I was recently offered an opportunity to speak to representatives from both Viewsonic and Userful. What interested me in this was that news had just broken that the third largest company in VDI, Ncomputing, was being bought and had just laid off the majority of its workforce. I think Ncomputing is pivotal in explaining the defects of early VDI and a good example of how not to approach both a technology and a business model. More on that in just a bit but lets work out the history of Ncomputing.
I've killed the suspense already. Yes Ncomputing sold and to its previous CEO and founder Young Song. Its interesting to note that Young Song previously was a VP at eMachines. If you aren't familiar with them they offered very low cost computers with the promise of a great experience. I say the promise because often the low end components couldn't handle the demands of much software and eMachines has become a page in business on how not to handle warranty and customer service. So Young Song began Ncomputing in 2013 and what a great idea it was.
Previously virtual desktops required you to buy a thin client (the hardware) and then have your IT staff install Citrix or VMware software. This is high end IT stuff and daunting for the home or small business user. Here's where we get into Ncomputing. Young Song saw a business opportunity, or in the words of Userful's founder Daniel Griffin, "there was a vacuum for solutions, and Ncomputing filled the vacuum." Young Song's idea was to sell the thin client hardware as well as the software to manage it. Ncomputing sold tons of thin clients with the promise that you only need one computer, a bunch of thin clients that users access attached to the computer, and a low end Ethernet network. This was especially appealing to emerging markets - places where there wasn't a lot of infrastructure to begin with. In many developed countries there was a glut of computers in businesses, many of them out of date but still in operation. So there wasn't much demand for Ncomputing's product in these developed markets.
All sounds good right? Here's where we get back to the business model. Turns out that Ncomputing was more of an entry level solution. Why? Ncomputing relied on modifying Windows system files rather than designing a stand alone solution. Every time Microsoft sent out an update on those files the Ncomputing virtual desktops would stop working. Worse, it often took up to six months for Ncomputing to put out a patch to correct the problem. What Ncomputing offered was a full cost solution - the thin client, hardware, and a promise of support after the sale, but the delivery was seriously lacking.
Recently Ncomputing laid off its staff only leaving 12 'critical' employees. Any time something like this happens it means the company is going to restructure completely. After the purchase of Ncomputing by Zero Desktop, Young Song's new company which he is the CEO of, issued a statement expressing the intent to offer a complete solution vs. concentrating on software. Anyone else a little concerned by that statement? Software was Ncomputing's biggest issue! And they never did get that right. A lot of that is attributed to the design of their thin client and how it works. It was an engineering level problem, compounded by software delays, worsened by bad customer support. Also not being compatible with gigabit networks meant that from the get go users were going to have a slow experience on these virtual desktops.
The Conference Call
I don't intend this article to be a slam session on Ncomputing or Young Song. The man is brilliant. Period. He saw a market, actually a need, and tried to fill it. But the market is evolving and so are the equipment solutions. Just like his solution got away from VMware and Citrix, which were very technical and costly, so do many of the newer solutions. I wanted to get a feel for what is emerging, what is currently happening in the market (from the viewpoint of two experts), and see why things are getting better for consumers.
I spoke with Mike Holstein, VP of New Business for Viewsonic, and Timothy Griffin, Founder and Chief Technology Officer for Userful. I've reviewed Userful's VDI software as well Viewsonic's SC-U25 VDI product. I want to get that out there so no one accuses this as a gloss session for these companies. These gentlemen were kind enough to reach out to me AFTER I reviewed their products and wanted to talk about their products but also the market in general. I think this is important because the void that Ncomputing has left needs to be filled, and Zero Desktop's acquisition of Ncomputing may not solve this issue.
For background I was curious how long Userful and Viewsonic had been working together. According to Mike Holstein "About 3 to 4 years. They had a great software solution and we have a strong supply channel." I was surprised as I had no idea that the relationship of these two companies went so far back.
Next I asked why a prospective customer should consider a VDI solution. According to Userful's Timothy Griffin, "People like a hardware and software solution. Traditional VDI with VMware and Citrix is complex and expensive." Mike Holstein from Viewsonic added, "Education budgets are stretched... this offers flexibility for education and commercial customers. Different operating systems are supported with our solution." Since we were on the subject of advantages I brought up what was different about this particular solution. According to Timothy Griffin, " Nothing on the device is centrally controlled. This is important for security...You don't have to pay for Citrix features you don't need. Userful's solution is not dependent on modifications or updates. Our Hypervisor makes no driver level changes." Mike Holstein added, "A lot of different operating systems are supported. Windows, Linux, etc. We have clients that use different operating systems in their labs."
Since Mike brought up different OS's I next asked about support for Android and other OS's. "We don't officially support those but customers are using them. If you call our support number they can't help you with unsupported operating systems but there is a lot of information out there from people who are doing it. We want to add more support in the future but right now we officially support Chrome, Windows, and Linux." explained Tim. Mike was quick to add "We have some people using the beta of Windows 10. That's going to have a lot of focus moving forward." On the subject of the future I was curious why current IT curriculum don't focus more on VDI solutions like the Viewsonic/Userful relationship provided. Mike informed me that, "There's a statistic that something like 80% of IT Administrators don't have the training to do their jobs. At any given time a huge portion of a company's IT staff is getting trained in school but yes they learn on the job." Tim added, "Our focus is easy management and easy upgrade. That's why we're the best solution for education."
I tried to direct the conversation to the future and specific products but these guys are sharp and aren't letting any information out at this time. Mike did say, "We're working on a lot of products. The SC-U25 is going to be important in North America and Latin America." with Tim adding that Userful's "Sales are strong and many distributors of Ncomputing have begun to sell our product."
Usually in a review this is where I consolidate some of my ideas. Believe it or not the call itself was about 30 minutes long. These quotes are just snippets of our conversation. What's my impression? There are lots of VDI solutions coming to market. If they follow the Ncomputing model they are going to have problems. That's obvious. If there solution is as well thought out as Userful's software and Viewsonic's hardware then that's promising. This is very good for consumers.
Ncomputing and companies who were going to follow their design and execution will have to come up with something completely different than what they did before if they intend to stay in this market. Moreover, Ncomputing's meteoric growth can't continue with the problems they've had. This leads me to believe that going forward they may simply be a brand name attached to other manufacturer's products or that Zero Desktop will use that customer base to market its products to while it redesigns the Ncomputing concept. For every tech startup that has huge success there are going to be those that fail and I can't help but wonder if it wouldn't be better to cut losses at this point at Ncomputing.
Citrix and VMware are entrenched in some environments. IT managers have to evaluate whether they're current model of technical solutions for these products is really the most productive and cost effective. As more IT employees at the small to mid level company size work with newer VDI products that looks promising for large business as these employees migrate up the food chain. Thats very promising for the future. That should free IT professionals to do more work with clients and less problem solving. It will also reduce IT staffs and costs which will be the driving force for companies. What can't be denied is that older solutions that require a very savvy IT staff will look less appealing to small and midsize companies as well as educators. We've all become accustomed to pleasurable experiences with newer OS designs on our phones and tablets and that concept of simplicity and ease of use is now something customers want across the board.