At first glance, it looks like VMware’s recently announced Horizon 6 platform is an admission by VMware that applications, rather than desktops, do matter, and that Citrix has been on the right track all along. Certainly, XenApp has been a thorn in the side of many VMware View implementations through the years, allowing people to deliver applications to solve problems that View could only solve by throwing more desktops at them. XenApp has always, for all its problems, offered a simple way to host and distribute applications to a wide variety of user devices.

Horizon 6 brings a plethora of new features, but one of the most significant is Workspace support for SaaS, ThinApp, and even remote desktop services (RDS) and XenApp hosted applications. It’s also created a third-party protocol provider, which will allow it to ensure that the right information is passed into its protocol for delivery and rendering. But to do this, it appears clear—and is certainly implicit in VMware’s public statements—that it has been working very closely with Microsoft, and particularly its RDS team. This seems to go against previous form—Microsoft has generally been very friendly with Citrix and occasionally openly hostile toward VMware. Indeed, it was only recently that VMware was high-fiving Google about Desktone integration, and the Chocolate Factory has long been an antagonist of Redmond’s.

Image of Desktone desktop

Desktone desktop

It’s no secret that Microsoft has coveted VMware customers, and it has always taken pains to point out where it is winning market share from VMware—even in emerging markets. Microsoft has even offered certifications specifically aimed at teaching VMware experts about Hyper-V—including, tellingly, how to use migration tools. Have Satya Nadella and Sanjay Poonen forged an alliance where previously there was animosity? Or has Microsoft simply cooperated with VMware to boost the sales of RDS client access licenses (CALs) in markets where VMware’s solution may be adopted in front of Citrix’s or other players’?

However, helping VMware build an end-to-end solution may not be entirely to Microsoft’s benefit. Given that XenServer is not suited for production environments, the battle of the back-end hypervisors is quickly becoming a two-horse race between vSphere and Hyper-V, particularly as the Hyper-V features in Server 2012 R2 can now legitimately claim to match the features provided by the older vSphere platform. Currently, many enterprises haven’t settled on a single hypervisor, instead choosing to maintain a primary platform alongside a secondary, often for reasons of workloads, licensing, or even technological capabilities. As the two main hypervisors move closer together, the tipping point at which one is adopted exclusively in a business may soon be reached.

What’s clear is that VMware has made a big play toward unifying the delivery platform. VDI appears to be reaching the point where it is only good for specific subsets of users, and VDI alone cannot really deliver what users require in all form factors and situations. By integrating published desktops, virtual desktops, published applications, SaaS applications, virtualized applications, and even XenApp and RDS resources in a single entity, VMware is pushing the idea that you can mix modern technologies and legacy applications together to enable greater user flexibility. All this, without having to pull together an eclectic mix of software from myriad different suppliers. It’s the “everything under one roof” approach with a vengeance.

Is VMware aiming at bigger things with virtual cloud hybrid services (vCHS), Horizon 6, and the entire VMware platform? Is the expansion of its product portfolio an indication that it is chasing the larger players in the market? With this in mind, is there an opportunity for Microsoft and Citrix to gain further market share among the smaller enterprises? Will Microsoft ally with Citrix to provide the DaaS component that Citrix lacks? Or could we possibly even see Citrix and Microsoft move closer together to tackle VMware in the larger markets too, with Hyper-V, XenApp, and App-V facing off against vSphere, Horizon 6, and ThinApp?

What is certain is that a response is needed—particularly for Citrix, with Synergy on the horizon. For the past few years, Citrix has been focused on mobility, but now may be the time to shift focus to features like CloudBridge and CloudPlatform, and perhaps even launch acquisitions to bolster its product portfolio in view of the bold moves by VMware. As for Microsoft, it seems to be keeping its cards close to its chest, but it still has the power to trouble VMware in the data center arena with technologies like Hyper-V, System Center, and the forthcoming Cloud OS. Indeed, an alliance between Citrix and Microsoft could provide a powerful and mature combination of end user computing (EUC) and data center technology that might present the perfect storm to VMware’s solution—but VMware, by virtue of providing all features natively, could win the battle on price, particularly if it licenses ThinApp as part of the Horizon Suite.

It’s certainly intriguing to see so much interplay between the big players in the virtualization market, particularly now as VMware is trying to move toward an all-encompassing portfolio of server virtualization, desktop virtualization, app virtualization, user virtualization, data mobility, mobile device management (MDM), DaaS, and private/public/hybrid cloud services. The next steps in this journey will no doubt be to assess VMware’s Horizon 6 application publishing features upon release and to see how they stand up against the feature-rich, technologically mature competitor that is Citrix XenApp. Indeed, it has been a long time since Citrix has truly had another competitor in this market. The next few months should be very interesting indeed, as we see how the virtualization playing field develops further!

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James Rankin (17 Posts)

James has worked in IT since 1995, spending nearly ten years as a server engineer and systems administrator before choosing to focus heavily on user and application virtualization in late 2004. Based in the north-east of England, he runs his own consultancy focusing primarily on Citrix, AppSense, Microsoft and VMware technologies. He recently received the AppSense Community Advisor award for contributions to the online USV community.

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