Virtual Desktop Review: NComputing M300 Virtual Desktop Kit

Thursday Mar 29th 2012 by Joseph Moran
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This thin client kit puts capable and easy-to-manage virtual desktops on three people's desks for much less than the price of individual PCs.

Resource-constrained small businesses often flinch when pondering the cost of new computers. After all, the outlay for each new system ultimately encompasses not only the upfront price tag of the hardware and software, but cost of deployment as well as ongoing support and maintenance.

NComputing's M300 Virtual Desktop Kit ($549 MSRP) aims to offer small businesses a simple and cost-effective way to put computers on three employees' desks. It does so through a combination of desktop virtualization (via Windows Remote Desktop feature) and thin client hardware rather than full-fledged PCs.

What the Virtual Desktop Kit Includes

NComputing's M300 Virtual Desktop Kit comes with the company's vSpace server software, which runs on Windows 2008 Server R2 SP1 or Windows Multipoint Server 2011 (we tested using the former, and Ncomputing says Linux support is due in Q2 2012). VSpace can run directly within one of the aforementioned operating systems, or from inside a virtual machine running one of them (which is how we tested it).

The M300 kit provides a trio of client hardware devices -- one large, and two small. (Actually, they're all quite small -- the large unit has a miniscule 6.3- x 4.7- x 1.4-inch footprint, while the other two are tinier still.) The large device connects to the vSpace host server via Ethernet, while the two smaller devices directly connect to the larger unit with CAT 5 cable.

NComputing's M300 Virtual Desktop Kit.

NComputing's M300 Virtual Desktop Kit includes three thin client devices; a main unit and two satellite units

There's about a 16 foot (5 meter) cable length limit between the large and small units, so while the large unit can be as far as 328 feet (100 meters) from the server (Ethernet's standard maximum length), the three units must be in fairly close proximity. It's worth noting only the larger unit needs to be plugged into AC power; the smaller units get their juice from the CAT 5 connection. As a result, the M300 devices collectively consume a minimal amount of power relative to a PC; NComputing says 6 watts is typical.

All three client devices offer a standard compliment of I/O ports -- on the back, a pair of USB 1.1 ports for keyboard and mouse and DB-15 VGA for a monitor connection, while microphone and headphone audio outputs reside on the front. The clients also sport an additional USB 2.0 port up front to accommodate devices other than a keyboard and mouse -- e.g. a Flash drive or printer (alas, webcams aren't supported). However, to enable these ports on the small devices you need to create an additional link between the small units and the large one with standard USB A/B cables.

Virtual Desktop Setup and Use

To test the M300, we installed the vSpace software onto a Windows 2008 Server R2 SP1 virtual machine running within Citrix XenServer on a quad-core 2.9 GHz AMD Phenom II system with 16 GB of RAM, connected to the network via 100 Mbps Ethernet. The vSpace VM was configured to use four virtual CPUs and 8 GB of RAM.

Getting vSpace up and running was a straightforward wizard-based process and took only a few minutes. We spent a few more minutes ensuring that the built-in Windows Firewall allowed a handful of vSpace applications to run and permitted access to about a dozen necessary TCP and UDP ports, and that our user accounts were members of the Remote Desktop Users group so they'd be able to log into virtual desktops from the M300.

We were able to set up all the M300 client devices (which generate no noise and negligible heat since they lack fans and hard drives) in the five minutes or so it took the vSpace server to restart. (The M300 requires you to supply your own keyboard, mouse, and Ethernet and USB cables, by the way.) Upon powering up, the clients greeted us with a vSpace logon screen, but we initially found the keyboards we had connected were unresponsive.

It turned out that the keyboards (salvaged from circa-2005 Dell desktops) were harboring built-in USB hubs which rendered them incompatible with the M300's USB 1.1 ports. Swapping out the keyboards for more recent hub-less models solved the problem.

Each of the clients offered a responsive Windows virtual desktop from which we were able to comfortably browse the Web, run Microsoft Office applications, and perform other workaday computing tasks. All three clients recognized a USB storage device plugged into the front port without any problems, and all were able to concurrently play HD (720p) video, both from the local network and online sources such as YouTube (though there were occasional and brief interludes where audio/video streaming bogged down slightly).

All in all, there was little about the M300 computing experience that would lead typical office workers to think they were using anything other than a standard PC. NComputing credits the M300's performance to a custom Numo2 SoC (System on a Chip) which it says is designed to offload processing from the server and which incorporates provides three graphics and video controllers so each client gets dedicated rendering resources.

Clients are limited to a maximum display resolution of 1,440 x 900, which is set on the large client or the vSpace server and applies to all three devices. Other customizable device options include network configuration settings and automatic account logon.

NComputing says that a single vSpace server can accommodate between nine and 100 users depending on how the server is outfitted and what kind of workload the clients need to perform, as well as whether they need to handle 480p or 720p video. (See more details on performance considerations.)

One thing you don't get to customize much with the M300 is the user environment, because all users work off the same instance of the operating system on the server. By contrast, Citrix's VDI-in-a-Box, lets you set up operating system VMs and templates with applications and settings customized for particular individuals or groups. On the other hand, unlike VDI-in-a-Box the M300 doesn't burden you with having to create and maintain distinct OS images.

M300 Virtual Desktop Kit Pricing

The M300 kit's street price of roughly $400 works out to $133 per client, and adding in the cost of the required Windows Server and Remote Desktop Services CALs (Client Access Licenses) for each one -- around $30 and $75 respectively -- brings the per-user price to $240 or so. (Microsoft licenses may cost less depending on the type and quantity purchased). Of note, the vSpace software doesn't carry any ongoing subscription or maintenance charges.

Of course, this $240 figure doesn't include the cost of the server to run the vSpace software, a monitor, keyboard, and mouse for each client, or any of the ancillary cabling. But, even after accounting for these costs (many firms may already have much of this stuff on hand), the M300's per-user cost should easily come in well under that of a standard PC.

Conclusion

The M300's cabling limitations make it better suited to a cubicle farm than a row of offices, and it won't provide the horsepower required for demanding applications. But small businesses that want to deploy a number of low-cost, low-power consumption, and low-maintenance virtual desktops for standard office tasks would do well to give NComputing's M300 Virtual Desktop Kit a close look.

Price: $549 (MSRP)

Pros: considerably lower cost per seat than full-fledged PCs, plus simpler deployment and management; very good performance for general office tasks and HD video playback

Cons: cabling restrictions limit physical placement of some devices; limited per-user customization

Joseph Moran is a longtime technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7 from Friends of Ed.

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