Blog Post

Coming Soon: PC-as-a-Service over Broadband

Broadband service providers are looking to add higher-value services to their offerings, services that could soon include a virtual desktop for consumers. Indeed, the idea of a service provider offering a PC as a Service (PCaaS), essentially a PC in the cloud, may be coming to your broadband connection sooner than you might think. Here is how a virtual desktop would work: You’d have an access device at your location, called a thin client, which would connect your keyboard, video screen and mouse (KVM) to the service provider’s broadband network. (For more detail on thin clients, see Stacey’s recent post.)

The thin client could be a hardware device or it could be a piece of software running on your current PC. In either implementation, the thin client sends all of your KVM data from your location to a server hosted in the service provider’s network. All PC functions and applications would be running on the server in the network and the only data going between your location and the server would be KVM information.

That is the major benefit of a virtual desktop: All operating system files, applications, documents, security software and so on are located on the server. All you need at your location is the thin client and you get access to your full desktop. These benefits, however, also highlight the main drawback of a virtual desktop: lack of portability. Moving your data from one virtual desktop to another may not be a trivial task and some applications may not be portable into a virtual desktop at all.

The technology to offer a virtual desktop has been around for a number of years. Companies such as Citrix, VMware, Microsoft and others already provide software to virtualize user desktops and connect to thin clients. The main issue with these offerings has been their performance relative to local computers. I, for example, was subjected to the horrors of using a software-based thin client connected to a server in a remote location, and the performance was abysmal at best.

But two fundamental technologies that may solve the virtual desktop performance issues already exist. The first is the proliferation of broadband Internet. Using a thin client to connect to a remote virtual desktop server over a multimegabit link that is within the same metropolitan area can provide reasonable performance. The second technology is KVM enhanced by hardware. Companies such as Teradici and Pano Logic provide hardware acceleration and compression for the KVM data passing from a thin client to the server — to the point where the performance difference between a local computer desktop and a virtual desktop is nearly indistinguishable. Using these technologies, the performance of the virtual desktop could even provide a graphics-intensive experience, such as playing a 1080p HD movie in one window and playing an action-packed game in another.

Assuming that the technologies exist to enable service providers to offer virtual desktops for consumers, from a business perspective, PCaaS has numerous appealing qualities. Broadband customers that use a virtual desktop will more than likely pay for a higher-bandwidth broadband service. Given the portability issues around virtual desktops, this also provides a clever mechanism to lock the consumer onto a specific network, which would ostensibly result in lower churn. I can also envision different product bundles for consumer-focused virtual desktops: a basic desktop with a browser only, an enterprise desktop with Microsoft Office applications enabled and a gaming/HD desktop that comes bundled with a hardware-based thin client branded by the service provider (Here’s your AT&T desktop access device!). Additional options could be storage space, accessibility options (Do you want to access your desktop from any TV and your mobile phone? Please pay us $5 more per month) or peripheral device support (such as printers and webcams).

One question that needs to be answered is how service providers could offer virtual desktops in conjunction with their metered bandwidth services. If I am sending lots of KVM data to a virtual desktop hosted by my service provider, you can be darned sure I don’t want be billed on a bandwidth meter.

But perhaps the biggest unknown around the PCaaS business is the user support that would be required. Service provider support organizations are better known for frustrating their users than helping them. Extending these support organizations to answer a myriad of desktop, application and device peripheral issues might be too much for them. An alternative may be for service providers to outsource the application and peripheral support to someone like Microsoft, similar to today’s relationship between MSN and Qwest. [digg=]

With all of this to consider, are you ready to give up the hassles of managing your own desktop for a virtual desktop run by your service provider?

29 Responses to “Coming Soon: PC-as-a-Service over Broadband”

  1. I agree with Chris White!
    “There’s a lot of issues out there regarding the internet privacy and ISPs. With that in mind I don’t myself putting faith in the level of privacy in putting a majority of my desktop contents on an ISPs server. Contemplating it more, by having a KVM system of sorts, you’ve essentially got yourself a keylogger. You thought ISPs randomly sniffing ports was bad, now they could see what you’re typing!”

  2. John Stewart

    Spitballing here… it seems the germane argument against is the data in the cloud (privacy, storage, etc)… what happens if PCaaS turns into a hybrid, whereby the data is in your physical environment but the OS etc are all in “theirs?”

    The advantages could conceivably be, you don’t have to maintain the computer (upgrade it, add to it, “secure” it, etc) and yet the data you’re worried about is still at the house – perhaps with a nice ‘net based encrypted backup. Also might allow you to seemlessly “upgrade” to the next OS, or app, if done really well. Data migration then becomes the only issue I imagine.

    Even w/mobile devices, if you connect to the cloud, get the PC service, the PC service links to your house for the data and you get the combined result on the rendering mobile device….

    Agreed on the bandwidth reliability and capacity and metering… but if video can go across the ‘net, why can’t read/writes? ;)

  3. @Niraj – fair enough. I think it’s still enabled by default and does not encrypt your index during transmission unless you set your preferences properly. I don’t really know as after I read the user agreement for Google Desktop I quickly canceled the installation process ;)

    I also agree about the non-availability of data when disconnected being an issue. But, if we project out a few years and consider that many folks will have a mobile device that could be nearly always connected and provide limited desktop access, then this may not be an issue. I’d point out that anyone using, gmail, hotmail, facebook or any other web services have the same issue.

