Who really invented virtual desktops?

A CIO article on 10/08/2010 by Kevin Fogarty sparked a Twitter debate this morning as to whether or not “VMware invented desktop virtualization” as claimed by VMware vice president of desktop products, Vittorio Viarengo. Andi Mann and Michael Keen both made the case that Citrix enabled desktop virtualization long before VMware. Keen tweeted, “Citrix ‘WinView’ circa 1993. VMW wasn't even a twinkle in Diane & Mendel's eye.”

Server Based Computing

The pre-XenDesktop Citrix Server Based Computing (SBC) products enable, similar to VDI, a hosted desktop solution by letting users view their desktops remotely using a special protocol. But unlike VDI, SBC is accomplished by sharing the operating system among multiple users. It is a completely different technology with entirely different ramifications than VDI which abstracts the desktop operating system from the underlying hardware.  

Starting with WinFrame, the Citrix messaging of its SBC products has emphasized access and application delivery – not centralized/hosted desktops. I suspect the underlying reason was that Citrix didn’t want to poke its all important partner, Microsoft, which stressed the importance of utilizing local PC resources.

One of my previous companies was an early reseller of Citrix starting with the OS/2-based Citrix WinView product, and we ended up being named the Citrix Partner of the Year for 2000. I spent four years as a Microsoft MVP for Terminal Server and co-authored several books on Citrix/Terminal Server along with dozens of white papers and articles. All of my writing, selling and messaging was always focused on using Citrix to run complete desktops from server farms because that is the by far the best way to achieve a tangible ROI story. When I read an article years ago by Ron Oglesby (now at Unidesk) explaining VDI, I was jazzed because I believed that as the virtualization technology matured, it would finally engender mass adoption of the hosted desktop concept.

Did VMware Invent VDI?

Denis Guyadeen tweeted that IBM had mainframe terminal emulation decades ago, but VMware created desktop virtualization with VMware Workstation. Mike Sterling pointed out that Connectix beat VMware by two years when it introduced Virtual PC in 1997. I don’t consider either product, though, to be an example of VDI which is typically associated with server-hosted virtual desktops, not local.

VirtualBridges unabashedly claims that it invented VDI. And, while its solution was very basic, I think it probably was first. But as VirtualBridges acknowledges in its Web site, it wasn’t called VDI at the time.

The actual term “Virtual Desktop Infrastructure” appears to be uncontested as VMware’s. The story I’ve heard is that some of VMware’s customers began virtualizing desktop operating systems on their ESX hosts around 2005. By 2006, VMware had noticed the nascent trend and figured that it could be a huge opportunity. Someone at VMware coined the term “VDI”, and a new industry was born.

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3 Responses to Who really invented virtual desktops?

  1. Kinda missing HP’s Blade PC & subsequent Workstation Blade product SKU’s which have been in customer Data Centers & live production environments since at least 2K3.
    I know that folks may try to argue that both the above aren’t the 1st incarnation of VDI concept, the fact that they are hardware based negates them b\c it’s comparing apples to oranges which is a lame argument.
    When it comes to “Virtual Desktops” people are Universally aware of Hypervisor hosted Virtual Machines. Admittedly HP’s Blade PC & Workstation Blades are a boutique/niche solution (which has a VERY high cost of entry) however it allows the End-User to get a FULL local experience (including multi-media). Trade off being 1 Hardware asset Data Center side from 1 Hardware asset client side. Resulting in MAJOR underutilization of hardware. It’s a primary use case for virtualization in general – exploiting all available hardware resources Blade PC’s\Workstation Blades are hardware devices that live in a chassis in the Data Center, same concept as Blade Servers. Also same as VDI instances sharing resources with other users on a powerful host server(s). Initially developed for Trader’s, CAD/CAM, Graphically Intense applications, etc. Biggest use case for HP’ Blade PC’s & Workstation Blades is the need to centralize sensitive data and control desktops, basically same as the more familiar VDI use cases, only it also answers the Multi-Media needs of certain verticals.
    So instead of 2 physical hosts with 30 desktop VM’s each in the Data Center you must support & manage 60 physical devices (blades inside chassis).

  2. Jason McG says:

    I believe it was about the spring of 2002 when I went into an insurance agency and saw a bank of about 50 PC’s lined up in a lab. I was assuming that those PC’s were in place for testing, but it ended up that they were being remotely accessed by telecommuters for their desktop computing environment. This is very similiar to what CitrixGurl (Glenda) is referring to with the Blade PC solution, but definitely a little more blue collar, without the multimedia enhancements.
    I would also give credit to the leadership of Wyse for helping to drive the virtual desktop with VMware. In about 2004/5 the leadership understood what VMware had with it’s hypervisor, and they began to push virtualizing a single user OS on those platforms. At this time, I am not sure VMware really understood the concept and value, but as the relationship grew they definately began to understand the potential. Hence the series of acquisitions, such as Propero. Specific credit goes to Curt Schwebke, CTO of Wyse. I will not soon forget a presentation he did with the VMware team, where he introduced the concept of virtualizing the desktop OS on their hypervisor and accessing it remotely.
    While VMware does desktop virtualization quite well, I would actually have to give the user base, and Microsoft the credit for “inventing” the virtual desktop. Without XP supporting RDP, VDI would not have been created. Perhaps it make sense to break down the technology, and the evolution of it. While VMware introduced their revolutionary hardware virtualization, the intent was to drive datacenter consolidation which they have done better than anyone. With that being said, Microsoft introduced RDP to the single user OS which was really the birthplace of VDI.
    The term VDI, I think that is a joint marketing effort with VMware and the alliances. Great term, but it has been built by solid marketing and smart acquisitions. I would have a difficult time giving someone full credit for inventing VDI, when the dependancies to deliver VDI were not developed in house.
    Much credit to everyone involved (VMware, Citrix, etc.) but when you are talking about who invented the Virtual Desktop, my vote goes to Microsoft with the introduction of RDP to Windows XP.

  3. Jerry Wilkin says:

    Ha, ha – the whole thing is kinda silly. I worked for a $3b software development company in 2004 when we started deploying “Virtual Desktop Machines” to developers – we called them VDMs (I still use that term today in my current employer’s environment). In 2005 we had over 100 VDMs, within the next 2 years we grew to around 600.
    When VMware released a product called “VDM” we thought, hmmm… how ironic – they stole our acronym!
    They probably were the first to coin the term “VDI” but customers (like me) had been doing this long before. Adding a connection broker, pools, thin provisioning, etc. adds to the manageability and feature-set, but RDP and thick disks worked fine for most of our needs.

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