VMware or Microsoft Series – VDI – A Look at Supportability and More!

A little bit of history first.  Virtual Desktop computing has been slowly etching its way into more IT plans year over year.  The advantages can be enormous when isolating the end user into a virtual desktop that looks and acts like their regular everyday PC.  Of course the ROI has been quite difficult to manage especially when looking at large deployments, and when performance must be guaranteed to match or exceed the current computing requirements.

VMware jumped in the VDI ring many years ago mainly through some acquisitions, and for the first few years struggled to gain momentum against Citrix.  After all Citrix owned this market for many years almost solo.   Citrix had the client connectivity piece so well-honed that it was quite difficult for any other vendor to compete in the space.  VMware’s answer to this was to license the PCoIP protocol from Teradici.  And so for the past few years, VMware has continued to take some market share from Citrix on the VDI front.  Which brings us to the present.

Enter Microsoft Server 2012 Remote Desktop Services(RDS).  Most of us think of RDS as simply the traditional terminal server computing method whereby one server installation shares out many desktop or application sessions to the end users.   Most companies are still using this traditional type of application presentation as the majority of their virtual desktop offering.  The reason?  ROI is much easier to show for terminal sessions than it is for individual virtual machines.  An important note to make here, Microsoft provided the server operating system to make this commonplace method possible from the very beginning.   So when Server 2012 hit the street, Microsoft delivered a much more comprehensive offering to not only embolden those pieces that have performed so well but also to bring virtual desktop infrastructure(VDI) computing to a more appeasing level in performance, user-friendliness,  and last but not least, cost.  From the client connectivity protocol(RDP) to the ability to deploy virtual desktops or traditional terminal services via a simple wizard built into the newly re-imagined Server Manager, Server 2012 now plays a much simpler choice in the VDI space.

Architecture, Complexity, and Support

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VMware requires several Windows servers in order to complete their VDI offering.  On these servers an administrator deploys the broker(controller), client connectivity and gateway, virtual machine image handler(composer), as well as vCenter, all the while providing the ESX backend infrastructure to house these virtual machines.  Considering a large deployment of VMware View?  Think about separate vCenters as well because there are only so many virtual machines allowed per vCenter.  So an administrator for VMware View needs to understand vSphere management, Windows Server management, networking, backend storage, desktop imaging, desktop applications, and the list goes on.   When an IT engineer sets out to deploy a virtual desktop infrastructure the main priority that should be on his or her mind should always be how do I make the desktop experience seamless to the end user, fast, responsive, flexible, and above all, secure.  However in the VMware solution, architecting the infrastructure takes quite a bit of time and learning before any of these critical aspects are addressed.  Sure the software can be easily installed, but how do I provide deduplication of the data, user profiles, and virtualized applications?   More applications, plug-ins from storage vendors, and the like are required.   Then the admin needs to secure the gateways, manage network bandwidth, monitor CPU and memory utilization, end user perception and the like.  This sounds like a team of people doesn’t it?  The entire project  can become maddening to maintain control, much less continue supporting properly for any length of time.  Consider this, every server and application shown above requires updates as do the operating systems and hypervisor.  There are 22 touch points and this diagram only shows a very basic single point-of-failure configuration.  When the Hypervisor gets upgraded, so does Virtual Center, which then rolls out new VMware Tools(agents) to each virtual machine.  In the white paper seen here, VMware touts that customers need direct support from one vendor, and I couldn’t agree more.  This question in the white paper talks about providing support for non-Microsoft desktops, and while yes there are some customers using Linux here and there, the majority of virtual desktop work is done on Windows.  So if you look at the diagram above you can get an idea of the support model complexity that  will come into play.  Now take a look at the new wave of VDI technology:

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Microsoft built the architectural rollout for each component of the RDS solution as well as monitoring, ease of use, and remote client connectivity directly into the roll out wizard for VDI.  For instance, instead of learning more software applications in order to roll out a given solution, Server Manager now has a simple wizard driven system for deploying the virtual computing environment for any given scenario.  Administrators can roll out a pooled desktop collection, personal desktops, and traditional terminal servers all from the same interface.  The wizard will even help guide the engineer through the entire process.  As seen here, in 13 clicks give or take, one can easily deploy a working VDI environment, and this is prior to Server 2012 R2!:

http://blogs.technet.com/b/blainbar/archive/2012/04/16/it-time-technet-radio-setting-up-windows-server-8-vdi-in-13-clicks-and-a-cup-of-coffee-with-blain-and-adam.aspx

