Skating on Solid ICE Desktop Virtualization
One of the most popular IT topics of late is virtualization. After all, virtual machines can help reduce the footprint of the data center and leverage processing power that would otherwise go unused. But the topic of virtualization has been rather one-sided, with everyone focusing on what the technology means to the server and the data center.
Qumranet is aiming to shift the conversation from the needs of the network to the needs of the user (and desktop administrator) with Solid ICE V4.1, a virtualization product based upon the KVM (Kernel-based Virtualization Machine) standard, which aims to virtualize desktop sessions.
In the simplest terms, Solid ICE offers remote PCs access to virtual desktops via a Web browser. The product is installed on a dedicated server running a Linux OS and then an administrator creates virtual PCs using the desktop operating systems and applications of his or her choice. Users then access those sessions via a compatible browser and have complete access to a virtual PC.
The advantages to that approach are many. Administrators have complete control of the desktop configuration and can easily "clone" configurations, deliver sessions on demand and back up user desktops much more easily than ever before.
With virtualized PCs, administrators no longer have to worry about maintaining the hardware and software of the actual client PC, as all the client PC needs is access to the network and a compatible browser. The benefits of the technology go on and on and should make both the bean counters and IT support staff happy campers.
There are some down sides, though. First off, the server has to be a hearty and powerful machine, with plenty of processing power and RAM, along with ample storage. That can make the server a very expensive piece of equipment (for our low-cost alternative, see "How to Build an Affordable Virtualization Server"). Secondly, users must have a persistent connection to the server to access their desktops. That limits use by remote or traveling users. Lastly, there is a significant performance penalty when running a virtual PC: While most lines of business applications and office suites will run fine, those looking to edit video or run CAD applications will want to avoid the virtual PC route.
Solid ICE takes part of its name from the acronym ICE, which stands for Independent Computing Environment, a technological description that promotes the hosting of desktops in KVM virtual machines on servers in the corporate data center, and allows users to connect to them via a remote protocol called SPICE (Simple Protocol for Independent Computing Environments). KVM is an open-source hypervisor project using technology that Qumranet created, maintains and sponsors.
Solid ICE delivers the ideology of ICE via the SPICE protocol using KVM as the enabler for desktop virtualization via TCP/IP. What's important to notice here is the open-source status of KVM, a virtualization technology that has enticed the likes of Ubuntu to adopt it as a standard virtualization solution.The primary components of Solid ICE include a VDS (Virtual Desktop Server), VDC (Virtual Desktop Controller) and SPICE.
Benefits for the enterprise of deploying Solid ICE:
· Centralized management
· Reduced desk-side visits
· High availability
· Robust desktop image management capabilities
· Access to a fully functional enterprise desktop from anywhere
· Significantly reduced downtime
· Multiple desktops on demand
· Computing power on demand
Getting started with Solid ICE can be a major undertaking. First off, an appropriate server will be needed (please see our test configuration). It is important to provide ample processing power and RAM for Solid ICE to be used effectively. Server sizing should be based upon the number of concurrent virtualized PCs supported, the guest operating systems used and the desktop applications offered. With the low cost of hardware today, it is better to "overbuild" a server than to try to cut corners to meet the minimum needs.
Currently, Solid ICE V4.1 is designed to run on the CentOS operating system, a Linux distribution that is geared toward the server market. Currently, only Version 5 of CentOS is supported (support for V5.1 and 5.2 is slated for the near future). As Qumranet does not offer CentOS5, installers will have to download the seven installation CD images (or a single DVD image) from CentOS.org or one of the distribution's companion sites. After creating the installation media for CentOS, administrators will have to install it on the selected server. Luckily, after the hassles of getting the CentOS distribution, the installation of CentOS is rather straightforward.
Qumranet should offer detailed instructions for installing and configuring the operating system, as currently that chore is left to the gut feeling of the administrator and there are several installation options (such as firewall and services settings) that could have an impact on how well (and how securely) a deployment of the product goes. The company does offer a quick-installation PDF to guide the network operating system installation, but the document is based on a static implementation of the network operating system and does not offer any guidance for those looking to integrate the CentOS server into an existing network infrastructure.
