The WannaCry ransomware attack currently sweeping through unpatched Windows environments should remind IT departments to rethink how to deliver desktops to their users. Ironically, organizations with a conservative approach to IT due to regulation and security concerns, such as hospitals and governments, seem particularly hard hit by WannaCry. All those unpatched PCs are a liability - and it's a monumental task to keep them up to date on limited resources. Is it practical to consolidate all desktops centrally and deliver them virtually via the cloud? Until now, virtual desktops have had their own issues: performance and ergonomics. That's changing just in time for those exposed to next wave of ransomware attacks.
Once upon a time, certain forms-based applications moved "to the cloud" and we started calling them SaaS. All you needed to use them was a web browser, and this was a pretty big deal.
Soon, not just apps, but software infrastructure started moving to the cloud. It started with raw storage, then networking and compute. Then databases, developer tools, source code trees (e.g., GitHub), build systems (continuous integration and continuous deployment), application performance management, other management tools, security tools, application backends as a service, artificial intelligence and machine learning frameworks as a service… and more.
Nowadays it makes sense to deliver both apps and infrastructure via a public or private cloud. So what hasn't traveled well to the cloud? Your desktop.
The vision of your entire desktop being in the cloud is an old one: you walk up to a thin screen anywhere in your organization, or a friend's house, an airport, or the back seat of a cab, and provide your credentials, and your entire desktop (and life) appears just the way you left it the last time. Or it's accessible from your phablet or a super thin screen you carry with you. This notion of desktops in the cloud has numerous benefits beyond the freedom and mobility: enhanced security, better management and budgeting, and reduced capital expenditures.
The execution of this vision, though, has been uninspiring. Poor user experience has dogged these systems on four levels: first, a bunch of on-premise infrastructure had to be installed; second, the remote application delivery suffered from lag, low resolution, and connectivity drops; third, every user of virtual desktops needed to install client software; and fourth, the administration tools were cumbersome, complex and did not have APIs to automate and integrate with other systems. Turned out, desktop virtualization added infrastructure costs rather than reducing them and made data center management more complicated.
The category came to be known as Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and multi-billion dollar public companies such as Citrix (NASDAQ:CTXS) were created despite this clunkiness - such was the demand. Citrix remains the clear incumbent in the space.
But now several factors have converged to make cloud workspace delivery much better and accessible by the masses: mature cloud infrastructure, cheap widely available high-bandwidth networks even over mobile, browser advancements, proliferation of low-cost end-user devices, and powerful GPU-based servers available in multiple public clouds.
IT organizations really, badly, need cloud workspaces if they want to deliver a broad array of desktop apps that may be CPU, graphics, network or storage intensive, while dealing with ever increasing security requirements. I look for an established market with clear demand and a confluence of factors which enable a new generation of startups to truly deliver on the original promise. VDI is ripe for disruption which is why we just led a $16M Series A investment into a company we believe will disrupt Citrix and transform this space: Frame.
Frame lets you run any app in a browser, regardless of how large, complex, and graphically intensive the app is: think AutoCAD, PhotoShop, etc. The app actually runs on beefy servers with GPUs in the cloud, not on the local device, and what you see and interact with is a highly compressed, low latency video stream, which is super responsive to your keyboard and mouse movements. The big deal is that Frame lets you run any app in any modern browser without requiring browser plug-ins or any other software at all on the client device. One click and the app opens in a second or two on your screen, having started up on a remote server in a public or private cloud; and it actually runs faster than it would on your puny machine. You select File | Open and see that you can open files from Box, OneDrive, DropBox, numerous other cloud storage systems or private file systems... off you go.
Besides Citrix, other companies that have made attempts in VDI include Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) with Workspaces, Dell vWorkspace, VMware (NYSE:VMW) with Desktop and Application Virtualization, and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) with their Desktop Virtualization.
None of them quite meet the future needs that I've described in this article. Last year I wrote Fear The Amazon Juggernaut on Seeking Alpha, wherein I admired Amazon's execution in cloud infrastructure. But virtual desktops is one area where they have not executed well. Dell mothballed vWorkspace. VMware's core business competes with Microsoft's so VMware does not enjoy a close relationship with Microsoft for VDI, resulting in a glitchy product. Microsoft Ventures co-invested with us in Frame's Series A round.
Virtual desktops are finally coming of age, and just in time for organizations concerned about the next wave of attacks.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.