Does XenApp 6 Keep Citrix Ahead of the Pack?

Citrix has released XenApp 6 which finally provides support for Microsoft Windows Server 2008 (W2k8) R2. Citrix made their name delivering Presentation Virtualisation; and have been rightly seen as the the leader in that market in terms of functionality, support and scalability. Citrix did have to completely re-write the XenApp code for R2 – which was a considerable undertaking yet, in the meantime other PV vendors such as Ericom, Quest, Systancia have had W2k8 R2 functionality for some time: it is unusual for Citrix to appear to be chasing, rather than leading, the pack.

While VDI is being considered by many companies, and its adoption will likely grow,  Presentation Virtualization services are embedded as departmental solutions, branch office deployments, even as the core of multi-national businesses’ desktop delivery solutions: but, those solutions are primarily based around pre-W2k8 R2 services. W2k8 R2 offers greater scalability for Presentation Virtualization than previous versions, there will undoubtedly be a steady migration to this platform.

Given there is a cost to migrating from x32 to x64 in terms of validating applications and drivers operating in the new environment and that there is an increased cost to purchasing the new RDS CALs – is the new functionality in XenApp 6 as innovative as in previous releases? Are you going to get a very rapid return in your investment? Besides W2k8 R2 support, what does XenApp 6 offer your business? Indeed, has the focus on battling VMware XenDesktop allowed the competition to catch up further?

What’s New in XenApp 6.0?

Microsoft Windows 2008R2 Support
Obviously. But, and this an important fact in terms of migration, XenApp 6 W2k8 R2 is the only OS supported: XenApp 6 is not available for Windows 2003 or Windows 2008 R1 (x32, x64): for those operating systems you need the Presentation Server 4.5 (PS4.5) for Windows Server 2003 or XenApp 5.0 (XA5) for Windows 2008 R1 Citrix’s XA5. Feature Pack 3 is the latest update for these releases which brings the HDX functionality that had been lacking for Windows 2008 up-to-speed. Sadly, but understandably, FP3 still doesn’t have the unique capacity power management available

Simplified Management and Enterprise Scalability
Citrix’s unique Provisioning Services allows computers to obtain software from the network, as needed, in real-time  allowing you to remove  the need to manage each copy of software that each individual computer requires to run. Even for relatively small farm sizes, keeping servers operational and secure is a cost. The ability to create a server image that is delivered on each reboot means that the cost, in terms of time and effort, for deploying updates is much reduced. While Provisioning Services isn’t a new feature in XenApp 6, and it is only available for the Platinum edition – XenApp 6 does introduce new functions to Microsoft AD Group Policy to configure provisioned servers automatically or re-configure them on-the-fly.

XenApp 6 (XA6) also has a new role based installation mechanism – very much in keeping with how Microsoft have focused the Windows Server installation around enabling services to fulfill roles. Such a feature isn’t  new for PV, Ericom have had this style of installation for a while. It is useful for for first-time installs, not a great ground breaking feature in itself.

With previous versions of Presentation Server/XenApp a number of user connection and experience settings were managed using the Farm’s administration console.  XenApp 6 introduces Group Policy templates and integration with Microsoft Active Directory Group Policy-based management enabling not only server provisioning but the configuration of application availability and delivery. A new concept of ‘Worker Groups’ allows Farm server settings to be applied to new servers depending on where they sit in the Active Directory. All this is  useful, and all the more so if you’ve previously achieved this automation using Citrix’s MFCOM – as that feature is no longer supported in XA6: its time to migrate your own automation scripts to use PowerShell and the new management features.

XA6 introduces the facility to create system policies that manage server power consumption and make the most optimal use of server capacity during both peak and off-peak hours for Windows 2008. This feature is unique to XenApp, but has been available to Windows 2003 users as a part of a feature pack for Presentation Services 4.5. This service automatically brings capacity on-line to maintain expected user performance and access while retiring capacity when it is no longer needed – allowing you to reduce costs by better managing power consumption in your data-center.