Set aside an hour or more to get CentOS installed and running. After the installation of the operating system, next comes a torturous process of manually configuring many of the network elements, such as Ethernet bridging and IP configuration. A configuration wizard would be a nice touch and probably would eliminate much of the irritation caused by using cryptic editors and manual tools to set up the basic elements needed.
There are a few other requirements for the product, such as access to an external NFS (Network File System) server for the image repository, although with today's large-capacity hard drives and the speed of local storage, an NFS server should be an option and not a requirement.
The VDC server portion of the product needs to be installed on a Windows 2003 Server; support for Server 2008 is not referenced in the install documentation. The VDC Server needs to have the complete .NET Framework and most of the application server components installed. The company also recommends that the Windows Power Shell 1.0 utility be installed, along with the latest service packs and updates.
Luckily, the installation of the VDC server is not complicated and is wizard-driven. The next phases of installation are completed using the VDC server console and consist of defining several core settings, such as NFS mounts, MAC (media access control) address ranges, NTP (Network Time Protocol) servers, domains and a laundry list of other minor tweaks and changes.
While installation of the product can prove to be stressful and somewhat unguided, the tips and documentation provided should enable an advanced administrator to correctly install the product without the need for additional support. Knowledge of both Linux and Windows Server is critical to effectively install the product. Installation overhead and management complexity of Solid ICE may scare off quite a few would-be adopters, and the product does lack the polish of other virtualization technologies, such as VMware's offerings, Citrix Systems' products and even Microsoft's Hyper-V. Although those products are aimed at the server virtualization market, most users have come to expect quick-start wizards and that level of integrated installation support to be incorporated into any virtualization product. Luckily for Qumranet, the pain of installation seems to be worth it.
Creating and using virtual PCs is accomplished using the VDC console. Virtual PCs are based upon easy-to-understand templates that define the basics of the virtual PC. To make most of this happen, administrators use the configuration tool, which can also create a template that houses the virtual hardware settings of the virtual PC. Creating a new virtual desktop can be done from an operating system CD or, better yet, an ISO image. What's more, administrators can use PXE (Preboot Execution Environment) boot to launch the virtual PC operating system setup. That comes in handy for sites where PXE was used to deploy physical PCs throughout the enterprise.
All of the Virtual PC setup takes place using a "run once" option under the virtual machine. The quick-start guide offers a step-by-step configuration methodology for getting a Virtual PC up and running, although the instructions are focused on Windows XP. For the most part, the desktop OS setup follows the Windows standard procedure. Once basic installation is completed, the Qumranet tools will have to be installed, enabling graphics beyond VGA and access to other virtual capabilities.
The idea with the first install is to get a default windows XP implementation in place and then install the appropriate applications for the users. Once that is accomplished, administrators can use Microsoft sysprep to create a master image that can be used to build more virtual desktops. Administrators also have the ability to create "snapshots" of an active desktop that can be used to preserve or back up partially configured virtual desktops, allowing a rollback to a previous state if any configuration problems are encountered. Once all of the basic setup chores are completed and the Qumranet tools are installed, administrators can finalize the template with the sysprep command. Templates are then used to create new virtual desktops for users.
Once the appropriate desktops are created, administrators then can assign those desktops to users. That process is accomplished using the "manage users" applet. Users can be found using wild cards or by scrolling through a list of users. Once assigned, a user will be associated with a particular desktop until reassigned.
For a user to connect to a desktop, that user must launch a browser and log in to the Solid ICE system. The user then can select the assigned desktop and launch a virtual PC session using either SPICE or RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol). For users on the local subnet, operation of the virtual desktop proves to be fast and intuitive. Most users will have trouble distinguishing a virtual PC from a local desktop PC.
While setup and administration of Solid ICE can be frustrating and complex, most who put the effort into the deployment will find it all worth it in the end. With some polish and perhaps some reduced system requirements, Solid ICE could become the product of choice when it comes to providing virtual desktops to users. Those considering using Microsoft's terminal services or Citrix-based solutions will want to take a long hard look at what Qumranet has to offer before making a final decision. As it stands now, Solid ICE can only get better and will evolve to include many of the must-have features that administrators are looking for today.