The New VDI-in-a-Box: Simple to Pilot, Seamless to Scale

The market has shown that desktop virtualization needed to be simplified. With the evolution of new VDI-in-a-Box solutions, it will be.

By Lee Caswell

Ask a reseller about virtual desktops and chances are they can point you to a proof-of-concept or pilot system running 10 or 20 virtual desktops each. In fact, there are thousands of such pilot systems in trials today, as users scramble to understand the benefits of desktop virtualization. Nearly every pilot runs on a local server that has been freed up for the test run -- it’s the earliest example of VDI-in-a-Box.

Pilot versus Production

These same VDI resellers generally acknowledge that the lowly server used in the pilot project isn’t planned for full-scale production. When installations grow past a few hundred desktops, the performance and availability requirements quickly overwhelm the standalone server, and the big-iron hardware experts have traditionally been forced to jump in with the commensurate cost and complexity you’d expect. In many cases, this is where a virtual desktop project stalls, as budgets are tapped out and the strapped IT staff can’t find a way to manage yet another morass of servers, storage, and network infrastructure.

What if you could take the simplicity and low cost of the pilot VDI-in-a-Box server and simply add more appliances to support additional desktops? Instead of throwing away the proof of concept, you could leverage that work into production. What if reliability increased as more appliances were added, allowing virtual desktops to be protected against network, storage, and compute failures? The SMB user really wants “VDI-in-many-Boxes” when it is time to move into production, and this is leading to the demand for a new class of converged, scale-out, VDI-in-a-Box appliances.

Scale is the Norm

Simple scaling turns out to be a critical dimension of virtual desktop deployments because the norm is to start small and then scale. This is particularly true in the SMB market, where projects are justified and implemented in bite-size chunks as investment dollars become available or as the organization grows. This is in sharp contrast to large-scale enterprise projects, where upfront investments are often justified based on multi-year payback scenarios.

New VDI-in-a-Box appliances should support an incremental deployment model with a seamless method of scaling server-like VDI appliances. Need more virtual desktops? Add more appliances. Worried about performance at scale? Same answer, because desktop performance scales with storage. Worried about boot storms? Rely on automatic load balancing to normalize performance spikes to meet user needs. Concerned about the availability of the system during component or appliance failures? VDI-in-a-Box solutions should introduce system-level, high-availability where virtual desktops are protected even against complete appliance failures.

For this scenario to work, VDI-in-a-Box appliances should be configured together as an integrated “stack” to support more virtual desktops. Then, as VDI appliances are stacked, the system gains high availability and automatically distributes resources optimally. For a desktop administrator, this stack approach means that desktop virtualization resources would not have to be configured at an appliance level and that the system would be self-healing in case one of the appliances fails. It would also need to provide a simple appliance-level scaling model so more resources of all kinds would be added to the pool as more virtual desktops are supported.

What Scale is Right for SMB?

An important question to consider is how many SMB virtual desktops a VDI-in-a-Box should scale up to and in what increments. Because pilot systems start at around 100 users and the SMB market is defined as companies with up to 1,000 employees, it seems the market is fully covered with a VDI-in-a-Box solution that starts at 100 users and scales in increments of 100 up to 1,250 users. This method of scaling in 100-user increments matches VMware volume license packages.

Users learned early in their careers that the easiest and most cost-effective way to deploy pilots is to use a standard server for virtual desktop infrastructure. Building on this, the new wave of scalable VDI-in-a-Box appliances should leverage this simplicity into the scale and budget of the SMB customer, so that installations from 100 to1000 virtual desktops can be delivered simply and with high availability.

What Makes This Real

I see VDI customers buying shared storage in the same light as iPhone customers buying a camera. Although the phone functionality drives the purchase decision, the availability of a high-quality camera in the same form factor led to an explosion in cheap, easy-to-use, digital photography. Virtual desktop users are similarly not looking to acquire storage primarily but the availability of high-performance, cost-effective shared storage in the same package as a familiar server promises to make the use of shared storage ubiquitous across the market space.

The market has shown that desktop virtualization needed to be simplified. With the evolution of new VDI-in-a-Box solutions, it will be.

Lee Caswell is a founder of Pivot3 and a marketing executive in the virtualization, storage, and digital video markets. Prior to founding Pivot3, Lee was EVP marketing and business development at VMware and held a series of senior management roles at Adaptec, ending as VP and general manager of Adaptec's Storage Solutions group. You can contact the author at

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