Deployment

Is VMware's Future Horizon Filled With Apps?

VMware has officially launched its Horizon Suite, which combines a virtualised workspace designed to offer access to applications and data on mobile devices with some of its existing software for managing virtual and physical systems. What’s the plan for the product that one enthusiastic Australian beta tester describes as ‘NotDropbox’?

VMware ANZ managing director Duncan Bennet calls the suite as “a single workspace in the cloud for accessing applications, data and workspaces”. It combines two existing but updated VMware products (Horizon View 5.2 for virtualised desktop access, and Horizon Mirage 4.0 for physical infrastructure management) with the new Horizon Workspace environment. It’s the single workspace that this provides, enable secure, Dropbox-like access to shared files and the ability to launch web applications, virtualised desktop applications and native mobile applications from a single interface, that VMware is counting on to attract new customers.

Using virtualised desktops to deliver non-mobile apps on tablets and smartphones is not a new approach. One of the main selling points for the Horizon Suite is that eliminates the need for users to do everything within that environment. One disadvantage of running everything within a virtualised OS is that it can be hard to take advantage of the different capabilities of a tablet, where gestures are often more useful than keyboard shortcuts. Workspace centralises the management and deployment of those apps, so you can launch (for example) Excel within a virtualised Windows desktop but WebEx as a native iOS app, and track which options are being used.

One big potential advantage for Workspace is that it enables single sign-on across apps running on those different platforms. If you’ve signed into your main network via your virtual desktop, launching a mobile app which can also use the same network authentication structure won’t require you to sign in again.

Around half-a-dozen Australian VMware customers have been testing the product ahead of its official release. For associate professor Daniel Saffioti, deputy director and principal fellow at the University of Wollongong, a key part of the suite’s appeal was the ability to offer a Dropbox-like collaboration environment to university researchers. “Our community wants to be able to do things on their own terms.” Many university projects had begun using Dropbox for casual file sharing, but that lacked sufficient security to match university policies. Finding a ‘NotDropbox’ alternative was a major priority.

The University was already a large VMware customer: “We have 400 VMs and we have an insatiable appetite for more.” Saffioti investigated other secure collaboration solutions but found most of them lacking. VPN-based systems were deemed too fiddly by users, while open source collaboration solutions lacked maturity. “Some of the open source offerings looked very promising, but they were never as rounded as we’d like,” Saffioti said. Using Workspace allows files to be shared easily but with less risk: “We can guarantee reasonable security for the system and its data.”

Other improvements in the suite are likely to appeal to different audiences. View 5.2 includes enhanced 3D graphics options, such as the ability to virtualise and share physical GPUs amongst multiple users. That’s useful for mining and design workers, but less essential for standard desktop apps.

All this flexibility doesn’t come especially cheap. Licensing costs for the full suite start at $300 per user, though the final cost varies widely depending on which elements you use and any existing VMware agreements.

Platform support isn’t universal either. The initial release supports Windows and Mac as desktop environments, and iOS and Android for mobility. In theory, any HTML5 capable browser should be able to access the virtual desktops. VMware says further platforms will be added (BlackBerry and Windows Phone 8 would be obvious candidates), but hasn’t provided a timetable for when that might happen.

Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.