  4. @Allan: Google Desktop only puts your local index in the cloud if you use their “Share across computers” feature:

    I’d say the biggest issues with PC-as-a-service are being completely disconnected from your apps/files during internet downtime, privacy issues regarding having all your files stored in the cloud, and being limited on the kinds of apps you can run (there would inevitably be limitations on CPU usage, GPU usage, bandwidth usage, etc. when machines are sharing resources for multiple users)

  5. @Darren Mar-Elia – I’m not suggesting that PC would run minimal software but that a thin client offered by a service provider to the consumer would be running very limited software – maybe a browser and an RDP/ICA client only. The solutions I have seen demonstrated did allow an amazing wealth of application to run in a remote virtual desktop, so my guess is that for the average consumer there may be a good solution here. Next, I am thinking that running Windows in the cloud would allow for each desktop to be behind a firewall, have the right AV and anti-spam software etc. I think the potential consistency of this solution would be a security bonus. Finally, I’m pretty sure you’re not doing this, but if anyone is running Google Desktop then all of the data on their hard disk is in the cloud. If you’re using Windows Office Live or Google Docs then that’s the same thing for that data as well.

  6. Allan-
    I don’t know too many consumer PCs that run minimal software. I think the norm is just a ton of stuff doing all kinds of stuff. Also, not sure why Windows running in the cloud would be any more secure than Windows running on my PC. Regarding data privacy–email is but one application. I would NEVER, EVER consider putting all of the data that I have on my PC today in the cloud. Never, ever. I will check out the vendors you mentioned on performance.

  7. How about the Wii turning into a cloud computing device it has the potential to be one or could Nintendo provide the Wii Experience as a service and license the hardware like the remote to TV and device manufactures.

    The Next Wii Peripherals might be a Innovative Keyboard and Mouse :P

  8. @Ash – good point and scary :)

    @Chris White – there are lots of ways both service providers and websites can gain access to nearly anything being entered onto a keyboard or sent via the Internet. While I agree that virtual desktops can enable even more of these issues, I’m well past believing that anything on the Internet has any semblance of privacy.

    @Darren Mar-Elia – I see your point about the home device, but if it runs minimal software, requires seconds to boot and is very secure then that would be a good alternative for many consumers. Concerning having your data in the cloud – your same point holds true for any web-based email or social network data and we should all be well aware that privacy on the Internet does not exist. On the performance issue, you should check out the companies I mentioned – you can really get some stunning results using hardware acceleration and a virtual desktop. And you are right on the adoption rates for virtual desktops for the corporate user, I believe that is where companies like Citrix are making some good revenue today.

    @Brett Johnson – maybe in 8 years I’ll be commenting on a blog post using a thin client and virtual desktop delivered by my service provider :)

  9. Wow, I did a small venture with Sun Micro in 1999 about this with their Sun Rays. The main problem for us back than was the WiFi and connectivity. Today this can work, but mainly for offices and government offices. They also need E2.0 on top of the browser and they are set. Blogtronix can help ;)

  10. Allan-
    I think PCaaS (will come, but I don’t see consumers being the first market for this. As a consumer, if I still need to have some ‘device’ on my home network, it doesn’t make much sense that that device is not a PC. I mean, the price differences these days are not worth the limitations that VDaaS will likely come with, including:

    –performance issues for video and other high-bandwidth apps
    –having my data “somewhere in the cloud”. Privacy-wise, no thanks.
    –likely lack of portability, as you mention
    –limitation on what apps I can run.
    –configuration customization limitations

    for these and other reasons, the general consumer is the worst choice for this type of offering because they represent users that want to do practically everything with their PC.

    Alternatively, providing this service for task-based corporate users seems a more likely scenario, where providers can contract with companies to provide the ‘corporate image’ and standard apps, thus removing the need for the corporation to have to provide a remote access infrastructure. Still, I will remain skeptical that performance is yet at a point where the PC in the cloud can cope with modern desktop usage patterns. We’ll see…

  11. Chris White

    There’s a lot of issues out there regarding the internet privacy and ISPs. With that in mind I don’t myself putting faith in the level of privacy in putting a majority of my desktop contents on an ISPs server. Contemplating it more, by having a KVM system of sorts, you’ve essentially got yourself a keylogger. You thought ISPs randomly sniffing ports was bad, now they could see what you’re typing!

  12. Not a chance in hell. Can’t work on my virtual PC on a plane or a beach. You’ve used a hotel internet connection, it’s garbage.

    Not to mention Time Warner has the hardest time keeping a constant level of service and quality.

    You’re going to see synchronization services first anyways. MobileMe, Microsoft Mesh, etc. If and when broadband ever approaches the bandwidth of, say, a USB harddrive, then PCaaS makes no sense since your data is in the cloud and you can pull it down wherever you want, whenever you want, work with it disconnected and sync when you’re back in the real world.

    I think, anyways.