And then there were three – NxTop Enterprise morphs to XenClient Enterprise

Like waking up from a scene in a night’s dream where you were on a lovely walk, to find yourself stood outside of your now locked hotel room wearing nothing but your underwear, NxTop customers and resellers may well view the purchase of Virtual Computer by Citrix with a chill, heart-quickening, “right then, what next”?

Virtual Computer’s free offerings are no longer available, NxTop Enterprise edition gets a modest per user price increase. Support is still available. It is likely any road-map will take a wobble. What is now XenClient Enterprise is one of three client hypervisor versions that are offered by the application delivery leader who was, up until Friday, ‘the investing competition’.

Virtual Computer was a leader in the Type I client hypervisor delivery platform: although to be fair, it wasn’t a big race card.  In comparison to its cousin XenClient, at technical level it had better instance management options, a pre-packaged virtual machine instance with Chrome and Citrix Receiver, far wider hardware support and integrated systray tools within Microsoft Windows VMs. The latest 4.0.6 released earlier this month, continued  a steady improvement in management options for configurations. More importantly for the enterprise – Virtual Computer had the better links than the with hardware manufacturers with a strategy to integrate new hardware releases in weeks rather than months. Perhaps most interestingly, NxTop was highlighted as an solution that strongly aligned with Intel’s Intelligent Desktop Virtualisation (IDV).

VDI too expensive? VDI too remote? Have you considered IDV – manage centrally, run locally?

Yet despite innovation awards, the client-side hypervisor leader found it hard to gain momentum. Talking to CIO/CTOs the technology and you come across a number of obstacles in new accounts. Where does it fit with a BYOD strategy? What advantage does it offer over solutions such as LANDesk, Dells’ KACE or Microsoft’s SCCM? Will it run on a Mac? How does it deliver to my tablet?

The integration time for XenClient Enterprise likely to be 12-18 months. If you’re running  NxTop now, how will that impact your roll-out or continued delivery?  If you dismissed XenClient and went XenDesktop – should you stop? How could Citrix accommodate a product that can be pitched directly against XenDesktop and VDI-in-a-box? Why and will Citrix embrace IDV?

And then there were Three: NxTop vs XenClient

NxTop enterprise becomes XenClient Enterprise, the original XenClient version (that was freely available for personal use, but had a management component option for XenDesktop) gets relegated to be XenClient express, with the secured environment XenClient – standing resolutely still. For existing NxTop users – no real change there – unless you’d been running NxTop Express which allowed up to 5 users in a deployment for free: that’s gone.

NxTop Enterprise edition is made of two components – the NxTop Engine – which is the Xen based hypervisor, and NxTop Centre – the management console that allows VM creation, assignment, backup and management.  NxTop Centre is a set of web services based around Apache and Microsoft SQL server and intended to run on a Windows server.  But, development time wise –  both solutions are based on a Xen hypervisor – so a quick vi session, global replace NxTop for XenClient, colon, “w!”, recompile… change the image files in the apache service ..job done? Home in time for Christmas.

I would suggest that the standardisation between releases would focus on bringing better graphics function support into the NxTop Engine, and ideally bridged wi-fi support. Whatever, the goal should be the promotion of a delivery platform that helps removes reliance on a particular hardware platform. One of the great advantages of NxTop was its ability to cut organisations free from having particular model laptops because “that is the gold build” – or, being caught out by subtle changes in laptop hardware causing issues.

From a server perspective, NxTop relies on having a Microsoft server infrastructure with Hyper-v services enabled on at least the management server. Managed client hypervisors aren’t a ‘server-less central management solution’ – but the number of servers is far less than VDI. For NxTop users, will a move to Citrix  see a need to migrate to XenServer? Unlikely. The trend in the SMB/SME (and I expect it will quicken with the release of Hyper-V v3) is for VMware environments to be complimented with Microsoft’s Hyper-V.

However, into a XenServer environment there’s an option to produce an appliance focused central service: an interesting option for VARs to offer DaaS based on a different type of virtualised desktop. Indeed, NxTop Centre has the concept of a “remote server” to allow remote office deployments: what could be useful is to have that service as a virtual instance  that too provides an option to host that function as an appliance at a remote site.  There may well be an advantage in looking at Citrix’s Branch Repeater services into the environment to accommodate faster replication and synchronization.

While NxTop Centre provided a useful central management environment it would be handy to incorporate a the function to allow a remote administrator to configure a resource locally, and then upload that VM for distribution (as is done in XenClient) – this would offer greater flexibility for application deployments where you need to test peripheral access for instance.

