Desktop Virtualization has become an industry of its own in the past year, and as demand for desktop virtualization technologies grows, so does the flexibility of available solutions.
ThinPoint by NetLeverage is one of the leading desktop virtualization solutions, actively gaining momentum in the past few years. I've spent a few days testing ThinPoint and truly believe it deserves your attention if you're looking for a Windows-oriented desktop virtualization solution.
There are typically two challenges for any desktop virtualization solution: how to effectively virtualize desktops while achieving the highest virtual-to-physical ratio and how to provide the best remote access experience possible. Ideally, your users shouldn't even notice the virtual nature of their desktop environments. When it comes to ThinPoint desktop virtualization, it gains advantage by providing a number of innovative solutions in the remote access space.
Desktop Virtualization with ThinPoint
ThinPoint offers a Windows-oriented desktop virtualization – it needs a Windows host and it supports only Windows-based virtual desktops at this stage. The really nice thing about ThinPoint approach is that you don't need an enterprise infrastructure to start using it: neither server-grade hardware nor server editions of Windows OS are required. In addition to this, you can access your virtual desktops from Linux clients, so if you are a Linux-based software development company, ThinPoint can help you by providing easy and fast access to centralized Windows virtual desktops.
Installation of ThinPoint can be as simple or as robust as you would like – a few clicks will get you a recommended install which will assume that the system you're installing ThinPoint on is the only desktop virtualization server you have. If you plan on a large scale virtualization deployment, the same installer can be used for custom installations which allow for dedicated licensing and connection broker servers and support multiple virtualization hosts in your environment.
Benefits of Desktop Virtualization
Desktop Virtualization may help your IT department benefit in more than one way. Here are just some of the common advantages you can expect when considering desktop virtualization.
High desktop-to-hardware system ratio – traditionally being one of the key selling points for any virtualization solution, the virtual-to-physical ratio shows you how many virtual systems you can have running on a single hardware component. Using a common desktop system as an example, you can say that it's possible to run a virtualization solution which allows you to have multiple virtual environments hosted by the same desktop PC. Done on an enterprise scale, this means that you will use powerful servers with optimized storage for hosting your virtual desktops.
- ThinPoint allows you to reach really high virtual-to-physical ratios, simply because it targets a different layer of desktop virtualization. Rather that duplicate virtual desktops, it virtualizes access to your desktop environment, thus allowing you to run dozens of virtual desktop sessions off a single component.
Streamlined deployment and maintenance of virtual desktops – almost every solution offers you a way to effectively manage your virtual environments. Compared to physical desktops, it is generally much easier to build new virtual desktops or to patch all your systems at once. Snapshot support helps you easily bring systems back to a clean state after a cycle of software installs. Antivirus solutions are easier to deploy and manage.
- With ThinPoint, streamlined deployment gets even easier – rather than automating the maintenance of each virtual desktop, you only need to take care of your desktop virtualization hosts. Secure a host once, and you can stream multiple simultaneous virtual desktops from it – all equally secure and presented to your users in exactly the same way.
Low hardware requirements for remote access clients – because your virtual desktops are hosted remotely, all the computations are done on the host side and not on your local client used to access the virtual desktop. This means that your client needs only to be powerful enough to cope with graphics output and network traffic for your remote access session (this sometimes include sound for both playback and recording). A common way to see how you can benefit from this is to compare the cost of 20 common desktop PCs to a cost of a powerful server capable of hosting 20 virtual desktops which will provide the same user experience. Generally, the more desktops you virtualize, the bigger your benefit will be.
- ThinPoint takes this approach a few steps further. If your client hardware supports it, ThinPoint client will leverage the available hardware resources to make your desktop experience even more smooth: some primitives will be rendered using local graphics processing.
Common limitations of desktop virtualization
Like any technology, desktop virtualization has its limitations. Here are just a few most common challenges you will likely come across and how ThinPoint addresses some of these challenges:
Remotely accessing your desktops is slower – with the improvements of virtualization, networking and storage technologies, this becomes less and less of a real issue, but the common perception among users is still that your virtual desktops will be slower than physical ones. The factors here are usually split into three categories: the architecture of your virtual infrastructure, the connection and hardware capabilities of your remote access clients, and the functions required and provided by your virtual desktops.
