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Red Hat heads back to the desktop with SPICE


Red Hat is the number one Linux company, but they haven’t been interested in the Linux desktop for years. With the open-sourcing of SPICE (Simple Protocol for Independent Computing Environment), that’s changing.

SPICE, like Microsoft’s RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) and Citrix’s ICA (Independent Computing Architecture), is a desktop presentation services protocol. They’re used for thin-client desktops, and SPICE will be too. In 2010, you can count on Red Hat returning to the Linux desktop.

But they won’t be doing it as a competitor to traditional desktops like Ubuntu 9.10 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 found its riches.

On the server side, SPICE depends on KVM (Kernel Virtual Machine) for its horsepower. Guess what virtualization software Red Hat focuses on? 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? I think so, and Red Hat thinks the same way.

A few months back, I asked Red Hat CTO Brian Stevens if Red Hat was going back to the desktop. "Yes, Red Hat will indeed be pushing the Linux desktop again" with KVM, he told me.

The open-sourcing of SPICE is a step in that direction. Indeed, by the time Red Hat bought Qumranet, the company that was behind both KVM and SPICE, Qumranet had already released a complete KVM/SPICE virtualization program, Solid ICE).

Red Hat hasn’t announced a re-release of a now completely open source-based Solid ICE, but that’s only a matter of time. It’s the next step, and it will be a smart one.

I say that because, unlike RDP, ICA or Unix/Linux’s VNC (Virtual Network Computing), SPICE isn’t a "screen-scraper." With these protocols, the server has to do all the heavy lifting of rendering the graphics. But with Solid ICE and SPICE, each SPICE session can access local system resources. In other words, a SPICE Linux virtual desktop user can use their PC’s graphics. This means SPICE users get close to stand-alone desktop video performance and at the same time the servers aren’t being overloaded.

As Stevens explained in a statement about the open-sourcing of SPICE: "The SPICE protocol is designed to optimize performance by automatically adapting to the graphics and communications environment that it is running in, so vendors have a terrific opportunity to enhance it for their specific applications."

What all that means for you is that, some time in 2010, you can expect to see the release of Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization for Desktops. I expect to see it arrive sometime before another thin client-like take on the Linux desktop, namely Google’s Chrome OS, arrives.

As I’ve said before, we’re in for some interesting time in 2010 with desktop operating systems.

A version of this story first appeared in ComputerWorld.