Citrix and VMware Hit the Refresh Button

Citrix and VMware are busy refreshing their respective desktop and Windows app delivery platforms. A couple of days before VMworld, Citrix announced the forthcoming release of XenApp/XenDesktop 7.6, which will ship before month’s end. In the wake of VMworld, the VMware Desktop Product team has announced that it has released a major update to Horizon DaaS, as well as some minor but still essential updates to Horizon, ThinApp, Horizon Workspace Portal, and the vCenter management services.

Given the increased competition between Citrix and VMware for the enterprise desktop, what can be learned from the latest announcements?

XenApp/XenDesktop 7.6: An already very good product made marginally better

As previously reported for The Virtualization Practice by Jo Harder, the XenApp 7.5 fell short of feature parity with 6.5. Discounting deprecated features, such as support for secure ICA connections using less than 128-bit encryption (hardly what you would call secure today), Flash Redirection V1, and Secure Gateway (the free edition of NetScaler VPX is a more than adequate replacement), XenApp 7.5 had some glaring omissions. Notably absent were three key usability features: session prelaunch, session linger, and anonymous logons, all features that were used extensively in enterprise environments. Single sign-on is still available, but only for Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 environments. Also missing is Health Monitoring and Recovery (HMR), XenApp’s internal server health monitoring service. Although not in widespread use, HMR was still an invaluable tool in many situations. In its place, Citrix is offering a new version of Citrix Director. However, while this is a much-improved operations console, it still doesn’t replace either the intelligence or flexibility of HMR as a tool for validating the correct operation of XenApp servers. Other features, including session shadowing and Power and Capacity Management, were either replaced by equivalent new XenApp features or dropped altogether in favor of Microsoft tools. Still others, such as the ability to assign a single worker node to multiple Delivery Groups, were dropped from the management GUI and made available only through PowerShell scripting. Replacing deprecated features with new ones that extend existing capabilities is understandable and acceptable. Dropping tried and trusted features without offering a viable alternative is, however, something else, and requires explanation.

XenApp 7.5 was very much one step forward and two steps back. Why would Citrix release an update to its most mature platform that omits so many tried and tested features? A large part of the answer must be related to FlexCast Management Architecture (FMA). FMA was first introduced with XenDesktop 5.0 in December 2010. Prior to this, Citrix admins had thirteen years of experience working with IMA, first with MetaFrame XP, then with Presentation Server, and now with XenApp. Most IT organizations display reluctance about moving to new platform releases (anyone still running Windows XP?) Given that reluctance, the architectural changes that the transition to FMA in XenApp 7.5 brought about meant that Citrix had to get an FMA-based XenApp into the hands of its XenApp customers. And it had to do it quickly, or risk revolt when the complexities of migrating to XenApp 7.x came to light. Although XenDesktop is built around FMA, the design challenges of building XenDesktop environments differ greatly from those of XenApp. Not enough Citrix customers run XenDesktop for this to be a viable way to get customers up to speed with FMA. In many respects, then, it makes more sense to view XenApp 7.5 as an extended early adopters’ program for FMA-enabled XenApp, with XenApp 7.6 being the mainstream production release, although I doubt that Citrix would ever acknowledge that this was the intent.

Now, at least with XenApp 7.6, Citrix has brought the current release more or less back into line with XenApp 6.5. HMR is still absent, but most of the other holes have been plugged. Most importantly, Citrix has reintroduced tolerance for less than perfect database connectivity. In past releases, XenApp employed the Local Host Cache (LHC) to provide continuity of operation in the event that a server was unable to communicate with the XenApp Data Store. With the introduction of XenApp 7.6, the LHC has been dropped, creating an absolute dependency on the continuous availability of the XenApp database. At the same time, Citrix has introduced connection leasing, which ensures that users can connect to assigned desktops or hosted apps even when the database cannot be reached. Also new in XenApp 7.6 is high-performance, GPU-enabled graphics acceleration, providing high-quality DirectX rendering, improved unified communications support including explicit support for Microsoft Lync, and generic redirection of USB 3.0 peripherals. Provisioning Services 7.1, with its support for RAM cache and spill to disk, further improves PVS performance, and there’s a new release of the Citrix SCCM connector as well. XenApp 7.6 brings some security enhancements over clipboard content that enable greater policy granularity and content filtering to target possible malware attacks. And finally, in response to past criticism about lack of support for Google’s Chrome OS, there is a new Receiver for HTML5 for Chrome.

Citrix has indicated that it will release migration tools to transition existing XenApp 6.5 workloads to version 7.6. However, given the breadth of changes between XenApp 6 and 7, it is far from clear what percentage of environments will fully benefit from these tools. Developing a XenApp 7 architecture takes more than bumping the product version and running a global search and replace on the desktop docs to change XenApp Farm to XenApp Delivery Site.

