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Nobody told Citrix the hypervisor war is over

In an attempt to close the gap in the race for hypervisor supremacy, Citrix rolled out XenServer 7 in May 2016. The company’s latest hypervisor offering boasts new features and a unique security capability that makes it more comparable to VMware and Microsoft.

The real question is, does it matter?

VMware had a large lead with ESXi but Microsoft’s Hyper-V has closed the gap over time and now Citrix has caught up—at least from a technical perspective.

Even as Citrix inches closer to the competition in terms of features, the sheer volume of VMware’s existing customer base and the lack of an ecosystem and products tied to XenServer 7 will keep it in the back seat for now.

“The base product itself is now on par with the offerings from VMware and Microsoft, however what is missing is the ecosystem around them,” said Brian Kirsch, an IT architect and instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College. “A stand-alone hypervisor is just that, stand-alone. The real feature of a hypervisor is what else you can do with it. Citrix has taken a first step with the addition of the higher-end graphics ability but that also makes sense given Citrix’s application focus. XenServer doesn’t have an ecosystem built around it like XenApp and XenDesktop do, and the [new] XenServer offering shows nice stand-alone improvements but lacks in the features to make it a central point in a data center.”

Citrix made a big leap back in 2009 when they integrated Active Directory with the release of XenServer 5.5. The company is hoping to make another push with the new features in XenServer 7. Citrix has added support for the Server Message Block (SMB) storage protocol in XenServer 7. For those using a Microsoft Windows environment, the new support for SMBs will help utilize existing file shares.

Citrix didn’t stop there with new Microsoft capabilities in XenServer 7. Now, users can update the XenServer tools through a Windows update.

“Certainly from a feature perspective, a technical perspective, all of the hypervisor vendors have been improving a lot to compete with VMware, who is the market leader,” said Gary Chen, a research manager for IDC’s Cloud and Virtualization System Software. “There is a gap there but it’s much closer than it’s ever been. I think at this point, even if someone came out with a product that was feature-for-feature equivalent to VMware, it would be difficult to gain traction in the market primarily because there is an installed base of VMware so you’d be looking at a migration scenario, which is never pretty.”

Chen added that the ecosystem is very important for hypervisors, noting that a company could roll out the greatest hypervisor in the world but if there isn’t enough integration or certifications, it might not matter.

Another reason that Citrix is inching closer to ESXi and Hyper-V in the feature department is its new security capability. XenServer 7 now has Direct Inspect APIs, which allows third-party vendors to help secure the operating system. Direct Inspect APIs allows the admin to look into the VM to see what it’s doing for security reasons.

“VMware has something similar with vShield and they’ve basically been the only ones who had something like that,” Chen said. “So XenServer coming out with their security feature kind of surprised me. I didn’t think other hypervisor vendors were working on that technology. But it makes sense because I think it’s something they felt they needed on the competitive side for desktops.”

The latest version of XenServer also has increased the amount of NVIDIA vGPU-enabled virtual machines it can support. Citrix’s hypervisor was the first to support NVIDIA vGPU technology and has continued to grow its support levels. XenServer 7 also has increased scalability support for host RAM, CPU cores and VM RAM.

While XenServer 7’s features are bringing it on par with ESXi and Hyper-V, it still lags behind because of its lack of a surrounding ecosystem. Microsoft still has the best shot at catching VMware because so many users already have existing Windows environments. For Citrix to compete, they will need to narrow their focus.

“I think Citrix is kind of picking and choose its battles,” Chen said. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s not go after general purpose virtualization, let’s go after specific use cases where we think we can win, particular geography areas.’ I think they’re becoming more focused and will find a spot where they can have an advantage or a chance to compete.”

XenServer 7 was made general available at the end of May 2016.