NxTop had excellent features within the engine and the VMs  – but deployments could suffer from three issues :-

  1. Lack of ability to bridge wi-fi,
  2. No support for Direct X/Advanced graphics support.
  3. Limited integration with management platforms

In management platform,  while it was splendid if you had a single organisation with a single domain – it was missing granularity for delegated administration; and the support for deploying devices in multiple domains. While a question remains, have they been pushed back due to integration requirements, or pushed forward with new development money Citrix isn’t a company that is going to go away. Most of these functions were coming – they are unlikely to be blocking you now. If you are in a NxTop roll-out, carry on.

Ballad of Big

For NxTop resellers will be the question of IDV vs VDI. Intel’s Intelligent Desktop Virtualisation (IDV) resonated with a number of  organisations who saw requirement for their transformation project to have a large number of servers and still keep endpoints as difficult to justify.

The number of mobile workers as a segment of total employees is growing dramatically. IDC expects that by 2015 they are expected to make up nearly 40 percent of the workforce. As a result, the number of laptops used by professional workers is exploding. Yes, it is lovely to have that tablet or smartphone, but the growth in such devices is often complementary to PCs rather than the death of them. Organisations need a holistic, enterprise-wide desktop virtualization strategy that enables anywhere, any time access to desktops, applications and data from any device. Business users will continue to invest in laptops for mobile and office-based workers. Intel know this.

There is a question of licensing VDI primarily around the licensing of the end devices. The Windows 7 Professional OEM license that ships with a modern PC allows one copy of Windows 7 Professional in a VM on that PC.  However, if more than one VM needs to it needs to be covered with either a Windows Client SA or Windows VDA license. As most organisations use the client hypervisor to deliver a single OS, you would expect XenClient is an easier license environment than XenDesktop/VDI-in-a-box. Bear in mind, that it is not possible to create images for central deployment using an OEM license: you will need a volume license code.  But you knew all that.

However, there will undoubtedly be a problem of perception and marketing over the next year or so unless Citrix have learned quickly from the lessons of the Kaviza acquisition. Kaviza resellers spoke of issues around the marketing  message that came (and still comes) from Citrix as to how to position VDI-in-a-Box with or against XenDesktop. There is the potential that this won’t happen with XenClient. In the first instance – they’re called the same thing. In the second, NxTop/XenClient are more or less the same technology. Finally, and most importantly, incorporating XenClient into a customer’s desktop delivery strategy doesn’t exclude you from deploying any of the Citrix family of remote solutions. Indeed NxTop includes NxTop Connect – (XenConnect?) which is a preconfigured VM with Chrome and a Citrix Receiver client built-in.

Can XenClient Enterprise fit in a BYOD service? It is possible: provided its a new device and the user hasn’t installed their own software and the everyone is aware that the company controls and manages the core hypervisor environment. What is interesting is that the “free” edition is XenClient  – and the enterprise edition is NxTop. If I leave the organisation, am I still entitled to use the NxTop hypervisor? I used to be.. but now?

If you were in a position where you considered XenClient but decided against it I would suggest reconsidering with XenClient Enterprise.  You can use a tablet with the service if you’re willing to utilise a service such as Go-to-my-PC. Is it just for the last mile? No – but bear in mind its always the last mile that is the hardest.

Many too Many?

When I heard rumours of a possible sale of Virtual Computer – despite suggesting Citrix should buy them in the past – I speculated that a vendor such as HP or Dell would step into the market. I saw a hardware vendor, being able to offer customers a rapid migration facility between devices as a means of improving device sales cycle.  Moreover, having a range of options in the market drives innovation. Granted, Citrix were always a Virtual Computer investor – but will the loss of “independent” hurt the client side virtualisation market and falter momentum? There are still players such as MokaFive, Virtual Bridges and Wanova – with new players coming on board, such as WorldDesk and Zirtu, but does that matter?

For some, arrival in the Citrix fold will slow development, increase prices, reduce innovation. But for many NxTop users there is likely a greater confidence in the product now that it is within the Citrix fold.

What is now is is a very good solution for centrally managing “traditional” devices such as PCs and Laptops. There are existing solutions to do this, SCCM, KACE, Landesk yes, but where integrating an IDV solution can offer  a benefit here is in freeing the OS from the hardware – increasing device choice and availability. Where work needs to be done is integrating the XenClient Enterprise platform into these wider management environments: integration rather than replacement.

Follow you, follow me?

The key will be in how XenClient will be marketed longer term. Is it simply extending XenDesktop to the last mile of users who also need to work off-line. Will Citrix embrace IDV? Will XenClient be seen as  a solution in it’s own right allowing a service to built that gives confidence in providing the flexibility that users demand while effectively managing the devices assigned to them. In the press release, it does appear that Citrix have sights on allowing XenClient Enterprise be a solution in its own right, rather than an also-ran option to a remoted environment to be effectively left down and out.