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Cisco Eyes Desktop Virtualization Market

Cisco's desktop virtualization dreams call on partners for the heavy lifting, even as it introduces devices to compete.

The CIsco Cius virtual desktop client is a 7-inch tablet with wired, WiFI, and 3G connectivity options.

Cisco wants to increase the size of the pie for desktop virtualization, currently a $300 million market, and, in the course of that, it's bringing Wyse, Citrix, VMware, and other partners along for dessert. This week at a Cisco gathering for analysts the company announced what it's billing as the Virtualization Experience Infrastructure, or VXI. VXI is an ambitious multi-part, multi-year plan by Cisco for delivering products and technologies that exploit virtual infrastructure. The first phase of the plan starts with validation of products from Cisco partners that work with Cisco technologies, coordinated support and service plans, and delivery of two new Cisco virtual desktop devices for end users.

"IT and business leaders recognize the significant benefits of desktop virtualization, but they also face the reality of having to integrate specialized IT investments in video and telephony applications with their new virtualized customer workspaces," said Manny Rivelo, senior vice president for systems and architectures at Cisco. "Rather than deploy a parallel IT infrastructure to support virtual desktops, Cisco VXI helps businesses take advantage of current investments by unifying data center, collaboration, and networking architectures into one system."

Desktop virtualization is the moniker for a category of product that allows users to work on "thin-client" or "zero client" devices and access their computing applications, including the operating system, from a server in the data center rather than from a local hard drive. (Thin client devices have embedded firmware that allows for some operations to be done locally; zero-client devices have no firmware; they're "stateless.") The primary advantage of the virtual desktop is that, given the proper setup, the user can access his or her applications and data from anywhere.

Analyst firm Gartner, which has made a study of the potential for desktop virtualization, has projected that by 2013, 40 percent of professional PCs will be managed under a hosted virtual desktop model. Organizations are being driven to adopt the virtual desktop in efforts to manage PC support and its burgeoning costs and regain control over perceived security and data privacy issues.

"A secure PC is an oxymoron," said Tarkan Maner, president and CEO at Wyse during a Cisco press event. No matter what security measures are put in place to guard the content, "you still can lose it." With virtual devices, even if they're stolen or lost, he explained, "your content is safe in the data center."

Support expense accounts for two-thirds of the total cost of maintaining and operating business PCs, according to Gartner. "IT managers are looking for more effective ways to maintain those systems," said Cisco's Rivelo. That includes figuring out how to standardize the user experience even as user expectations are changing dramatically.

According to Cisco's Barry O'Sullivan, senior vice president of the voice technology group, the user now expects to be able to collaborate in modes that are video intensive and delivered in real time. "Video is the new voice in the enterprise," he said. "Our vision for the future is that there will be no more voice." Cisco predicts that video will form 90 percent of traffic on networks by 2013. "That's great for the end user," he noted, "but a challenge for the architects."

The problem they face, Rivelo explained, is figuring out how to bring together desktop virtualization and collaboration. "Traffic flow inside the network [is] different than traffic flow in a collaboration environment."

"The architectures up to now haven't supported the user experience," O'Sullivan added.

Cisco's roadmap for addressing that challenge lays out a three-pronged architecture with components in the data center, remote office, and user workspace. A major aspect of VXI is that the equipment from Cisco and its partners that fits within the plan has been validated for integration and in some cases optimized.

At the heart of the plan is a virtualized data center that combines Cisco's Unified Computing System server line; supporting virtualization platforms from Citrix, VMware, and Microsoft; desktop virtualization software from Citrix and Microsoft; and user applications from Cisco for collaboration and Microsoft for office productivity.

According to Phil Sherburne, vice president of engineering, Cisco's virtualized data center architecture can significantly improve the environment for delivery of virtual desktops. "ROI in this area is centered on how many desktops can be on single blade," he said. "With improvements in memory, unified fabric for input/output, and service profiles, we'll be able to deliver a 60 percent improvement in the number of individual virtual desktops that can be supported on an individual blade."

The second prong, the remote office or branch, is expected to run Cisco router gear, such as the Integrated Services Router G2 line of products, to deliver optimized video and virtual services to any user devices--what Cisco referred to as the "borderless network." "It's all about ensuring we can bring to the end user the performance needed for this rich collaborative experience," Sherburne said.

For the third area, focused on the workspace, Cisco said it's supporting a varied assortment of partner thin client devices--including those from Wyse, DevonIT, and IGEL, as well as new and existing endpoint devices from Cisco itself.

Cisco's newest product releases, referred to as "Cisco Virtualization Experience Client" (VXC) devices, are virtual desktops themselves. The Cisco VXC 2100 is a standard IP phone with video capabilities. The back side of the unit has two video output ports for monitors and four USB connections for plugging in a mouse, keyboard, and other components. An Ethernet cable provides voice, video and power over Ethernet. The Cisco VXC 2200 has the same backside features of the 2100, but without the phone. Both are expected in the first quarter of 2011. Cisco hasn't set pricing yet but said the devices would come in at less than $500.

Cisco said it will shortly have customer programs in place for services, including planning, design, and implementation. That includes providing a single support number for VXI installations, Sherburne said, "so customers will have one place to go to let Cisco organize and coordinate among the vendors making up the VXI solution."

Cisco partners see advantages to having Cisco provide the data center scheme and gear to support virtual desktop rollouts.

"Enterprises today are looking for comprehensive desktop solutions that provide unparalleled performance, security and superior user experience--all at a lower overall TCO," said Chris Young, vice president and general manager of end user computing at VMware. "Solutions such as VXI--with VMware View 4.5--further enhance the user experience by enabling customers to integrate rich media and video collaboration capabilities with a variety of endpoint devices."

"Wyse cloud client computing solutions, with its optimized cloud-centric end-point hardware and software components, complement Cisco VXI as the most comprehensive virtualization solution in the industry, bringing all of these components together to deliver any content type to any user via any application in any work environment, without any constraints or compromises," proclaimed Wyse's Maner. "Wyse is excited about our strategic relationship which will benefit our joint customers and partners everywhere."

Gordon Payne, Citrix's senior vice president and general manager, said he believes Cisco's direction makes sense. "Cisco took the world through the transition from classical telephony to voice over IP. That was about centralization and delivery across the network. When we look at IT as a service delivering applications from the data center, it's very similar architecturally."

Of course, the one company that didn't get air time from Cisco this week is also the same one Cisco dumped as a partner in February 2010: HP. The latter has been steadily building up its virtual desktop presence and setting up alliances with the same companies that formed the backbone of Cisco's latest announcement. How that arch-competition will play out in the long run may be like watching tennis match go into a fifth set. No matter how exciting the game starts out, at some point it becomes a bit of a drudge to stay attentive.

Ultimately, customers win by gaining more choice for how to set up their virtualization environments across the enterprise. But it will be a long time before anybody knows how deeply they'll buy into Cisco's new vision for mastering desktop virtualization, a niche field where it hasn't played before. As Twitterer @ScottCochran posted, "#VXI is mostly marketing and white papers validating other vendors [sic] technology on existing Cisco technology."