Microsoft Windows 2012 RDSH vs Citrix XenApp – PV to get its own Murderball?

There is a pervasive question for Presentation Virtualisation using Remote Desktop Session Host services (RDSH) and that is  :-

if I’m already paying for RDS CALs and running the base OS, why do I need other stuff?

Where stuff is, typically, Citrix XenApp. With the release of Windows 2012 and the updates to RDSH do you still need Citrix XenApp?

I was introduced to many new sports over the summer and one sport that stuck in the mind, not only for it sheer fury and skill, was wheelchair rugby (or Quad rugby). Or as the Canadian inventors, named it – Murderball.

A key elements of the sport – it is a fast and very competitive exchange.

Your ball you say? I think not.
Picture from

Sneaking into August, like an American multi-gold medallist back from a celebratory night out on the champagne, Microsoft’s Windows 2012 boasts a wide array of new features. Hyper-V’s improvement are worthy of a post in themselves: live migration, teaming of 32 NICs, thin provisioning, dynamic memory. For now, we’ll focus on the updates to Remote Desktop Service’s Session Host updates.

With new and improved functions in Remote Desktop Services in Windows 2012, how competitive is the exchange? Is it worth murdering a ball for?

Failures of Microsoft RDSH?

If you have Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Session Host services – why do you need something else? What has been so wrong with the core Microsoft Presentation Virtualisation (PV) offering in the past?

Up until 2008 the answer was “a fair bit”. While Microsoft had wrestled ownership of a multi-user OS back in Windows Terminal Server Edition third parties (like Citrix) offered a host of  tools such as load balancing, application publishing, multi-server management and web services that made delivering PV services beyond 1-2 servers a viable option.

Even up to Windows 2008R2, Microsoft identified a number of users concerns:

  • While RemoteFX was popular its underlying protocol (RDP) didn’t provide a great experience over the WAN
  • Session and virtual machine infrastructures were complicated and costly
  • The administration experience was painful.

So, what are the new features of Microsoft Windows 2012 RDSH? Specific client side improvements include:

  • Adaptive Graphics.   Rather than their previous “one size fits all” approach Microsoft  have been more flexible determining and using the right codec for the right content   Codecs have been optimized for multimedia, images, and text as well as improvements for caching and the addition of  progressive rendering.  Progressive rendering allows RemoteFX to provide a responsive experience over a highly constrained network, something that third parties such as Citrix (ICA/HDX), Ericom (Blaze) and Quest (EoP) have long sought to resolve.
  • Intelligent Transports.  Microsoft’s RDP now supports UDP as well as TCP.  UDP provides a better experience over a lossy WAN network but, is not always possible dependent on the routers, and firewalls involved.  RDP will automatically use TCP when UDP cannot be used to ensure connectivity and the best possible experience. This should be interesting, given Teradici’s desire to enter this market
  • Email and web discovery of Remote Applications and desktops.  Users now can find the correct remote workspace to connect to by just providing their email address rather than a long website URL. In addition, Remote Desktop Web Access now supports other browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. While the alternative web browser support is overdue, connection by email address is unique… although perhaps a Twitter request might have been more useful as email is increasingly seen as “old fashioned” .. but still – onwards and upwards.
  • USB Redirection.  In Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 Microsoft supported USB isochronous remoting only for vGPU enabled virtual machines: which was useless to many.  In Windows 2012, Microsoft have added support when using both physical hosts and sessions bringing the default RDSH options in-line with many third party tools and perhaps lowering the bar for Teradici.
  • Single Sign-On.  In Windows Server 2012 this has been simplified by eliminating the need to use multiple certificates. In Windows 2012 Microsoft caught up with the competition: it is possible to allow your local authentication to be passed though the web interface. Far less messy – and user experience is key when delivering a virtual application/desktop service.