Storage, Linked Clones, Deduplication

VMware utilizes linked clones to deliver multiple desktops based on a given golden image.  While this cloning technology really helped to bridge the storage utilization gap, VMware also leverages other storage technologies built on top of vSphere to further embellish their offering.  Again, we must become experts of another software suite.   Which storage vendor is the admin using?  Do they support the various enhancements or storage plug-ins?   Imagine that the users have gotten accustomed to their respective virtual desktops and then a new image is deployed with updates then something goes wrong in the provisioning process.  Where do we start to troubleshoot performance?  In the controller, disk subsystem, or somewhere in between?

Enter Windows Server 2012 R2 which builds upon the Server 2008R2/2012 vision and truly distances itself from the competition.  Virtual Desktops can now have their underlying virtual disks pinned to different tiers of storage.  In fact, the desktops for certain power users or application groups can be set to use SSD physical drives underneath while the slower workloads sit on the SATA shelves.  On top of this, Server 2012 RDS will also enable caching of the hot data so that the speed for getting to these  bits and bytes is even more insanely fast.  Some folks might think this takes special scripting or some PowerShell but in fact it is as easy as a few clicks within Server Manager.  Since Server 2012 introduced deduplication technology, the Microsoft RDS team said, “Hey why not for VDI?”  And now in 2012 R2, real time deduplication of VDI machines is a reality.  In the tests I performed no performance loss could be seen, in fact in some cases the machines responded faster on deduped drives because of the dedup caching technology!

Now you might be asking yourself, “Ok does it mean the entire disk file is only written once or does the deduplication happen at a block level?”  Well the answer is neither.  The dedup actually occurs at a chunk level.  So chunks of data which match are simply removed with pointers placed to the first set of data that matches.  This process runs on a scheduled basis and is configurable by the administrator.  Server 2012 cares not which type of storage you might utilize underneath the virtual machine.  So let’s go back to the scenarios offered at the controller level.  Do I make pooled desktop or personal desktops?  We certainly do not have to lean on the complexity of linked clone technology at this point.  Regardless of the implementation style(pooled or personal), RDS can create multiple virtual machines and give each one to different individuals, the deduplication underneath will minimize the storage footprint up to 90%.

One important aspect that should not be left out, the virtual or physical operating system Windows.  Since Microsoft provides the operating system and embeds the drivers for the Hyper-V hypervisor-provided “hardware”, there is no need for special agents.  This unique ability redefines the user experience in many ways.  For instance, the connectivity protocols and interaction with these protocols at the desktop level. RemoteFX Graphics Streaming has been reduced another 50% over Server 2012’s release.  To put that in perspective, Server 2012 RemoteFX was already noticeably faster than 2008R2.  Another example, lets say the desktop is viewed in portrait mode and the end user’s tablet is switched to landscape mode.  Windows 8.1 and Server 2012R2 automatically determine that a shift in perspective has occurred, repainting the screen in the proper format, on the fly.  No special client software or agents required.

Let’s say that one more time.  “No special client software or agents required.”  Should have made that the title of this article.

As for managing the master images, if an administrator utilizes System Center Configuration Manager this can serve master images to your VDI environment equally as good as to your physical PCs.  VMware’s answer to this is yet another software installation named Mirage, so here we go again, another tool to learn, maintain, etc.  When we circle back to the beginning of this virtual desktop conversation and discuss the original virtual desktop delivered by Windows Server in terminal sessions, which has just gotten even better in Server 2012, I think we can close the loop on what should be considered the true all-in-one virtual desktop solution.  Bottom line for VMware is this, they needs to start consolidating all of their software acquisitions quickly if they want to seriously continue playing in this ballpark.

Want to get started on your own implementation of a Server 2012 RDS lab without any hardware!  Well,  look no further:

http://blogs.technet.com/b/keithmayer/archive/2013/09/04/step-by-step-remote-desktop-services-on-windows-azure-a-cost-effective-alternative-to-desktop-as-a-service-part-2.aspx

For more reading on the subject check out the Remote Desktop Services official blog:

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/rds/archive/2013/07/09/what-s-new-in-remote-desktop-services-for-windows-server-2012-r2.aspx

And also check out Brad Anderson’s blog for even more details:

http://blogs.technet.com/b/in_the_cloud/

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