Akamai Aims to Help Companies Switch to Virtual Desktops

9/21/09Follow @wroush

More and more big companies are supplying their employees not with standard desktop PCs and office software, but with “virtualized desktops.” If your company has made the switch, then your desktop may still look the same, but your office programs are actually running in your company’s data center, where a server is feeding a screen image to your machine over the company’s internal network.

It’s an attractive way to provide software to people in large organizations, since centralized services are far easier to maintain and upgrade. Vendors both large (Microsoft, Citrix, VMware) and small (Virtual Computer, InstallFree) are offering systems that make desktop virtualization more manageable, and research firm Gartner predicts that at least 15 percent of professional desktop PCs will be virtualized by 2014. But if an organization is very large or is extended across the globe, it can get tricky and expensive to keep hundreds or thousands of desktop-to-data-center connections open across a private network.

Cambridge, MA-based Akamai (NASDAQ: AKAM) is proposing an alternative. Today, the company is rolling out a new service that enables desktop virtualization over the open Internet, with help from Akamai’s network of 50,000 “edge servers” around the world. The company originally built this network to smooth the delivery of multimedia content to Web audiences, but has been enhancing it over the last few years so that companies can also use it to improve the performance of Web- and Internet-based software applications. (A contract drug research company in California called Synteract, for example, uses Akamai’s network to speed up the Web-based system its researchers use to log clinical trial data.) So it’s not much of a stretch for Akamai to invite companies to route their virtual desktop traffic through Akamai’s servers as well.

“We have spent a lot of time applying our newer capabilities to browser-based applications, but we also want to accelerate other types of applications that aren’t browser-based,” says Neil Cohen, Akamai’s director of product marketing. That meant tailoring the company’s existing “IP Application Accelerator” service to work with virtual desktop management software such as Citrix’s XenDesktop, VMware View, and Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (known as MED-V).

All of these virtual desktop infrastructure products can smooth the switch to centralized desktop management—but they don’t deal with some of the inherent problems in Internet-based networking, which include bandwidth limitations and lost data packets, an annoyance that grows more serious with distance. “The farther away you get from the virtual infrastructure”—meaning, the data center where the applications are running—”the worse the performance gets,” Cohen says. Companies can cure that problem by expanding their private networks, but “if you have to build new pipes to new locations to maintain performance, it kind of defeats the point” of economizing through virtualization, Cohen points out.

By feeding their desktop traffic over Akamai’s network, Cohen says, companies can switch to a virtualized desktop infrastructure even in far-flung international offices without having to install expensive Internet lines or new networking hardware. They can also extend virtual desktops to workers who may be connecting from an airport or a home office, rather than over a company’s virtual private network. “Akamai believes there is a large opportunity to deliver high-performance virtual desktops to anyone, anywhere, anytime, rather than having them be constrained to be on their private networks,” says Cohen.

Akamai will sell the new desktop virtualization acceleration service directly to companies that are already deploying software from Citrix and other virtualization vendors. But it will also make the system available through Entisys Solutions, a Concord, CA-based reseller that works closely with Citrix. The price will depend on the number of employees using the technology, says Cohen.

Akamai is the first company to offer large enterprises a way to handle desktop virtualization purely over the Internet, Cohen says. “They now have a choice when they are thinking about investing in virtual desktop infrastructure,” he says. “They can ask ‘Am I better served deploying over the wide area network, or over the Internet with Akamai, where it’s cheaper to buy bandwidth.’”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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