December 7, 2015 by Tris Hussey

The Web didn't bring platform agnostic computing, maybe VDIs will

The Web didn't bring platform agnostic computing, maybe VDIs will

I still miss my Mac and I wish it didn’t matter what machine I use

As I’m sitting here working on a rather nice HP laptop running Windows I’m still wishing I could be looking at a screen running OS X in the background but still connected to the company network for apps and files in the foreground.

I’m not changing my mind on the perils of BYOD, what I see in the future isn’t a Mac running an emulator like VMWare Fusion to run Windows along side OS X, but a machine that taps into a network of grid-linked machines that gives me the resources I need when I need them. A virtual desktop that runs the OS I need with the access I need, whenever I need it. All OSes running locally—even emmulated ones—still need to be maintained and patched and they take up space on a machine. Plus that machine running two OSes at the same time needs to have an enough oomph to have both OSes run smoothly. Requiring a better and better class of machine to just keep up with growing OS requirements isn’t a cost effective answer to desktop productivity.

On the other hand if the Virtual Desktop Infrastructure is just sending information down the wires to a client machine that just needs to display a window, you don’t need high-end equipment to work effectively. You just need solid bandwidth and a great monitor. Good VDI systems offload the processing load to servers that can handle the load.

That’s the future I’d like to see.

That’s the future I’d like to play with.

We’re not platform agnostic—yet

Software as a Service (SaaS) apps like Salesforce and Google Apps were supposed to let us pick the machine we like the best and go. I think it was the promise of SaaS that lead us down the BYOD path. It wasn’t a Mac versus PC thing, it was the promise that Mac versus PC didn’t matter anymore that got people excited. The reality is that often it does still matter.

Sure you can do a lot within a browser today. Sure SaaS is awesome and has helped transform the workplace. But SaaS isn’t all that and a bag of chips. SaaS doesn’t solve all computing or productivity problems and that’s where the platform debate rears its ugly head again. Our CRM tool has a web-based interface. Which I could use for 95% of what I need to do, but that last 5% can only be done on the Windows app (ironically just a highly customized version of Chrome). Our particular CRM is just one example, but I’m sure you could find a hundred other examples of apps that only really work well on one OS or another—even in a browser.

Maybe the web-based version of your marketing intelligence tool doesn’t work as nicely in IE than Chrome. Maybe Chrome on the Mac doesn’t like the partner portal you have to use for your key vendor. Whatever the stopper is, the OS you use does still matter.

But it doesn’t have to.

What if there was no computer. What if the trick of bending tools to your will is to see a world without what we think of as computers or applications.

It’s all virtual baby

One of our customers does a lot of complex 3D design work. More than just buildings or roads, we’re talking things that have to include facets of buildings and roads and laminar flow and acceleration from slopes. Stuff with really complex physics that need to be tested or the concequences are ugly. Like people getting hurt ugly. In order to see if a design is cool or deadly they have to run it through some hard core models. Usually you’d have an engineer run the simulation on their own machine. Something a little complex would take the time to get a coffee and come back. A little more complex, go to lunch and come back. Then there are the simulations that would be “Okay guys I’ll see you tomorrow since my machine is bogged down running this until the morning…”, which can put a crimp in other work.

Not to mention the kind of machines needed to run those kinds of simulations are pretty hard core. We’re getting into huge investments in hardware and the prospect that any big project might sideline a machine for hours. Sideline the machine and the person who might want to do other stuff on it. That doesn’t make good business sense.

But what if you could just send the job out to a series of grid-linked machines that can share the load so the job gets done, but doesn’t cause downtime?

That’s one of the flavors of VDI. Grid resources. Take the idle time on a server (or servers) and open it up to a workforce of people. Or maybe you need to expand your workforce. You need specialized experts who need special software and machines. What if it’s only a sort-term project? The capital costs would be prohibitive. Even outsourced, how many places can take on that kind of specialized work for a short period of time?

Probably not many.

What if you didn’t need any of that? What if you just needed a basic machine to connect to a virtual computer to do all the work? Need five more people to work on the project? The new computers and software don’t need to be purchased, you just need the server to make a few more virtual computers available. Of course you’d need to scale up more server resources over time, but it would equate to one machine being able to be used by dozens of people as their computers instead of managing dozens more physcial computers to upgrade and deal with.

Virtual desktops are upgraded by software. Need machines with more power? Fine, let’s crank that up for you. Need a software update? Sure, that will be ready in a moment. Backups? Not to worry. Nothing ever leaves the server, which has all of its virual machines backed up and then replicated to the cloud.

When computers are virtual, then the work returns to the fore.

Netbook, Chromebook, Whatsnextbook

I had a netbook. One of the Asus machines that came out that was the pre-iPad splendor of something light and managable for simple tasks.

That didn’t go so well.

I made an honest try of it (after putting Ubuntu on it instead of Windows XP). I tried to find situations and workflows for it, but it was always shoehorning something into a solution that didn’t quite fit. The netbook’s greatest flaw turned out to be what we thought it would be the biggest feature—a small machine is fine if you only need a broswer. With everything in the browser you don’t need a lot of power or storage to get things done. You just need the Internet. It doesn’t work out that way when you need offline storage when there is no Internet to connect to and you still need to manage the needs of an operating system. In 2008 there weren’t enough ways to do everything online. Not enough apps, not enough cloud storage. Netbooks just became unpowered computing toys.

Chromebooks have been the next evolution of the netbook idea, but while Google App services solve a lot of the problems netbooks faced it’s still not perfect. Chromebooks are great if you’re solidly Google shop. If you need to get to Dropbox or deal with Exchange you’re cobbling solutions together. The problem lies in the reliance on an operating system on a machine still doing the leg work. I’m still facinated with the idea of using a Chromebook, but I know that our Exchange and Office apps connected office would make everything unworkable.


Unless we embrace the Whatsnextbook which is any computer you can connect to the network and has a client to open a virtual desktop. Sure the operating system might be doing some leg work, but if you can make a remote window full screen…how would you tell the difference between local and remote?

Yes, network lag and bandwith are going to be the killers here. RDP? The darling of sys admins everywhere trying to manage things? Well as a person who has to use RDP frequently for remote access it’s the right basic idea, but not quite. It’s not like I’m really running a virtual Windows 10 computer. I’m connecting to a Windows server and running some things from it. Other things, don’t run well—or at all.

The Whatsnextbook is a machine that it doesn’t matter if there is a fruit on the back or not, it opens up a connection and becomes whatever is needed for the job at hand. Windows 10? Ubuntu? Server? You connect, work, save, move on. All computers running close or far away. What you do with the machine when not connected to these VDIs…maybe nothing. Maybe the machine just connects. Maybe it doesn’t need storage. Maybe it’s a dumb terminal that you just sit down to and use.

The movie Her seemed like that. Move from machine to machine. Have a personal machine and work machine as virtual machines at the same time on a screen connected to something that might not be more than a network card with input devices.


It’s not far off

I can see it working. Apple’s Cloud Drive, Microsoft’s OneDrive, Google Drive, Box, Dropbox…what is keeping those from moving from just storage to the acutual operating system, the computer? You can edit files there now. You can move files around there now.

All that’s stopping this are interfaces that make us think they are computers.

And that…

That should be any time now.

Matrix image by Isaiah Van Hunen.

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