On the face of it, setting aside Citrix Director, the SCCM connector, and PVS 7.1 (which would have been delivered irrespective of any new XenApp release), 7.6 more or less returns Citrix to the status quo established with XenApp 6.5. That’s lot of work for Citrix, with very little immediate benefit to its customers.

Horizon 6.0.1: More than just a +.01 release

While Citrix has been focusing on unifying the XenApp and XenDesktop management architecture, VMware has continued to develop its Horizon Suite.

Horizon 6.0.1 adds local printing for hosted applications, session-based desktops, and Windows Server VDI desktops for Windows, Linux, and Mac clients. There’s increased support for hosted applications across more clients (VMware bundles its Horizon clients together with their own product versioning, making this the Horizon Client 3.1 release). There’s also USB 3.0 device support for VDI desktops and Microsoft Lync support for Windows Server 2008 R2 VDI desktops. User-experience enhancements include system tray redirection, adding apps to the Microsoft Windows Start Menu/Start Screen, launching apps from the OS X Dock, and improved recovery from standby or network loss (again in OS X). At the same time, VMware has released vCenter Operations Manager for Horizon 1.7 and the Horizon vCenter Orchestrator plugin 1.1 for VMware vCloud Automation Center.

VMware’s updates are not restricted to just the core Horizon product. Its vCenter Operations Manager for Horizon 1.7 includes, for the first time, in-guest application metrics that provide visibility into applications that consume resources and result in poor end user experience. This should help IT find problems impacting user experience more quickly, so it can speed up its remediation of these issues and optimize user experience. The vCenter Orchestrator plugin adds management functions for multi-provisioning and delivers UX improvements.

The VMware Workspace Portal has been significantly updated. Workspace 2.1 replaces the previous multi-appliance architecture of Configurator, Portal Manager, Portal Connector, and Gateway with a single scale-out virtual appliance, which should go a long way toward accelerating adoption, especially when compared to the slow progress that Citrix has made with StoreFront.

ThinApp has also benefited from a significant update. In addition to numerous application-specific enhancements, including improved support for IE 10 and the introduction of support for IE 11 in Windows 7, ThinApp 5.1 introduces two important new features. The first, dubbed P2P (Project to Physical), allows a packager to take an existing XenApp package and extract its back into a CNB (Capture and Build) workstation as a native application. This provides the greatest opportunity for problem resolution using the native application, ensuring that it is configured the same way as the ThinApp package. The second new feature extends ThinDirect, the ThinApp feature that allows group policy–based management of redirected URLs to be used for dynamic management of application linking and updating for packages that have already been deployed.

Horizon DaaS saw the biggest update, with its introduction of Apps as a Service on vCloud Air and through VMware’s DaaS Platform for Service Providers. VMware still has further work to do on this platform. Currently only offered as a Windows Server 2008 R2 instance, the hosted apps server is only available with a single specification offering 20 vCPU, 30 GB vRAM, an ungenerous 100 GB of storage, and a notable absence of any GPU support. The service is available for $600 per server per month, with a minimum order quantity of five servers. Microsoft Azure RemoteApp is still available only as a free preview, with no indication as to how the service will be priced. Given pricing for other Azure services, it is highly unlikely that Microsoft would enforce a minimum order quantity for Azure RemoteApp. This is something that VMware must understand, which suggests that its current minimum order quantity may be serving as a tool to limit adoption until it is better equipped to develop and support the service.

While the updates to Horizon DaaS, Workspace Portal, ThinApp, the Horizon clients, and the vCenter plugins are all significant in their own right, the actual updates to the core Horizon VDI and RDSH products are minor—hardly even table stakes when competing against Citrix. A straight comparison of the features offered by Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop 7.6 and VMware Horizon shows that while VMware has done much to improve its platform, it still lags behind Citrix in sufficient areas to allow Citrix to claim that, no matter what the measure, Citrix has the superior product today.

Where Next?

Looking to the future, VMware will inevitably continue to gain ground on Citrix. VMware certainly has an easier time than Citrix when it comes to offering meaningful product updates, if only because of Horizon’s comparative lack of maturity. Announcing such a minor update to Horizon so shortly after VMworld raises the question: “Is VMware adopting a continuous release policy to keep Horizon in the public eye at a time when Citrix is focusing on more strategic product development initiatives?” It certainly looks that way. Even before the recent VMworld’s EUC-focused general session, VMware was hinting at more Horizon announcements to be made in Barcelona. It’s quite possible that VMware will release two further updates to Horizon before year’s end, another minor update in Barcelona next month, and a further update by year’s end to provide at least preliminary integration with CloudVolumes. Regardless of the precise detail of product updates, it is clear that VMware is fully committed to end user computing across mobile and desktop platforms.

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