Citrix Rides A Wave Of Virtualization Success

Windows server virtualization pop

"Channel metrics are solid, early customer wins are beginning and we are on track," Citrix CEO Mark Templeton told financial analysts in April, talking about his company's earnings and future plans. Citrix is pushing its virtualization solutions harder than ever. With the just-released XenDesktop beta, the imminent release of the revamped XenApp, new partnerships with computer makers Hewlett-Packard and Dell, Templeton may be holding a strong hand of cards.

But the very solution providers Citrix needs to recruit to compete with powerhouses like Microsoft and VMware say the company has very specific and necessary tasks to accomplish to win them over. Some of those are in Citrix's control, others, however, may not be.

Many of the more than 5,500 Citrix VARs appear to be solidly behind their vendor partner.

"I think Citrix has been very strong in terms of working with the channel and keeping the channel going," said Myron Bari, president and CEO of IPM, a New York-based Citrix Platinum partner. "We're both learning from each other. The most important thing is that it's always been a channel company. If they continue, I think the resellers of the world will migrate to it."

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Those other VARs that Citrix wants to recruit for its mission may not be as convinced that the vendor has both the needed technology and channel commitment to put it all together.

"Two things hold us back" from partnering with Citrix, said Ken Smith, president of Software Technology Concepts, Erie, Pa. "One: The guts of my (customers') businesses revolve around ERP software. And they use the VMware platform in a lot of cases for what they are doing. The Microsoft virtual machine is now going to be part of the (Server 2008) operating system, so that makes it a big challenge."

To overcome the obstacle of stiff competition, Smith said, Citrix needs to hit a home run on the second task: Bring to market game-changing technology. "Unless they come up with a paradigm shift, it's going to be tough for us to align with them as vendors," Smith said.

Citrix executives, though, exude confidence that they are doing exactly that. So the CRN Test Center decided to examine some of the new Citrix technology up close. What we found is some real promise, but also potential pitfalls.

Next: Pieces Of The Puzzle Pieces Of The Puzzle
XenDesktop: The Test Center reviewed the XenDesktop. It's bundled with XenServer, Provisioning Server and Xen Desktop Delivery Controller. The setup consists of deploying two physical servers. Server No. 1 runs the Infrastructure: XenServer with three virtual machines—a domain controller, the Xen Desktop Delivery Controller and the Provisioning server. Server No. 2 also runs XenServer and stores the OS virtual machines to be streamed.

Provisioning Server provides the streaming of the OS to clients. Performance is enhanced with the ICA protocol—a thin, remote viewing protocol that allows for SpeedScreen Progressive Display, which makes fast screen rendering.

The total cost of ownership potential with XenDesktop could be huge; "greater user density per hardware platform" is how one Citrix executive phrased it. It could be a compelling discussion between a VAR and a customer.

Deployment of XenDesktop is quite straightforward. Requirements include a minimum of 8 GB of memory and a virtualization-capable processor like AMD-V or Intel VT.

It's not yet plug-and-play on all hardware, though. Test Center reviewers attempted to install XenDesktop beta on a Dell PowerEdge T105 with a dual-core Opteron and 8 GB of memory. During installation of the XenServer portion, the install process stalled out, unable to continue reading off the optical drive.

Citrix reviewers confirmed they were aware of this issue regarding this specific Dell server and the beta release of XenDesktop, and that it will be addressed with the upcoming RC release of XenDesktop, they said.

XenDesktop integrates with Active Directory. From AD, an administrator can control what applications a user can run on a VM, and can define user permissions.

The fact that a user is connected virtually is undetectable by the user. The virtualized OS has a "disconnect" button that will keep the desktop environment in the same state when the user reconnects. If a user has a spreadsheet open, for example, that file will remain open upon reconnection when the disconnect button is used. This version of XenDesktop also supports thumb drives, which appear as network drives. For printing, the VM uses the printer driver of a locally defined system; if that driver is not available, then the system will use a universal printer driver.

Simon Crosby, Citrix's chief technology officer, offered the benefits of desktop virtualization; among them are having centralized hard disks in a data center, better desktop security, easier management of compliance policies and easier maintenance of backups. With desktop virtualization, "the desktop device becomes thinner; applications are streamed from the datacenter," he added. An additional advantage he explained is that with virtualization of the desktop, multiple operating systems do not have to be maintained.

XenApp: Formerly Presentation Server, Citrix will release a revised version of XenApp this summer. The company did not have a beta release ready for a hands-on review. However, they did share some of the new features. One of the major enhancements is the capability of new XenApp to work with Microsoft's Windows Server 2008. The software went through a refactoring process to take advantage of the security and reliability of 2008. An additional new feature—streamed applications—can be accessed when a user is offline, a benefit for mobile users. There are two components to this technology: an isolated environment on the client, and an application stored inside that environment. The application can be executed whenever a user wants, and wherever that user is located. Applications do not have to be installed. Any updates to the application can be done remotely, without user intervention.

This will take application virtualization to new heights and potentially wipe out significant overhead from an enterprise. Countless hours of configuration, PC by PC, notebook by notebook, would simply go away.

Citrix and Hewlett-Packard Integrated Products: Citrix also has worked with HP to provide a thin client that can handle workhorse machines like CAD stations. HP's Blade PCs will support XenDesktop as of May this year.

