Virtually Speaking: Desktop on a Stick

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Mar 9, 2007


Amy Newman
While most of the talk surrounding virtualization has focused on server consolidation in the data center, VMware's latest offering puts a virtual desktop system on a USB stick or iPod.

It was only a matter of time before x86 virtualization came to the desktop. In some ways, it all started with the desktop when VMware made its inaugural offering, Workstation, back in 1998.

At that time, a virtual desktop was similar to a virtual server. It could be partitioned into multiple systems, each running its own operating system. In those days, the offerings were aimed at the developer community, where it was cheaper to have someone run Linux and Windows on the same box rather than give them an extra system.

On Monday, VMware announced a new version of its Assured Computing Environment for the Enterprise virtual desktop, which it hopes will bring the technology into the mainstream.

More commonly known as ACE, version 2 of the Enterprise edition is now in public beta. ACE, in many respects, alters the definition of the desktop. Unlike its workstation and thin-client kin, which were basically blank terminals that served as a conduit to get to the data on the server, with ACE, an entire system can sit on a USB stick or Apple iPod.

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Using ACE, an admin can create an IT-managed PC within a secured virtual machine and deploy it to an unmanaged physical PC, thus creating an IT-compliant PC endpoint that can be easily accessed and transported. VMware ACE is designed to ensure complete control of the hardware configuration and networking capabilities of the system.

VMware ACE 2 Enterprise Edition is, in fact, a collection of tools for the virtual desktop that includes VMware ACE Management Server, which allows IT administrators to centrally manage thousands of VMware ACE desktops from a single console. It also supports a VMware "single virtual client platform," which enables VMware Workstation 6 users to create and securely package VMware ACE virtual machines and enable VMware Player or VMware Workstation users to run an ACE virtual machine from any PC, laptop or portable media device.

At the heart of the suite is a desktop mobility feature that enables the virtual desktop's deployment — complete with operating system, data and applications to a portable media device.

All you need is "access to a computer flash drive," Jerry Chen, director of Enterprise Desktop Platforms VMware, told ServerWatch.

This makes for a truly mobile desktop. It can be set up so that an end user simply loads his or her secure desktops onto portable media devices, such as USB flash drives or an Apple iPod, enabling access from anywhere.

ACE, Chen said, is ideal for independent contractors and others who switch between office and personal computers. Using ACE, employees who travel would be able to drop the laptop in favor of something they can slip into a pocket or purse.

Policy control and encryption are designed to to keep it secure and set it apart from VMware's workstation offering, Chen said.

VMware ACE 2 Enterprise Edition also promises streamlined desktop management and simplified desktop control, isolated sandbox environments and the capability to capture and move desktop images.

VMware is certainly not the first vendor to offer a portable desktop. Sun Microsystems has been selling Sun Ray systems since 1999. Sun Ray cards, however, are restricted to Sun Ray systems, so portability is limited.

While the appeal for a system as versatile as the ACE, or Sun Ray, is strong, security issues abound. Encryption mitigates many risks, as does the policy-setting capabilities that come with the new ACE bundle. It goes without saying that policy management will be critical to a successful ACE deployment, as will judicious choice of what an enterprise decides to deploy virtually.

For example, VMware ACE Virtual Rights Management (VRM) centralizes management of security policies and access rights applied to VMware virtual machines, but that doesn't necessarily mitigate data lost because an iPod is left on the subway and never seen again — unless data is backed up somewhere.

Ultimately, common sense and sound policies are key to getting the most from this technology.

ACE 2 Enterprise Edition is currently in public beta and available for immediate download. It is expected to be generally available in the second quarter, Chen said.

Amy Newman is the managing editor of ServerWatch. She has been covering virtualization since 2001.

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