Citrix release XenClient Enterprise 4.1: revolution or evolution in desktop virtualisation for laptops

Citrix’sXenClient Enterprise 4.1 is the first full release since Citrix’s acquisition of Virtual Computer in May. What is new? Is there anything more substantial than a fresh smell of paint? Citrix XenClient had a reputation for being a niche use-case solution, with a limited hardware compatibility list. Does Citrix XenClient 4.1 change that? Citrix’s market dominance has been in delivering remote access to applications  – where does XenClient fit a thinner, desktop-PC-lessening world?

Obviously, I’m not going to sit here and laud it that I was right when Citrix actually did acquire Virtual Computer. Because I also said it’d take 12-18 months for integration and here we are, barely 25% of the way through that and a release is out of the door. Like when you bet on Italy in the final of an international soccer competition sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Far more importantly, if you’re considering introducing virtual desktop into your enterprise desktop strategy are client hypervisors a tool to consider? What is the competition for XenClient now that NxTop has been subsumed?


XenClient Enterprise 4.1: What is New?

If you were a XenClient user/tester and found that your hardware wasn’t compatible; found the whole “synchroniser” VM cumbersome; couldn’t equate your laptop management process to Citrix’s client hypervisor offering; couldn’t see where XenClient would  fit -  you can start again.  If you did deploy XenClient, there is no direct upgrade path for you. The Synchroniser does have an appliance, but only when it is deployed in remote sites.

You will need a Microsoft Hyper-V base environment now.  XenClient Enterprise 4.1 is a completely different beast to Citrix’s previous XenClient incarnations. Perhaps the only thing you may recognise is the terminology. The NxTop Centre management environment has become the XenClient Enterprise Synchroniser: but then it wouldn’t be a Citrix release without a console management name change that confuses someone. You now have:

  • Broader set of hardware (and by broader I mean bbbbrrrrooooaaaaddddeeeerrrr)
  • nVidia Graphics support
  • Central VM authoring
  • Policy controls
  • Remote image servers – you now have the facility to distribute images to remote servers reducing deployment time.

 (click to enlarge)

If you were a NxTop customer, you’ll note some useful changes since the 4.0.8 release that came out shortly after the acquisition. All interfaces – client and console have been fully re-branded and refreshed: nice, but users rarely say “oh, but only if the background were prettier, I’m sure I’d never find fault again”. However, there are more substantial offerings:

  • Updated audio drivers (I’ve XP instances that don’t sound like a 1950′s radio set)
  • Updated graphics (I noticed Toshiba displays that became broken in 4.0.2 got fixed)
  • Improved Active Directory integration
  • Delegated administration – which means I can offer this management platform as a  service
  • Performance improvements within both the console and client

(click to enlarge)

Ultimately, for NxTop customers moving to XenClient 4.1 is a useful upgrade. XenClient Enterprise 4.1 is a viable and interesting evolution  if you had a NxTop environment. If you were soldiering on with previous XenClient installations, the upgrade will be a mindset shift – but a revolution in what you can deliver to your users.

 

Client Hypervisors: Enterprise Desktop Virtualization for Laptops?

The rise of the tablet and the smartphone device has been phenomenal and this growth will continue. PC sales in the US, Europe are reducing – but laptop sales are buoyant.

Tablets? Tablets don’t necessarily replace a PC; a thin client replaces a PC; a laptop replaces a PC. A tablet compliments a laptop (or a PC.. up until it is replaced with a laptop or a thin client). Enterprises still will have a requirement to manage and maintain a sizeable set of devices (increasingly laptops) – but to ensure that a manageable ownership cost of these devices is  maintained, the devices can’t simply be let loose.

So where do client hypervisors, such as Citrix XenClient, fit in?

  • Centralised Control – With a client hypervisor you can manage an OS instance  and deploy to remote users who are either working on-line, off-line or both. With VDI you require that the user is always connected. On-line is not always viable,  especially for mobile users.
  • Distributed compute utilise the local compute resource and disk. This can be far cheaper to set-up and maintain than a centralised data-centre hosted service. Again, a distributed environment doesn’t rely on a constant network connection. Relevant to branch office or mobile deployments where connectivity is problematic
  • Flexibility  of course, you can now support multiple OS environments which many are finding relevant as desktop OSes move on, but application support requirements drag their heels. You can reset an environment on restart to improve reliability and notionally, security. Separate the user environment from the data: traditionally, hardware and software are coupled during refresh cycles – by removing the dependency on the hardware environment.