The Test Center also took a look at HP's Select Server—a jointly developed server by Citrix and HP, with XenServer 4.1 integrated. This is a beefy server—with 4-way, dual-core AMD Opteron 2.6-Ghz processors and 8 GB of memory.

The server comes with a graphical interface, which allows for a very easy setup of XenServer. Once configured, virtual machines are set up via the HP Proliant Virtual Console. The interface also includes a system console for Linux commands. But there may be some quirks like one we found in a beta unit we examined in the Test Center lab. For example, when defining an installation source to create new virtual machines, the virtual console wouldn't recognize a USB CD-ROM mounted in Linux. While this may be just a quirk in the beta unit, it did eat up several hours of testing time in the Test Center lab and could easily stall a solution provider trying to roll it out for a customer. If that becomes a nonissue in general release, though, it could incredibly speed up the time to create and deploy a virtual environment.

Next: The Challenge The Challenge
Citrix has been focusing a lot on desktop virtualization. There is awareness within the company that channel partners tend to deploy server virtual machines rather than client VMs. Al Monserrat, vice president of worldwide channels and emerging product sales for Citrix, said there's "a big interest in client [virtualization]" and that the biggest hurdle is "getting people familiarized."

Monserrat won't get an argument from solution providers about the need for educating the channel, either.

"The ability to manage a number of desktop sessions from a modest two or three images would be huge," said Robert Nitrio, president of Ranvest Associates, an Orangevale, Calif.-based solution provider. But, he added, "We're the evangelist ... but we need to know how to do things in order to be a good evangelist.

"What always works is the ability to get our hands on the product, so we can actually play with it, learn how to use it and test it," Nitrio said. "A mere Webcast is not enough. We have to be able to get our hands on it, test it and see how it works."

It's unclear how much time, effort and money Citrix is willing to spend to do just that, and be able to compete with virtualization veteran VMware and software giant Microsoft—with which Citrix has had an awkward relationship over the years.

Citrix executives said they want to raise partners' comfort levels in deploying desktop virtualization, but also want to ensure partners are rightfully compensated. "Citrix scores every quarter between 92 to 95 percent in customer loyalty," Monserrat pointed out, and said the vendor will make "a long-term investment" and build "a core revenue stream" for partners.

But they've got to get that message out during a tricky product cycle. And they have to continue to walk a fine line with Microsoft—which will launch the potentially competitive Hyper-V this summer, at the very time Citrix execs say they need to keep collaborating with the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant.

"No matter which route a customer takes, the core component will ensure virtualization works in both," said Citrix's Crosby, who noted: "Hyper-V is an OS with a hypervisor bundled in it" while "Citrix scales better and supports large numbers of CPUs."

Bringing this high level of groundbreaking virtualization to the world will not be easy. VARs asking for strong support, education and training from Citrix know what they're talking about. But if Citrix can clear those hurdles, it stands to change IT dramatically and, in the process, reinvent itself just one more time.

"Maybe 10 percent of the market has virtualized their servers," IPM's Bari said. "Probably 99 percent of that is VMware. When it gets to 30 to 45 percent (virtualizing their servers), the market is going to change. When it does, who are going to be the other players? Microsoft and (Citrix's) Xen Server."

The ramp from 10 percent on starts now, with Citrix's big play starting within weeks. All that's left is to convince solution providers to become one with Xen.

EDWARD F. MOLTZEN contributed to this report.

Next: Share And Share Alike?

Share And Share Alike?

Through the years, Citrix and Microsoft have had what could be described as an uneasy alliance. Citrix has built its current business by extending access and management capabilities stemming from Microsoft server software; Microsoft seeking to capture its own share of revenue from that model, has extended its own product offerings in vrtualization and terminal services. At the same time, though, the companies have continued to share critical code and technology and Microsoft has opened new doors for Citrix even as it has closed others.

1989: Citrix incorporates in Delaware, makes its headquaters in Texas after being founded by Edward Iacobucci, a former IBM executive

1990: Licenses OS/2 from Microsoft and debuts Citrix Multiuser OS/2

1992: Reaches agreement with Microsoft to license Windows NT Server

1993: Ships WinView for Networks based on Microsoft OS

1995: Launches Citrix WinFrame

1997: After threatening to let Citrix's licensing expire, Microsoft reaches agreement with Citrix on a five-year joint marketing/development and licensing deal of Citrix MultiWin. The $175 million deal averts a catastrophe for Citrix.

1998: Citrix ships MetaFrame application server application server software and opens a development facility in Redmond, Wash., near Microsoft's headquaters.

2001: Microsoft and EMC sign up for the Citrix Business Alliance; Citrix launches Citrix MetFrame XP for Windows.

2002: With the 1997 deal about to sunset, Citrix and Microsoft sign a new pact, giving Citrix access to critical Windows server OS code.

2004: Citrix and Microsoft enter into a new, five-year deal aimed at allowing Citrix to extend its capabilities and access solutions for Microsoft's then-forthcoming Longhorn server operating system (now called Windows Server 2008.)

2008: With Microsoft planning to launch its own, propietary virtualization technology for Servr 2008 which could ostenibly compete with technology Citrix acquired by buying XenSource the two companies once again sign a new, expansive cooperation deal for server and desktop virtualization.