Citrix Workspace Services Promises Next Step Toward Virtual Workspace

At its annual Synergy Conference in LA’s Anaheim Convention Center on Tuesday, Citrix announced Citrix Workspace Services (CWS), its new flagship product. CWS is a management platform for controlling the creation, management, and delivery of distributed virtual workspace services across multiple public and private clouds. According to Citrix’s marketing message, CWS will design, build, and deliver amazing mobile experiences to anyone, anywhere, and anytime—on any cloud.

This is not a cloud-optimized version of XenApp or XenDesktop; rather, it is a framework of products and technologies (inevitably including XenApp and XenDesktop) that enable service providers as well as customers to build their own virtual workspaces combining desktops, applications, data, and services, and to deliver them to both fixed and mobile users. In addition to Windows apps and desktops, CWS will also deliver mobile applications, automation and monitoring services, network management services, and data through ShareFile.

Citrix Workspace Services
Citrix Workspace Services

As it stands today, CWS will support services hosted by Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Cisco InterCloud, CloudPlatform, SoftLayer, and public and private clouds based on Citrix XenServer and vSphere; other partner announcements will follow. What is inflexible, at least for the moment, is where the workspace orchestration services are hosted. Citrix has again turned to its long-term partner Microsoft in developing CWS, and it has standardized on Microsoft Azure to host the services hub responsible for workspace orchestration. To consider it from the perspective of delivering Citrix XenApp via CWS, the XenApp controllers reside within Azure, while the XenApp workers are placed wherever appropriate, depending on the needs of the applications they host. Standardizing on Azure here is unlikely to cause problems for Citrix or its customers. As the core orchestration services contain only metadata about services offered from within Azure and other cloud platforms, the  international data privacy issues that can plague cloud services are unlikely to create any pressing need for Citrix to consider porting to another cloud services provider.

The decision to build a cloud-agnostic workspace orchestration service is likely to work out well for Citrix. It avoids direct confrontation with its primary competitor, VMware, while creating significant opportunities for its many partners to build new services and open their own new markets. Not to mention, of course, the opportunities to increase license sales of the underlying products that CWS will build upon. If all goes well, CWS should create new opportunities for Citrix in cloud-hosted desktops and application delivery services, mobile services, and data services through ShareFile.

The biggest roadblock to cloud-hosted Windows desktop and application delivery has always been the challenge of co-locating applications and information to deliver the best possible performance. Placing desktops in the cloud is a poor choice if the information they access is on-premises. Similarly, hosting a XenApp-delivered Windows application in cloud A, when the data it needs is in cloud B, will lead to performance problems—not to mention the challenges of ensuring that availability SLAs are met. If CWS enables greater flexibility of hosting for applications and desktops, without excessive administrative overhead, organizations previously unwilling to take on the complexity of delivering applications from multiple clouds may now become willing to make that leap.

What so far appears to be lacking (or at least is unannounced) is any indication of how far Citrix has progressed in managing workspace context conflicts. Will CWS make it easy to account for different endpoints’ characteristics? Will it, for example, provide a means of ensuring that touch-optimized applications are delivered only to touch-enabled endpoints, or without responsibilities lying with the user? There is no mention, either, of CWS delivering any app, so if you want to access your Android app on your Windows desktop, you will have to look further afield for now.

Citrix is attempting to position CWS as a universal solution that will enable partners at all levels to build services to support their own customers—either complete systems in their own right or as a part of a larger service offering. Mitch Parker, Citrix’s VP and general manager of cloud services, also suggests that independent software vendors would consider CWS as a platform on which to build their own SaaS offerings. However, with licensing costs not yet published, it is by no means clear if Citrix will be able to price CWS to compete with other, more focused solutions.

It is too soon to tell if or how much CWS will shape the Citrix-Microsoft relationship. For many years, Citrix ran ahead of Microsoft, creating new markets by building new capabilities on top of Windows Server. With every Citrix license sale bringing with it a further Microsoft license sale, both companies benefited. Mark Templeton was, on occasion, known to describe the relationship as one in which Citrix led Microsoft in the same way that one might lead a bull by the ring through its nose—something that works well enough until the bull realizes it only has to increase the pace a little to turn the tables. As Microsoft strengthened Windows Server and its out-of-the-box RDS features, it started to encroach on Citrix sales, shifting the balance between the two companies. Now, CWS might be an opportunity for Citrix to regain the initiative in creating new markets for Microsoft Azure.

Marketing teams at both Dell and Amazon are not going to be entirely happy with Citrix this week. With each choosing the label “Workspace” for their respective DaaS offerings, Citrix has made it clear that they must aim their sights significantly higher if they wish to offer something worthy of the name. For Dell at least, this should not present too much of a challenge. Dell already offers multiple flavors of DaaS, leveraging its own products as well as partnerships with Citrix and VMware. There’s little doubt that it will adopt CWS as just another tool from which to build more flexible virtual workspace services. Amazon is less likely to consider Citrix a partner here. It will have to go it alone if it chooses to compete. Nevertheless, it may have an easy on-ramp for existing AWS customers looking to move more services into the cloud. It will be difficult for Amazon to compete against CWS without significant engineering investment or acquisition.

Citrix will be delivering a tech preview of CWS in the second half of 2014.

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