A guide to Microsoft's dizzying array of desktop virtualization options

Microsoft offers no fewer than five desktop virtualization technologies -- depending on how you define the term. All have a similar goal: to distance the application from the operating system. With the success of server virtualization, CIOs are eyeing desktop virtualization as the great new frontier. However, with Microsoft still in command of the desktop operating system market, the cost of desktop virtualization is still prohibitive, many companies says. Microsoft Subnet recently talked with Scott Woodgate, director of desktop virtualization and Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack for Microsoft and asked him about Microsoft's vast array of technologies, including pricing options.

One of the most surprising aspects of this conversation was that Microsoft recommends Citrix for large, complex projects, rather than its own Windows Enterprise Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI). Another was that Microsoft has promises that another of its core desktop virtualization technologies, known as MED-V, will be compatible with Windows 7 within 90 days of the general availability of the new OS. Since Windows 7 has been promised on Oct. 22, MED-V support should arrive no later than Jan. 22.

Overall, Woodgate's position can be summarized in three tenets: When considering Microsoft's offerings, the ones it considers "application virtualization" offer the most bang for the least expense. A full desktop virtualization infrastructure, in which a PC becomes a thin client, is expensive and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Woodgate points out that this isn't just because of Microsoft's license fees but because of other management expenses. Again, if you want to convert a large-scale, or complex desktop infrastructure into thin clients (under 200 desktops, with load balancing, for instance) Microsoft says Citrix is the preferred way to go, even though Windows Server 2008 includes some desktop virtualization services.

Much more can be said about Microsoft's desktop virtualization offerings, but let's dive into the list now available from Microsoft.

Click here for a larger-version of the chart below.

Technology What it does Licensing and purchasing info Etc.
Windows Virtual PC For individual desktops that need to run multiple Windows environments on the same box. Free for the downloading. The beta version for Windows 7 is available here. The previous version, Microsoft Virtual PC 2007, is safe for older versions of Windows and is available here.

The beta version for Windows 7 requires virtual-enabled CPUs, either AMD-V or Intel-VT CPU feature.

"XP Mode" is XP running in a Virtual PC environment. It is included as a feature of Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate editions.

Microsoft Application Virtualization

Sandboxes Windows applications from one another so that many can be loaded on the same image without application conflicts. Applications are not installed on the user machines, but are downloaded as network services as needed.

App-V is only available as part of the six extra applications offered in the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack. MDOP costs about $10 per year. But MDOP it is only available to companies who purchase Microsoft's Software Assurance maintenance contracts. In turn, Software Assurance (SA) is only available to volume license users, which begins with licenses for five or more seats

If you do have SA, App-V can be a major benefit to you. Microsoft recommends it as the first step to deploy desktop virtualization


This technology includes the remnants of Softricity ...

To date, 16.5 million MDOP licenses have been sold, Microsoft says.

Details can be found via Microsoft's Application Virtualization Datasheet

Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V)


Provides central management of simple deployments of virtual Windows desktops s running Windows Virtual PC. MED-V allows users to run two OSes on one device, adding virtual image delivery, policy-based provisioning and centralized management. Includes management features such as integration with Active Directory.

Med-V is another of the applications only available as part of MDOP. (See above App-V, above.)

MED-V does not yet support Windows 7, but Microsoft promises Windows 7 support within 90 days of general availability.

Can allow a user to migrate to Windows 7, even when some apps aren't compatible with it.
Remote Desktop Services (previously Terminal Services) With Windows Server 2008, Microsoft renamed the "Terminal Services" feature "Remote Desktop Services." This feature allows a user to remotely access applications, data, even the entire desktop, over a network connection as long as the remote computer is supports the Windows terminal services protocol. Citrix licenses this protocol from Microsoft.

Available as a core feature of Windows Server 2008.

When using Citrix, keep in mind that users need to buy TS/RDS-CALs for use with Citrix XenApp and Citrix XenApp Fundamentals.  Citrix sells two different versions of XenApp Fundamentals, one with the TS/RDS CAL included and one without

Remote Desktop Services has been given a major overhaul with WS2008 but many new features require Windows 7 as the client.

Windows Enterprise Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)


Microsoft's full desktop virtualization shabang. Allows client desktop workloads (operating system, application, user data) to be hosted and executed elsewhere, such as servers in the data center.

Users can access their desktops from any authorized device (including thin clients), as long as they are able to connect to the Internet

This option is, by all accounts, expensive compared to traditional desktops. Requires Hyper-V Server 2008, Windows Server 2008, System Center Virtual Machine Manager. Microsoft also requires a special Windows client license, Windows Virtual Enterprise Centralized Desktop (VECD), which offers no cost advantage over PC-based Windows licenses, users say. Also uses App-V, which requires SA and MDOP. Another drawback with VDI is that it doesn't support mobility (50% of people with laptops can't use it). It can be more complex and more expensive than a typical desktop. Customers are using it most for pilots and of these, many are in financial services with sophisticated in house IT. A majority of the deployments are pilots of 100-400 seats.

The upshot is that Microsoft is in no hurry to cut off its nose to spite its face. It doesn't want to make its desktop virtualization offers so inexpensive that it guts its fat-client PC vendors -- killing its desktop OEMs in the process. Still, for volume license customers who use Software Assurance, Microsoft has made MDOP affordable and dabbling with App-V should be a no-brainer.

Beyond that, Microsoft has certainly developed sophisticated technologies, particularly in partnership with Citrix, to move quickly into an affordable desktop virtualization era should competitive pressure force its hand. It won't let another VMware blind-side it on the desktop.

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