SP1 for Windows 7 is further proof of what Microsoft has been saying - and the sales figures for Windows 7 have been confirming - all along. Windows 7 doesn't need the kind of service pack that XP and Vista needed. There's only one thing in SP1 beyond rollups of existing updates and a handful of hotfixes and that's support for the new version of RDP coming in Windows Server 2008 R2 - and the key feature in that, RemoteFX, is actually for thin clients rather than Windows clients anyway. Of course, sometimes a PC is also a thin client - and that could actually be a lot more interesting for many companies than pure VDI.
The virtual graphics adapter that RemoteFX delivers is an ideal way of getting a thin client box to deal with rich media and applications; you can deal with 3D texture, light and shading in a CAD package without needing to give all the users a full-power workstation.
You're still going to be spending money, because you'll need a new generation of thin clients (more likely to be based on Windows CE than Linux) that understand the new version of RDP with the RemoteFX channel in. "We did some engineering on the encoder and decoder chip that go in these boxes to accelerate the encoding decoding of the graphics," explains vice president Bill Laing, "and we’re sharing that with the industry."
Plus the GPU in the server needs to be pretty beefy to share itself around (especially as it also spends some of its time helping the CPU out by compressing the bitmaps that get send to the thin client - this is where the technology Microsoft bought as Calista has ended up). "The main limiting factor is video RAM," Justin Graham from the Windows team told us; "how much dedicated video memory you've got on the GPU. The cards we’re running today have in the neighbourhood of 4GB of video RAM." Depending on what you want to do, that might give you a virtual GPU for as few as two clients - "and people who want to do things like CAD or oil and gas visualisation are happy with two," Graham told us - or five or six for less demanding graphics. You can put in multiple GPUs or use the kind of 4-GPU blade that some server manufacturers have been building high-end rendering systems with.
It's ironic, notes Laing; "For many years I've been trying to persuade the server guys to have as cheap as possible a graphics processor." You won’t necessarily need a new server to make this work, he claims; "it depends on the scale you want to get to". But what scale might that be? Is VDI and remote desktop really going to start to eat into the Windows client market? "I don't think everyone in every industry is going to go to VDI," says Laing, "but certainly some industries and some parts of companies are going to go VDI".
Outsourcing is one obvious target, along with heavily regulated industries that need the control, and mobile workers within an organisation - like doctors (in the US, Laing says, it's not unusual for hospitals to put a laptop on a trolley so people can push it from ward to ward).
With graphics and rich media and the full interface looking like Windows 7 and USB redirection that means you can plug in a lot more devices than previously, will end users be more comfortable with something that's not actually a PC? "A personal computer means its mine," admits Laing; " that's why its got personal in front of it. Its sort of interesting because I can still customise my VDI sessions and make it mine. It's not like I'm getting some predefined thing. They can go to different machines to get the same experience. As people realise the benefits, I think you can change the attitude of people; they want to get their environment wherever they are."
As is the Microsoft way, Laing is eating his own dogfood. "My desktop today is now a thin client. I'm pretty hard to please in my desktop experience and I'm happy; it really is a rich experience. I have folder redirection from my desktop; my desktop is a display and my folders are redirected from my virtual machine. I also have a laptop so when I have folder redirection on my laptop it will ultimately be replicated to my laptop, I have client side caching in both these environments."
That kind of combination might be the future of VDI; with so many mobile workers and so few thin-client laptop replacements (and with the affordable, fast ubiquitous wireless network still some way off) mobile workers who go further than another department are going to need both client virtualisation and Windows client for quite some time.