When Citrix first  launched XenClient it was poorly positioned as a tech professional toy.  With XenClient Enteprise Citrix now has a solution that can compliment their VDI focused XenDesktop – providing an answer to questions such as  “how do we manage the underlying PC environment we provide users” and “how do we deliver off-line working”  which were always tricky to answer in a pure VDI offering.

Yes, XenClient can enable enterprise desktop virtualization for laptop users, but also for any PC  device. This will be be a complex message to give for a company where there is often focusing on removing desktops not simply managing them better.

 

Client Hypervisor: further enabling Desktop as as Service?

VDI has an issue if the user’s desktop is remoted – if they can only access their applications and data while on-line; if their remote desktop is hosted in a different environment from their applications and data. This can lead to difficulties with user experience. VDI can scales very well – but at the expense of users having to conform to a set of applications that are available within the virtual machine.

We’ve discussed before whether you can use a bare metal Client-Side Hypervisor to Manage your Desktops? Such a service needs to include:-

  • Centralized Management – allow delegated administration tasks for all desktop management activities. Give your IT admins tools to create and maintain virtual machines that can be published to all of your users in a reliable and timely fashion.
  • Policy Controls – a thin client solution – such as VDI or Presentation Virtualization  is “secure” because  no data is stored on the end device. Obviously, this is not the case with a CSHv.  Organizations need to be able to protect against data leakage and unauthorized use through a robust set of policy controls. These controls should restrict access to hardware such as USB ports and network interfaces based on centrally defined policies at global, group, and individual-user levels. You’d also need the facility to have a time-based expiration on-demand remote disablement of images – giving a greater flexibility for those who you provide access to for desktop services.
  • Security – those policies need to be built on a secure platform. It needs to guard against tampering and should have disk encryption enabled. In the event of a device being lost or stolen you need to be confident that if you can remotely, and securely, remove the data on that device. Allow workspaces to be reset to a known good state on start-up so if an error occurs, turning it off and back on again really does fix the problem.
  • Backup and Restore – a benefit of centralization is improved backup and restore capabilities – reducing downtime and lost productivity. A CSHv needs not only to be able to deploy images, but be able to protect the user data’s on the device. In addition, it should be able to allow users to easily recover and restore their environment in the event of hardware failure or loss.

XenClient Enterprise now has these components in a much improved management platform.

Client hypervisors can allow a greater control to be given to users while providing them with a secure, managed environment. Still, not all Client Hyervisors are the same. Client Hypervisors such as XenClient aren’t a solution for BYOD, or for managing older PCs and laptops. There is an interesting question around Apple Mac support: one Citrix cannot answer with XenClient. That said, Citrix have further extended their FlexCast model, but type #1 client hypervisors such as Citrix XenClient need to be provisioned onto devices.  In going forward, Citirx will need to work tightly with the device suppliers not only to ensure that there isn’t a delay between new processor and graphic device support, but in allowing devices to be supplied with the core hypervisor engine already installed.

 

Not the end, just the beginning

For all there is a drive, with consumerisation, to not be focused on managing the device – but instead, the user and their data, this isn’t a model that readily fits with a good deal of enterprise. This can be for a variety of reasons -regulatory compliance, user expectation, data and IP protection.

Still, desktop virtualisation can still be used to improve management, reduce cost of ownership, help ensure that the data and application is reliable and secure.

Citrix are not alone in attempting to broaden the platform for virtual desktop delivery. Virtual Bridges have their Live Environment Access Format (LEAF) component,  MokaFive are extending their client hypervisor delivery model.  There are new players looking to deliver client hypervisor based solutions such as WorldDesk and Zirtu and Worlddesk.

The goal for an Enterprise should be to create an environment that delivers a variety of services to deliver applications and data to users, but doesn’t require a large amount of effort, duplication of resource, lost time.

With the latest XenClient Citrix is looking to deliver the benefits of virtual desktops to endpoints and users most difficult to manage and secure those users using laptops. This is an important market, because laptop use is increasing – it is no longer simply about mobile executives and road warriors.

However, as with many things in IT this is not just a technology problem. Citrix will need to work hard to ensure strong  support from device suppliers to ensure that client hypervisor support isn’t a barrier to deploying the latest devices.

Still, in terms of comparison from previous versions, XenClient Enterprise 4.1 is a revolution in desktop virtualisation for laptops.

Andrew Wood (144 Posts)

Andrew is a Director of Gilwood CS Ltd, based in the North East of England, which specialises in delivering and optimising server and application virtualisation solutions. With 12 years of experience in developing architectures that deliver server based computing implementations from small-medium size business to global enterprise solutions, his role involves examining emerging technology trends, vendor strategies, development and integration issues, and management best practices.

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