Presentation Virtualization, a year in review

Way back in January, when 2010 still had that showroom fresh smell we released Presentation Virtualization Solutions whitepaper; the year wasn’t half way through before that was updated and its being defrosted as we speak to enable updates going into 2011. Its been an eventful year for Presentation Virtualization.

The document reviewed products from Citrix, Ericom, Genuit, GraphOn ,Microsoft, Propalms, Quest Systancia and 2x. Presentation Virtualization (PV) allows the creation of virtual sessions, each interacting with a remote desktop system. The applications executing within those sessions rely on PV to project their user interfaces remotely. Each session may only run a single application, or it might present a complete desktop offering multiple applications. In either case, many virtual sessions utilize the same installed copy of an application. PV can allow users to access their sessions from their corporate or home PC, their iPad, their smartphone, their Apple Mac. PV can scale to support more users than a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure with less infrastructure – but, the users sessions are hosted on a  shared server OS rather than a dedicated desktop OS: for some applications, that can be a problem. The white-paper discussed such issues and considered and compared each vendors’ offering.

As we entered 2010, Citrix had lagged behind vendors such as Ericom and Quest in not offering a solution that supported Microsoft’s Windows 2008 R2 OS. Come April, Citrix had released a new version of XenApp and we considered if XenApp 6 Kept Citrix Ahead of the Pack. XenApp 6 didn’t only bring support for Microsoft’s most PV friendly OS, it streamlined and automated management functions allowing for more rapid and on-demand deployment and easier administration and introduced a number of user experience options that  had previously only been available to Windows 2003 Server and XenDesktop users. However, it was and is not possible for XenApp 6 Citrix farms to be managed as part of XenApp 4.5/5.0 farm – migration for XenApp users to the latest version was not a simple upgrade, and in some instances meant running two different farms. In addition, the requirement to host XenApp 6 only on Windows 2008 R2 meant that organisations needed to take that step-up from x32 to x64, which in itself brought additional complexity, one of which was the lack of support for ‘legacy’ browsers such as Internet Explorer 6. That said, Citrix still have a great deal of functions that their competition does not. Provisioning services (faster deployment & updates); Password Management (enabling single sign-on); Session Recording; farm wide reporting and diagnostics combined with integrated testing services. Citrix XenApp is still the product that other solutions compare themselves against.

Citrix’s XenApp improves the management of the core ‘terminal services’ (or Remote Desktop Services (RDS) as Microsoft now refers to the function), and technologies to allow remote access to the session, which Citrix bundle as their High Definition User Experience (HDX). 2010 saw other vendors’ offering viable alternatives, matching and in some instances bettering Citrix technologies.

In terms of management Ericom, ProPalms, Quest, Systancia and 2x all released updated versions of their software to enhance the core Microsoft RDS offering  and allow you to deliver applications and desktop services to many users. Ericom’s PowerTerm WebConnect introduced improved deployment mechanisms, reverse-seamless functionality allowing easier integration between remote and local desktops and updated clients. Quest vWorkspace introduced flash drive and USB redirection, and clients for Java, Linux and iPads. 2x also updated their ApplicationServer to offer improved features and performance. Typically these vendors offer a far better cross-platform management experience than is currently available with Citrix products. With other solutions, managing PV services across Windows 2003, 2008 and 2008R2, unlike with XenApp, is within one management console and logical farm and can often be integrated to hosted desktop services.

For remoting protocols, Ericom’s PowerTerm WebConnect utilises Blaze – software to enhance Microsoft’s Remote  Display Protocol (RDP). Blaze introspects the RDP protocol and compresses display data, performs packet shaping and optimises the display of data on the local device: interestingly Ericom also offer Blaze as a standalone product. Quest enhanced their own Experience Optimization Protocol (EOP) to become EOP Xtreme a patent pending technology that was specifically designed for users on WAN links with modest to high round trip latency. If you were at Tech-Ed Europe in November, you’d have had chance to see how EOP Xtream was used to accelerate RDP 7.1 with the soon to be released Microsoft RemoteFX to deliver excellent “like-local PC experience” over highly latent networks.

Of course, these solutions are based on delivering applications on Microsoft OSes – yet PV services aren’t limited to Microsoft based solutions. Our PV white-paper was updated to include Aqua Connect’s Terminal Server which allows you to deliver the Mac operating system and its applications to diverse hardware from anywhere. 2011 should see Ulteo open source application delivery solution mature as they build on their partnership with Microsoft to include support for RDP.

The trend in 2010 has been to offer PV as a service that sits alongside a hosted desktop infrastructure to offer organisations choice of how to deliver centralised virtual desktops to get the best economies of scale, and reduce operating and delivery costs. It will be interesting to see if Citrix’s competitors make more not only of their lesser license cost, but of their consolidated management function and support for managing multiple environments – a feature still not available with XenApp/XenDesktop.  2011 will see Microsoft R2′s Service Pack 1 released, which will introduce Microsoft RemoteFX – their updated remote display technology. RemoteFX is designed to dramatically improve the experience for users accessing their desktop remotely.  Quest have already demonstrated their capabilities for integration. Will other vendors be able to introduce changes quickly to keep up?

Centralised desktops, accessed remotely have been difficult to introduce to organisations. Physical desktops or laptops, with software installed locally is still the more common delivery mechanism. Will heavy snows that top and tailed 2010, the resurgence of tablet device and the growing demand for mobile/home working act as push for more access to services. If so, PV will deliver a quick return on investment. However, in providing remote access the issues for remote users are not simply confined to being able to watch videos or Flash animations. The ability to manage and maintain user application settings between remote and local environments, the facility to interact with peripherals such as USB drives, web-cams and scanners, and the all important ability to print.. these requirements can often be overlooked. Citrix has lead the way here, their HDX technologies offering wide device support. 2010 saw the release of XenVault for example, a method of encrypting data on the end-device that is saved from a XenApp session and XenApp 6 introducing remote printing optimisations. Printing and remote USB/CD drive access are typically the largest headache for PV admins. Once everyone has got over the flashy-glittery-loveliness of RemoteFX it’ll be interesting to see who best addresses these functions going as 2011 trundles on by.

All the very best for the coming year.