Still, client side improvements are nice but in order to win a medal you need to fundamentally improve your game.  Cost and complexity is a major roadblock for both Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and hosted desktop deployments. Microsoft looked to address this in Windows Server 2012 by making such changes as:

  • Fairshare of resources in RD Session Host.  In Windows Server 2012, RD Session Host server allocates CPU, Disk I/O, and Network I/O such that a single user cannot consume resources that would negatively impact other users on the same host.  Each user will get a “fair share”.  This is done with minimum overhead so the CPU, disk, and network resources are used to maximum capacity. This
  • Scenario-Focused Deployment. The new Server Manager provides “a scenario-focused wizard that dramatically simplifies the task of bringing up a complete RDS deployment” – and quite frankly it is lovely. The wizard sets up all the roles needed for an RDS deployment, configures each server role correctly to communicate with the other roles, and walks you through creating your first virtual desktop or session collection as well. The wizard comes in two flavours:
    • Quick Start is optimized for deploying Remote Desktop Services on one server, and creates a collection and publishes RemoteApp programs. I was impressed with the simplicity of it all to get you to a point where you had 3 published applications.
    • Standard Deployment allows you to deploy Remote Desktop Services across multiple servers, allowing for a more customized deployment.
  • RDS Management Interface integrated into Server Manager.  RDS now includes a single management interface through which you can deploy RDS end to end, monitor the deployment, configure options, and manage all your RDS components and servers. This management interface is built into the new Server Manager, which quite frankly is odd and cumbersome for about 3-5 days. Then everything else is rubbish – and then you find…
  • PowerShell support.  All platform functions and capabilities can be controlled through a comprehensive and rich PowerShell layer.  IT administrators can use this layer to build sophisticated automation that helps fit RDS into their IT infrastructure and work-flows. Finally, we’re back to administrating services from a command prompt and being steered towards a regime of reproducible scripts.  If you want to improve management – don’t surrender the process to mouse clicks.

In all it is a slick experience to deploy RDSH in Windows 2012 (all be it I’ve only yet done it in dev environments). This may well be an evolution from 2008R2, but given there may well be a lot of customers moving from 2003 or 2008 given XenApp’s end of life dates   Windows 2012 will likely be a revelation.

What Does Citrix XenApp do Better?

As any Olympian on a strict diet will tell you – oranges aren’t the only fruit. Microsoft have made great enhancements to their core RDP offering but the client support remains firmly in the Windows Arena. And the sporting park that encompasses enterprise deployments is far richer and wider. iOS, Andriod, Blackberry, Linux, HTML5 – clients in this space need third party tools.

Automated deployment and multi-server configuration is very neat. Citrix’s XenApp Platinum edition allows Provisioning services, and both Enterprise and Platinum there are options for power and capacity management, automated health monitoring and load testing. The latest XenApp editions also have options to improve the user experience such as Session Prelaunch, Session Linger, and Fast Reconnect to allow applications to accessed with a more “locally installed” feel. There is a mobility pack to allow remote applications to interact with mobile devices better. The long awaited Universal Print Server and features for better printing in a remoted environment – which often gets over looked. And of course, all of this is supported in 2008R2 so you don’t have to move your enterprise OS yet.. if you’re on 2008R2.

There are also wider functions; Edgesite for  session monitor, Password Management allowing for Single-Sign-On, Session auditing. Ultimately, the emphasis is increasingly less on the added features within PV and more on the management of the environment, the user experience and delivery mechanism. Citrix are indeed positioning themselves to rely less on their XenApp revenue stream because there is increasingly less room to add value on the core Microsoft product.

Citrix do “extending the PV services out beyond a win32 environment” better. Citrix do “complicated enterprise environments” better. There are a range of additional services but within the higher offerings (Enterprise/Platinum). The question will be will that means a further loss of partners as the small/medium size businesses find their needs met by core Microsoft services.

A Very Competitive Exchange

Like Oscar Pistorius, Microsoft might not always finish first – but you can bet on them to be a gold medallist and the inspiration for a lot of the competition.

But still, Murderball?

I’m in agreement with the opinion that Microsoft has “embraced and extended” the functionality of tech competitors and nominal partners in the past. From Microsoft’s “coopetition” with Novell in networking, to its “cutting off” of Netscape’s air supply in the Web software market. Back in the day, Citrix licensed from Microsoft: those days are gone. Citrix are in the same starting block as every other added value competitor, all be it with a more extensive training facility,  PR department  and fan/user base.

I see Windows 2012 RDSH as a very competitive exchange.  Third parties filled a variety of gaps and shortfalls in previous Windows releases. Management, remote protocol over WAN, testing, monitoring: those gaps are forever getting smaller. Where the partner advantage remains is in wider cloud integration and remote client device support: will Microsoft look to recognise alternative clients and OSes? The impossible is nothing.