly due to the use of Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). Many vendors have replaced RDP or have augmented products with faster protocols and we found the current crop of VDI products to be vastly more flexible and speedier than prior platforms — although still somewhat daunting to maintain.
The race for the top score was exceedingly close. Citrix XenDesktop 4 and VMware View 3 tied for first, until VMware released View 4 mid-way through our test cycle. View 4's blazing fast transport protocol called PCoIP gave it a slight edge over XenDesktop.
The final results look this way: VMware's View 4 is our Clear Choice Test winner with a score of 4.125, Citrix XenDesktop and View 3 both score a 4.0. On the hardware side, PanoLogic wins with a score of 4.5, besting NComputing and Wyse.
We found that there are three levels of VDI sessions, so potential VDI customers need to determine how these capabilities match up with your remote desktop mobility needs. A basic session would be a simple remote logon to a Windows virtual machine or shared instance from a Windows client or hardware device. In the next level, a remote session could share local resources, such as USB, disk, or even antivirus inputs. The ultimate VDI experience was being able to watch fully synchronized remote redisplays of YouTube videos or even Hulu video Web sessions. Few of the vendors could deliver that level of performance.
Overall, we found that each of the nine products worked well, with varying degrees of kinks that needed straightening out.
Our Clear Choice Test winner for VDI software is VMware View 4. It was certainly the best in terms of both client and administrative qualities, but it's also relatively expensive and it's captive to VMware VSphere 4.
We liked XenDesktop's egalitarian platform support, although XenDesktop was a little slower on the client side, and a bit more difficult to manage on the server side.
On the hardware side, we liked Pano Logic's approach. It was clean, simple and offered a lot of value in a small cube. We were impressed by ease of deployment, small profile, and excellent client responsiveness — especially in such a small device.
Henderson is principal researcher at Extreme Labs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Henderson is also a member of the Network World Lab Alliance, a cooperative of the premier reviewers in the network industry each bringing to bear years of practical experience on every review. For more Lab Alliance information, including what it takes to become a member, go to www.networkworld.com/alliance.~~
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