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Citrix stumbles onto virtual desktop scene

Citrix Systems is spreading its wings and partnering with VMware and others to serve up virtual desktops. But observers don't have high hopes for the company's first foray into virtualization.

Citrix Systems Inc. made a business out of delivering centrally hosted applications to end users. At its annual Citrix iForum conference on Monday, the company announced that it can also deliver entire virtual desktops.

Rather than applications running on Microsoft Terminal Server hosts, the desktops run on servers running virtualization software like VMware ESX Server, Microsoft Virtual Server, and XenSource XenEnterprise.

Citrix also launched the Dynamic Desktop Initiative with several partners, including the above-mentioned virtualization players, plus IBM, AMD, and several thin client device manufacturers.

For now, Citrix has a virtual desktop connection broker. Called Desktop Broker, it's available for free to Citrix Presentation Server 4 users with an active support agreement. In the first quarter of 2007, the company plans to announce the fruits of "Project Trinity" -- a standalone connection broker independent of Presentation Server.

"We've gone from application delivery to full desktop delivery," said Wes Wasson, Citric corporate vice president of product marketing and strategy. "We're no longer talking about just discreet applications, but the entire desktop experience."

These five things, Wasson went on to say, characterize dynamic desktops:

  1. Delivered rather than deployed;
  2. Optimized for the end user, regardless of whether they're performing repetitive tasks, or complex knowledge-based work;
  3. Portable across devices;
  4. Managed by IT as a secure service; and
  5. Productive the deliver a better experience to the end-user than traditional "published" desktops.

Citrix also identified three basic types of dynamic desktops: "simple and fast" desktops that are well served by Windows Terminal Server; "personal and versatile" desktops running on virtual machines; and "high performance and powerful" desktops running on a dedicated blade in the data center.

Clumsy first steps

But Citrix observers familiar with the current incarnation of Desktop Broker aren't swayed by Citrix's flowery rhetoric.

Desktop Broker is "sort of a stop-gap. They clearly threw it together at the last minute," said Brian Madden, an independent industry analyst. "In truth, Citrix was clearly thrown off guard by VDI [VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure]," and so "they threw [Desktop Broker] together for existing customers that are looking in to VDI, or to keep them from buying another VDI solution."

The thing about Desktop Broker, Madden said, is that it's actually just a Microsoft Access application published onto Citrix Presentation Server. As such, users connect to Desktop Broker over the standard Citrix ICA protocol, which then connects to the virtual desktop using Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). "It forces you to do a double-hop," he said.

"No one who didn't already have a substantial Citrix infrastructure already in place would buy Desktop Broker," Madden said. (He did say, however, that Citrix's forthcoming connection broker is architecturally different and "actually pretty cool.")

Other vendors offering VDI connection brokers include Leostream, Propero Ltd. and Provision Networks Inc., to name a few.

VDI gathers steam

While the jury is still out on Citrix's Desktop Broker, the notion of hosting virtual desktops seems to be gaining momentum.

David Siles, chief technical officer for the Kane County, Ill., Information Technologies Department heard a presentation by Bell Canada at VMworld last year and decided to try out virtual desktops back home with the county's welfare administrators. "We had a healthcare app that required Novell, but hadn't routed IPX in a while, and the app just wasn't Citrix-friendly," he said.

Siles found some spare space on an ESX Server and picked some people to participate in the pilot program. "We picked the most difficult people to participate. We figured that if we could make them happy, we could make anybody happy," Siles said. The result? "It's worked out great for us."

Today, Kane County runs between 50 and 60 virtual desktops per four-processor Dell PowerEdge 1600 server, between 16 and 32 GB of RAM. Instead of PCs, Kane purchased Wyse thin client devices, most of which are mapped 1:1 to a dedicated virtual machine. Kane also has a Leostream connection broker for up to 25 seats.

Next year, Kane County is facing a major desktop replacement project, and Siles is already starting to identify which clients require full PCs and which will be hosted. Of 300 PCs up for replacement, Siles estimates that 170 will be hosted desktops.

Siles' enthusiasm for hosted desktops isn't really financially based. At about $780 per desktop, which includes things like the Wyse thin client, access licenses, ESX server and flat panel monitors, "it isn't really cheaper," Siles admitted. But when he looked at other intangibles like management and power consumption, "I make it up on the back-end."

Donn Bullock, program director for virtual client solutions at Mainline Information Systems, an IBM and Leostream reseller, said that experiences like Kane County's are increasingly common. "We're seeing a huge push by IT shops to centralize desktop management," he said. "They want to regain control of the desktops that they've deployed in the millions."

VMware shops are at the forefront of that movement, Bullock said. "For Mainline, the existing VMware customer base represents the low-hanging fruit." Thin clients plus VMware will give IT managers "the ability to leverage their existing VMware skills to manage desktops in the same exact way that they already manage their servers," Bullock said.

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