Project Avalon: Will Citrix Put VMware Horizon to the Sword?

Project Avalon was announced by Citrix back in May. Project AvalonAvalon is to deliver Windows apps and desktops as a true cloud service. Since then, there has been speculation on what that actually entails. “Cloud” or “Cloud Service” can have many different connotations; indeed, for many the very term “cloud” fills their ears with a high-pitched nee and causes a yearn to live in an anarcho-syndicalist commune.

Running small-scale, departmental-level deployments of desktop virtualization is relatively straightforward. Scale past thousands to several thousands of desktops and applications, and the process of management and delivery gets much harder. More importantly, data centre technology has changed. How do you scale an environment while segregating the roles of a virtual desktop administrator from those of the storage, networking, or virtual infrastructure teams? How can the data centre infrastructure team provide the right service to the desktop team, and vice versa, so that they can optimize delivery of virtual desktops?

Citrix has FlexCast, the concept that IT should be able to deliver a variety of types of virtual instances, with each tailored to meet performance, security, and flexibility requirements. But while FlexCast gives choices for users, the simplicity of the user interface belies the rapid duck-paddling of disparate, separately developed and maintained products that organisations have to maintain at the back-end, many of which creak at the mere thought of a little bit of scaled peril.

To avoid smelling of elderberries, Citrix needs to make the administration and deployment of their Windows application and desktop delivery more straightforward and relevant to current delivery methods. Easier large/massive deployments are necessary in order to maintain large enterprise account revenue and to entice service providers to build solutions on Citrix software. Project Avalon is intended to allow organisations to effectively centralize IT to provide cost savings through scale and administration and maintain security, while enabling decentralized IT resources to utilize those central services to give users and customers a productive experience.

At the same time, the VMware Horizon Suite is intended to provide the end user with a single place to get access to their applications, data, and desktops and to give IT a single management console to manage entitlements, policies, and security.

At Synergy 2012 in Barcelona, components of Project Avalon were revealed. Project Excalibur will focus on creating an integrated FlexCast platform, and Project Merlin will deliver self-service provision, management, and service orchestration.

What will these components provide, and where will it lead customers? Will embarking on a quest to get to Avalon lead to the promised grail or just to some watery tart?

Project Excalibur

Project Excalibur is the unification of hosted applications and desktops (XenApp) with personalized desktops (XenDesktop) within a single architecture and management experience. A key component of Excalibur is FlexCast 2.0 for Simple, Unified Service Delivery.  XenApp’s Independent Management Architecture (IMA) technology will be replaced by FlexCast Management Architecture (FMA), and FMA will be used by all delivery models of XenDesktop and XenApp and the delivery of Windows images to physical desktops. IMA has been tinkered with over time to increase the scale of XenApp environments, but FMA is a completely new beast. Citrix suggests FMA features will allow scalability to increase fourfold.

Project Avolon: Excalibur Architecure
Excalibur Deployment Components

A preview of Project Excalibur has been available since 1 November – by all means download the tech preview. In an Excalibur architecture, management and delivery components are shared between XenDesktop and XenApp to give administrators a unified management experience.

  • Receiver provides users with self-service access to published resources.
  • StoreFront authenticates users to site(s) hosting resources and manages stores of desktops and applications that users access – Web Interface as a platform is essentially resting, but it will cease to be.
  • Studio is a single management console that enables you to configure and manage your deployment, a dramatic reduction over the 23 consoles you could well have today. Studio provides various wizards to guide you through the process of setting up an environment, creating workloads to host applications and desktops, and assigning applications and desktops to users.
  • Delivery Controller distributes applications and desktops, manages user access, and optimizes connections to applications. Each site will have one or more delivery controllers.
  • Server OS Machines are the “XenApp” replacement, VMs or physical machines based on the Windows Server operating system used for delivering applications or hosted shared desktops to users.
  • Desktop OS Machines are the “XenDesktop” replacement, VMs or physical machines based on the Windows Desktop operating system used for delivering personalized desktops to users, or applications from desktop operating systems.