- ThinPoint has a connection broker which comes with the default installation, and you can leverage its functionality to scale your desktop virtualization solution – it is very easy to add more virtualization hosts to your infrastructure.
Access to local and remote devices is not always possible – there are certain expectations of a typical desktop in every organization. They vary from one company to another, but usually include things like ability to use USB devices on your desktop. Ranging from mobile storage to audio devices, scanners and printers, USB devices are usually found in every company. And while plugging a USB stick and expecting it to be readily available is a common thing, it isn't such a trivial feature for virtual desktops. You see, because most of your virtual desktop environment is run remotely, this means that your remote desktop client has to recognize your USB device and then transmit all the traffic to and from it back to the virtualization host.
- ThinPoint has a really clever approach to address remote access to your devices. Take printing for example: instead of having to install drivers for each printer into a virtual machine, ThinPoint adds a virtual printer to your virtual desktops, which transmits your print jobs straight to the printing devices on your physical client.
Remote access is less secure – this is a common challenge for most IT departments in the business of providing remote access to desktop environments – not only does it have to be fast and reliable, it has to be secure as well. Usernames and passwords are a common way of securing access, but with virtual desktops we have an extra layer of complexity which we have to secure – the transport layer. Because everything needs to be transferred from your local client to the virtualization host, it is vital that this transmission happens in the most secure way possible (encryption is a basic requirement these days).
- ThinPoint establishes a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections between each client and a virtual host for maximum security. The VPN tunnel uses AES 128bit encryption, which seems more than enough for the purpose of a remote desktop access. The real benefit comes in the flexibility – you don't need to know anything about your virtual host's networking to access it remotely as both the virtualization host and the client can function by accessing ThinPoint's servers on the Internet to broker connections. If you're interested in best performance or local access only, you can generate custom ThinPoint Client copies which will skip the ThinPoint servers and go straight to the LAN IPs you provide.
What I liked in ThinPoint the most
In short, I was both surprised and impressed with the ThinPoint solution. It certainly exceeded my expectations from a typical Windows desktop virtualization solution, and seemed to provide just the right balance of features and security to keep both IT department and desktop users happy.
Here's a short list of the ThinPoint's greatest features
- Simplest desktop virtualization ever – no specific requirements for hardware (indeed, you can even take a VM and make it a ThinPoint virtualization host), no post-install configuration by default, no need for network restructure or firewall changes to provide access to your virtual desktops. If you want to use the desktop virtualization solution to the fullest, you'll need to configure a parameter or two, but even these configurations are far easier than those found in many other virtualization solutions.
- ThinPoint Client – requires no installation and needs no elevated privileges to run. It's very easy to deploy, it's quick to customize and it comes with some great features like USB PnP client and document finder.
- Secure access – ThinPoint includes a flexible VPN support which is very easy to configure. Universal Client: Requires no installation or administrator permissions, easy to deploy, highly customizable, USB PnP client, document finder.
- Two-factor authentication out of the box – you use USB sticks based application (Universal Client) to access your virtual desktop, and you are also required to have a PIN selected upon your first attempt to access the remote session. You're not limited to USB sticks of course – it can be any other media, including a shared folder on your network. You can generate Universal Clients which will prompt for both username and passwords, be user-specific (only password will be prompted), or even have both username and password hardcoded – so you simply provide PIN to access your remote desktop. Client locks itself to the USB device effectively turning the USB drive to a hardware remote access token, similar to traditional smart cards.
- Universal Client printing – allows you to print from your virtual desktop to a local printer configured on your client's side. No need to reinstall drivers inside the virtual machine, and if you have different printers configured on different client desktops, they'll be automatically available when you connect to virtual desktops from these clients.
- Application publishing – only show the applications you want your users to use. If you want even more control – configure which specific users may access each published application.