Red Hat's Future Linux Desktop

After years of steering away from the Linux desktop, in 2012, Red Hat will fully support a virtual desktop infrastructure.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

San Francisco--Red Hat is the strongest Linux company in the world when it comes to servers, but it has almost no presence on the desktop. That will be changing in 2012 with the reintroduction of a Simple Protocol for Independent Computing Environments (SPICE)-based virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

It's not that Red Hat has ever completely done away with the Linux desktop. The Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop is still available, but in the big scheme of Red Hat's business, the desktop counts for little. That may be changing though as Red Hat gets ready to explore a server-based VDI thin-client desktop.

This revised desktop will use SPICE, which like Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) and Citrix's Independent Computing Architecture (ICA), is a desktop presentation services protocol. The point of these programs is to let the servers do the heavy lifting while a thin-client gives the user the illusion of a full fat-client desktop.

This desktop won't be a competitor to traditional desktops like the forthcoming Ubuntu 11.04 or Windows 7. Thin clients are meant for corporate desktops, like those in a company where Red Hat is already powering the servers. Remember, it's in Linux servers, not desktops, that Red Hat has made its riches.

On the server side, SPICE depends on KVM (Kernel Virtual Machine) for its horsepower. Guess what Red Hat's favorite virtualization platform is these days? That would be KVM. So if you have a company that's already invested in Red Hat on the servers, wouldn't it make sense to offer them a complementary Linux desktop option as well? And perhaps sell a few more server licenses along the way? That makes good business sense to me and it fits into Red Hat's existing business plans.

Red Hat has explored the SPICE-based VDI idea earlier, but put it on the back-burner when they discovered that SPICE was filled with proprietary code. While Red Hat open-sourced that they could of SPICE it ended up losing most of its speed.

Worse still, as a Red Hat architect, explained to me at the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit in San Francisco, the server side of Red Hat's SPICE, Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Manager (RHVM PDF Link), runs on Windows server.


Yes, that's right. A major Linux program required Windows to work. That, as you might expect is one reason why Red Hat hasn't been pushing either RHVM or a SPICE-based desktop. As the Red Hat employee said, "Customers would ask us about it, and when we said, 'It requires Windows Server;' they'd say, 'You've got to be kidding.' And, that was that."

This is changing, albeit slowly. First, Red Hat has to "remove the Windows bug" from RHVM as the Red Hat staffer put it. The next version of RHVM 3.0, which will appear either late this year or early next year, will be a purely Linux-driven server application. Its Active Server Page (ASP) components will be replaced by Java equivalents.

In addition, he said that Red Hat is working hard on getting SPICE back to its former speed. "Open-source SPICE is now at about to 80% of the propritary version's speed and we hope to have it to 100% by the Fedora 15 release." Fedora 15 is now scheduled to appear on May 24th. For Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) users, you can expect to see full-speed SPICE in RHEL 6.2.

Put it all together and what it means is that you can expect to see a full Red Hat Linux VDI desktop in early 2012. Will it replace fat-client desktops? No, Red Hat doesn't expect that it will. But, as he said, "It's a tactical fix for a tactical problem" for some businesses' desktops.

I, for one, will be interested in seeing it. While I don't see myself using a thin-client desktop, it's all the desktop many business staffers need. I can see companies that have already standardized on RHEL for their servers seeing this as a very natural, and cost-effective, extension of Linux to their line-of-work desktop users.

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