With XA6, Citrix have improved the integration with Microsoft App-V. In September 2009, Microsoft announced that App-V was ‘free’ for RDS users. With XA6’s App-V integration you can manage and deliver both Citrix and Microsoft application delivery from a single point: it’s long been possible to have Citrix XenApp servers deliver App-V applications, but this new facility simplifies the management process and the user experience for both XenApp and desktop sessions.

If you’d moved to Windows Server 2008  and were disappointed that XenApp’s Novell eDirectory had disappeared you can rest easy – with XA6 its back again.

Early tests have suggested that there is a performance benefit in moving to a XenApp 6.0 environment – the combination of R2 and XenApp improvements combining to improve concurrent user capacity: which in turn allows you to support more users without increasing hardware costs. However, as yet, there are no figures published to quantify this improvement.

Improvements to the User Experience
If your user experience for virtualisation is poor projects will fail. XenApp 6 does introduce impressive enhancements to deliver an improved user experience.

An enhanced audio codec reduces bandwidth consumption of audio streams by 90% while preserving CD quality sound; there is support for Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) to enable audio and video conferencing if you’ve OCS in your data center. Additionally, soft-phone compatibility enhancements like echo cancellation allow soft-phones to be hosted centrally on XenApp servers. While not an advantage to everyone, these features remove barriers for deploying PV services to users who need higher quality audio functionality.

While XA5 introduced USB support for mass storage devices, XA6 improves the user experience further to include support for the connection of devices – such as digital cameras, point-of-sale devices, scanners and webcams,- to user’s PCs –  automatically mapping them to their server-hosted application session.

If you need to, or are supporting servers with different language settings, XA6’s Multi-User Interface (MUI) support will enable your users to connect to any server and receive their application session in the native language set on their desktop. The benefit here is that the number of servers you need to provide native language support can be reduced.

Citrix Dazzle, their ‘application store-front’ is now better integrated into the environment. I’ve never been a great fan of Dazzle although this feature appears to be a growing trend where vendors offer an element of ‘consumerization’ ; Systancia have a store-front style ‘rate your app’ for example. – I’m still of the opinion its not a great idea: but if you do, then its finally integrated rather than being a separate add-on.

New Feature Summary

The new XenApp 6 features can be summarized as:

  • Support for Windows 2008 R2.
  • Performance improvements.
  • Simplified installation through roles and automated installation through worker groups.
  • Server role and user connection policy management through Active Directory.
  • Improved Microsoft App-V integration.
  • Support for Novell eDirectory.
  • Major improvements to audio and collaboration services.
  • Support for Plug and Play on Windows portable USB devices.
  • Support for Multi-user interface.

For a full feature comparison list check out the link on Citrix’s website –

Does XenApp 6 Keep Citrix Ahead of the Pack?

XenApp 6 has performance improvements – but Citrix competitors suggest that their PV solution can host more users per server (Ericom for example suggest they can host up to 25% more users). So, while Citrix’s performance improvements are undoubtedly better than before – we’ll have to wait for the figures to verify if they are better than the rest.

Citrix have consistently added two significant enhancements to the core Microsoft Terminal Services/Remote Deploy Services function. Enterprise scalability and the ICA protocol with its HDX technologies.

The new HDX technologies, support for plug and play USB for instance, have been focused on delivering applications on the LAN. While this gives you greater scope to standardize on a Presentation Virtualization environment  many organizations have deployed Citrix because of Citrix ICA’s performance over the WAN: the improvements in audio delivery aside there are no major enhancements in XA6 in this area. Effectively, with XenApp 6 you have similar functionality, from a user experience perspective, to XenDesktop – which is of benefit primarily to your LAN users.

