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VDI Rolling Review: MokaFive Makes Offline Virtual Desktops A Reality

VIRTUAL DESKTOP INFRASTRUCTURE
Rolling Review Kickoff
VDI lowers operating expenses while providing an extra dose of security--users can't install software, so a major attack vector is effectively closed down.
Citrix XenDesktop 3.0
Citrix XenDesktop 3.0 brings a small technology advantage to our Rolling Review of virtual desktop infrastructure products.
Ericom's WebConnect
Ericom's PowerTerm WebConnect makes a strong case for becoming a part of your VDI infrastructure.
Leostream Connection Broker
Connection Broker 6.0 is a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) product designed for organizations that have standardized on VMware ESX and VirtualCenter.
MokaFive
MokaFive creates a portable virtual machine that can run independently on any laptop or PC.
Sun Microsystems VDI 3
Sun Microsystems' new and improved virtual desktop offering, VDI 3.0.
Sychron OnDemand Desktop
OnDemand Desktop provisions and deploys VMs fast, but has a few quirks, too.
Virtual Iron 4.5 VDI
Since this review ran, Oracle says it will use the Virtual Iron suite to complement Oracle VM, its own server virtualization software. We have included this article for historical purposes.
Rolling Review: VMware Shows Agility In View 3
Since this review ran, VMware has revved View to version 4. We have included this article for historical purposes.
Wrap Up
The players in our review ran the gamut from smaller vendors that primarily act as connection brokers to brand-name server virtualization players.

VDI startup MokaFive launched in 2005. Its founders are industry veterans and Stanford Computer Science PhDs, some of whom contributed original research to the efficacy of using virtual appliances in the enterprise. While those are impressive credentials, it takes vision and execution to survive outside the walls of academia. To see if MokaFive has real-world chops, we took version 2.1 for a  spin in the InformationWeek labs.

VDI detractors cite two glaring weaknesses of the technology. The first is the need for a continuous network connection to access your virtual desktop. It's a valid concern, particularly for business people on the road. The second is the amount of back-end processing and storage resources required to host a VDI solution on an enterprise scale. Generally speaking, you'll want a dedicated 8-way server packed with RAM just to host 25-50 virtual desktops simultaneously. Those servers will start to pile up as you transition more and more users to a virtual desktop.

MokaFive addresses both issues with its approach to VDI. Instead of a virtual desktop that connects to a beefy backend server, MokaFive creates a portable virtual machine that can run independently on any laptop or PC. IT has multiple options for issuing VMs to end users: the VM can be downloaded via a Web front end from MokaFive, burned to a DVD, or loaded onto a USB stick and handed out to employees.

The MokaFive server was delivered to us as a virtual appliance for demo purposes, but it is typically packaged as a standalone installer for customers. You don't need much horsepower to run the MokaFive server, as it's really just a Web-enabled management shim that controls access, authentication and virtual desktop master image management, among other system and reporting features.

Administrators create master images using the MokaFive Creator, an authoring tool. Users launch their virtual desktops via the MokaFive Player, which is a customized version of VMware Player. In fact, the entire MokaFive Suite is a management layer piled on top of the VMware Player, but it's an impressive layer. Once administrators build their master images, they can be uploaded as PCs that aren't joined to a domain. During the image creation process, administrators use the Creator tool to create what MokaFive calls "Domain Join Packets. " These are the actual bits and bytes responsible for joining a virtual machine to a domain, and they can be created in bulk based on the amount of machines that will be deployed.

When users log in using the MokaFive Player and subscribe to a particular virtual desktop for the first time, the entire virtual desktop is downloaded to the local computer. Once downloaded, you simply hit the play button, the virtual desktop starts up, and the domain join packets are applied to the virtual machine, producing a domain-joined computer. Clearly, this process requires that users be connected to the corporate network, at least for the first time. However, once this process is complete, the virtual desktop can be used offline going forward.

MokaFive has additional capabilities that impressed us. First is the slick master image versioning. To apply software updates, you mount the master image in Creator, apply the required upgrade/patch, upload the new image to the server, and enable the new image as the new master. Once complete, all software updates, and only the updates themselves, are deployed to your users next time they connect to the network. This incremental software distribution ensures that only the deltas between master image versions are deployed. If the new master image breaks something, administrators can immediately revert to a prior version for redistribution.

The company also built sensible security controls around the remote desktops. MokaFive requires a username/password combination for users to log in to the virtual machine that contains their desktop. All the data the user enters while working in the virtual machine is contained in the VM itself. In addition, IT can remotely disable a user's access to the remote desktop in the event of employee termination. Additionally, you can wipe the desktop entirely from the employee's MokaFive player.

One downside to MokaFive is that the company's approach shifts the burden of running virtual machines from a centralized server and onto your users' laptops or desktop PCs. Users had better have at least 2GB of RAM and a hefty CPU installed to ensure a smooth ride. Additionally, every time a user turns on the PC, they also need to spin up the MokaFive VM, so they may have  to wait a minute or so before they can ultimately log in. By contrast, server-based VMs via VDI can be configured to standby, fully spun up and waiting for user connections.

Clearly, there are tradeoffs between traditional VDI and MokaFive's approach. The decision on which to choose will be based on how your user population works and whether offline access is even necessary. While you'll save on server and storage costs with MokaFive, you'll pay a little more to beef up your endpoint processing power. That said, if you're serious about VDI or desktop virtualization in general, take a peek at MokaFive. At a list price of $99/concurrent user, you might find this approach to VDI is exactly what you need.

Our Take

MokaFive

The MokaFive Suite turns traditional VDI upside down by decentralizing the distribution and management of virtual desktops.
Virtual Desktops can be downloaded for offline use or deployed on removable media. No Internet connection is required for users to mount the VM.
New software updates, security fixes, and authentication policies can be applied when the VM connects back to the corporate network.