Project Excalibur also provides enhancements for HDX for Mobile and Video. These enhancements include new upgrades to HDX Broadcast, HDX RealTime, and HDX MediaStream, delivering a new ‘supercodec’ (H.264). Excalibur also features improvements to the company’s HDX Adaptive technology for mobile devices, sensing the device type, processor, GPU, form factor, and network connection, and applying the best delivery technology to ensure a productive experience at the lowest bandwidth possible.

EdgeSight has also been subject to a bit of enchantment. EdgeSight for Real-time Analytics and Service Visibility has been completely redesigned to gives administrators real-time analytics on the experience of end users, helping them quickly diagnose and solve problems within the Citrix environment. Administrators can also analyse trending information, which provides them with powerful, cloud-based automated support capabilities to proactively prevent problems before they occur.

Project Excalibur supports Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 as well as Windows 7 and XP or Windows Server 2008 (R2).

Project Merlin

Project Merlin is not available yet. Merlin will deliver Self-service Provision, Management and Service Orchestration. Automation and orchestration has become a key factor in modern deployments, enabling IT departments and service providers to reduce costs and increase reliability of deployments. Project Merlin adds this functionality by integrating technology from Citrix CloudPortal and the Citrix XenApp Cloud Provider Pack. This creates the possibility of managing and provisioning applications and desktops for their different departments or roles.

Project Merlin will be able to transform application and desktop delivery into a cloud service by using CloudPlatform capabilities. By using CloudPlatform, Citrix will deliver and support  services to tenants or sites based on specific performance thresholds. You will have the ability to shift applications and desktops into any mix of public platforms such as Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure.

Project Merlin also claims “Mix-and-Match Releases for Uninterrupted Service Upgrades“.  Excalibur will allow organisations to manage and maintain Windows Server (post 2008R2) and Windows Desktop OSes (from XP) in the same farm. Citrix users haven’t been able to do this before. Finally, Citrix admins have a feature that Dell vWorkspace admins have had for some time. Merlin will orchestrate both FMA style deployments (Excalibur) and IMA based deployments (XenApp 6.5) allowing customers flexible deployments and additional ways to migrate/upgrade from IMA to FMA using a single, abstracted management tier.

Listen, lad.  I’ve built this kingdom up from nothing.

Citrix was an early champion of centralised delivery of Windows applications and desktops and was (I think) the first to refashion the Martini slogan for data and  application delivery.  A difficulty in being the older product is that everyone else appears to be leaner and faster; much of the competition already supports Windows Server 2012. In getting to Project Avalon, and Excalibur specifically, Citrix has likely annoyed enterprise customers who have “legacy” Citrix products. A case of “if you want to be an ‘enterprise’ supplier, keep a focus on the old stuff, not just the new”.

But, Project Avalon not only gives a framework for delivery of Windows applications and desktops in a multi-device, personal/corporate mash-up, it provides the foundation for greater scalability and also upgradeability. This is good.

Is this better than VMware’s Horizon? The current version of Horizon gets View users to where Citrix users have been for some time. Citrix Web Interface has been delivering multi-farm, multi-environment, application data and desktop delivery for some time. What Citrix is clearing up is primarily the administrative and management functions. For sure, the users get improved services for mobile and audio, but it’s the equivalent of Citrix saying no to that extra pie, going to the gym more often, and stopping drinking the wine when the first bottle is finished. It is the mobility application piece that will be more interesting. Horizon provides access to applications. With Project Avalon, and Excalibur in particular, Citrix is changing the ways those applications are delivered.

XenApp is no longer the massive cash-cow it was for Citrix. Netscaler and on-line services are providing a significant amount of revenue. Windows 2012 will likely satiate a significant chunk of Citrix prospects. Yet, there is a substantial market in larger enterprises and a growing service provider markets, and FlexCast needs a new, more scalable architecture underneath it to tap into that.

There will be a key battle ground in how data and applications are delivered to smartphone and tablets. One answer may seem to be to write a new app to manage a corporate store. However, the huge installed base of MS Windows apps needs to be delivered now and for the next 5-8 years at least. Citrix needs to make the delivery of those applications less complex and needs to allow greater scale.

Apple reinvigorated themselves by re-inventing delivery of data and applications to end users. Avalon is not only legendary as a source of power and healing, but its very etymology suggests Apple.

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