It can said the XenApp6 release is not about “WOW” features for user experience – it is about operational streamlining: enhancing ‘enterprise scalability’.  In terms of operational streamlining, many administrative functions that had to be manually created in previous versions using MFCOM (e.g. server role setting, application  publishing, policy settings) are now part and parcel of the XenApp service itself. Citrix still have some way to go on this – farm management between 2003/2008R1 and 2008R2 is not integrated; XenDesktop is not integrated into the XenApp environment. This disconnect between managing environments is not the case with the likes of Ericom’s PowerTerm Webconnect, Systancia’s ApplDis and Quest’s vWorkspace. Yet, Citrix still offers many unique functions that keep a XenApp solution a valuable investment. Telephony integration with EasyCall, Load Testing with EdgeSight for LoadTesting, single-sign on with Password Management, Demand Based load balancing all help set Citrix apart and provide a number of services that reduce the cost of administering and maintaining an enterprise application and desktop delivery environment.

Will You Ever Get Fired For Choosing Citrix?

Citrix continue to deliver added value for Microsoft Windows Server based Presentation Services. There is not just R2 support in XenApp6 – it also introduces better automation management and improvements to HDX.

In comparison to other vendors, Citrix have taken a long time to deliver W2k8 R2 support. The next big integration will be when Microsoft R2’s Service Pack 1 is released which will introduce Microsoft RemoteFX – their updated remote display technology.  Will Citrix’s competition be able to integrate with these new features more rapidly and allow them to be able to present a viable product to market more quickly and more cheaply? They’re marketing teams would say “yes” for sure. Citrix are considering bundling support with their subscriptions advantage offering – in which case will reduced technical dominance come at the same time as disgruntled partners looking for alternatives? Citrix have products that increasingly “compete” with Microsoft offerings – Citrix XenServer vs Microsoft Hyper-V; Citrix Application Streaming vs Microsoft App-V. Perhaps importantly Citrix’s move towards a higher visibility for support for Apple hardware like the iPad and the iPhone could be seen as increasing competition for Windows 7 for smart-phones and laptops. Is that move ‘away’ from a focus on being a Microsoft partner going to result in longer time-scales for Citrix to integrate with core Microsoft OS changes?

At the moment, that seems an unlikely scenario. There shouldn’t need to be another re-write. Citrix still have a great deal of services that their competition does not. Provisioning services (faster deployment & updates); Password Management; Session Recording; farm wide reporting and diagnostics combined with integrated testing. However, the differentiation is at the ‘Platinum’ end of XenApp’s license scale.

XenApp 6 is of most benefit for enterprises that need to support many servers, many applications, many users. Although a good deal of functionality was already available in previous releases, XenApp6 now helps automate and integrate services and build on the increased performance of W2k8 R2. Faster application delivery, ease of management, greater concurrency, demand-based capacity management will all contribute to justify the investment in this latest release. Indeed, with XenApp6 introducing HDX features that were only available in XenDesktop it is even more likely that organizations will look to increase their investment in Presentation Virtualisation (PV) rather than in hosted desktops. For medium sized enterprises, XenApp delivers improved automation for managing the environment – in turn reducing the cost of delivery of services. It is at the small/foundation level that advantages are far less clear, yes there are improvements in ease of installation and user experience – but XenApp license are still the most expensive – there is little in Citrix’s Advanced offering that makes that solution stand out from the competition.

If you’re in a situation where you are considering your PV project implementation and thinking ‘if I chose this expensive solution, would I get fired?” – the answer would likely be “no”. But, bear in mind unless you’re making full use of all features, and for that your need the most expensive Platinum license option, a return on investment spreadsheet comparing XenApp to other solutions is increasingly complex. There are considerable license cost savings in implementing alternative solutions and in a number of instances, very little from the user’s experience would change.

Citrix XenApp is still the product that other solutions compare themselves against – yet, that dominance is being tested with competitors who have solutions to optimise display protocols over the WAN (Ericom’s Blaze, Quest’s EOP), to provide simple management instance for all VDI/PV (Ericom, Propalms, Quest, Systancia, 2x), and to enhance the core Microsoft RDS offering to allow you to deliver applications and desktop services to many users.

Updated PV Document
With the announcement of Citrix XenApp 6 we’ve updated our Presentation Virutalization Solutions comparison document which also includes changes for Ericom PowerTerm Webconnect and 2X Application Server.