Who can outmanoeuvre Citrix Flexcast?

There are three fundamental difficulties facing any hosted desktop solution. They are :

1. What to do with the desktops that can’t be virtualised?

2. What to do with the desktops that can’t be virtualised?

and, most importantly,

3. What to do with the desktops that can’t be virtualised?

Of all the vendors in the hosted desktop space, Citrix has been delivering desktop virtualisation solutions the longest. As such, perhaps they are the most aware that an enterprise desktop strategy isn’t about delivering a single solution. A solution needs to be flexible enough to present a variety of services to a range of devices. This isn’t just about having different client support, but about delivering applications and data either to different environments: secure and insecure, managed and unmanaged, fat and thin.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Citrix’s product portfolio is its FlexCast model. Other hosted desktop vendors have a similar option. Some do not.

What is FlexCast? Why is it important to customers? Can a hosted desktop vendor survive without having something similar?

What is Flexcast

Different types of workers across an enterprise need different types of workspaces delivered to different devices. Some require simplicity and standardization, others require high performance and personalization. Importantly, users may need to change between types of workspaces depending on their activity.

Citrix FlexCast isn’t a product, or a protocol – but rather the concept that IT should be able to deliver a variety of types of virtual desktop with each tailored to meet the performance, security and flexibility requirements. There is no one size that fits all so why try and shoehorn users into a particular solution?

Flexcast has five delivery options:

  • FlexCast for Apps: Hosted Shared, Hosted VM, and Streamed: The goal for Apps is allow Microsoft Windows applications to be centralized and managed in the datacenter, and delivered as a service to physical and virtual desktops. By either using the published application feature of XenApp (or XenDesktop)  applications are delivered via ICA for use while connected,  or you can opt to use application virtualisation (with either Citrix’s own solution, or Microsoft App-V) directly to the endpoint for use when offline.
  • Local Virtual Machine: Using Citrix’s client hypervisor solution XenClient, local VM desktops can offer the benefits of centralized, single-instance management to mobile workers that need to use their laptops offline. When they are able to connect to a suitable network, changes to the OS, apps and user data are automatically synchronized with the datacenter.
  • Streamed VHD Streamed VHDs leverage the local processing power of rich clients, while providing centralized single-image management of the desktop. It can be ideal for environments that want to use diskless PCs for maximum data security. However, while it does offer centralisation, there is a requirement to have a robust networking and delivery infrastructure to maintain the delivery of images to end devices.
  • Hosted Desktops  Hosted desktops offer a personalized Windows desktop experience, which can be delivered over the network to a wide ranges of devices. Hosted desktops are persistent – the user will connect to the same virtual machine each time, every time.  This option combines the benefits of central management with full user personalization.
  • Hosted Shared Hosted Shared desktops provide a pre-configured, streamlined and standardized environment with a core set of applications. Citrix offer two options here, shared  desktops can be provided either with XenDesktop, or with XenApp. XenDesktop offers both an x32 and an x64 desktop OS environment whereas greater density of concurrent users per server can be gained with XenApp – all be it only on an x64 server OS.

Arguably, there should be a sixth component: managed end-point without virtualisation. Hosted Apps deliver the apps – but not the OS. While there is Local VM option (and I’m a big fan of Client Hypervisors), it is not viable for all devices. Sure, VHD Streamed is one solution for OS delivery, but there is no option within the Citrix FlexCast model to deliver, manage and maintain a per-desktop-OS: this is still an important model for many organisations. A cheeky acquisition of an innovative company like Wanova could plug that particular gap, and would Microsoft be that bothered and see it as a challenge? Unlikely. It would offer an alternative to the “VDI” tax.

Importantly, no part of the FlexCast model requires a secondary/different Citrix license. True, there is a difficulty from an administrative management model that the different model types don’t have the same management interface: but this is road mapped to change over time and is unlikely to significantly impact on the Capex for a project


Flexcast Alternatives

Microsoft? All the VDI vendors are in fact offering a virtualisation solution to host applications designed to run on Windows. To run through the FlexCast model Microsoft  has Remote Desktop Services for hosted desktops and hosted shared; application virtualisation with App-V; delivery of local VMs using Med-V or Windows XP mode.  And of course, installation services allow you to deliver the OS to devices on your network.

Quest’s collaboration with MokaFive allowed Quest to quietly talk about the “Virtual Desktop Continuum” – with MokaFive’s Live Player adding Local VMs to compliment Quest’s PV/VDI solutions. Quest & Ericom don’t have their own desktop virtualisation solutions: but here they could argue they both integrate access to and delivery of Microsoft’s App-V.


Product Presentation Virtualisation/Terminal Services Virtual Desktop Infrastructure
Application Virtualisation Local Virtual Machines Streamed OS Delivery Traditional Desktop Management
Citrix X X X X X
Ericom X X
Quest/MokaFive X X X
Microsoft X X X X  X
VMware X X

VMware’s VDI failing, a one trick pony?

An issue with View is that a VDI-only solution is a limiting strategy when deployed on its own. For some use cases (off-line access) it is irrelevant, for others (high numbers of task based workers) it is expensive. As long as VMware is only in the VDI niche, Citrix is in a commanding position to keep dominating VMware in the market – while Citrix owns that circus, View could be considered just a one trick pony.

VMware need to drop the idea that desktops are only about VDI and embrace a wider delivery platform: however, VMware is reducing its delivery options – their local VM option ACE is OA as of December 2011. Project Horizon is important because it gives VMware a chance to offers organisations the option of breaking out of the requirement to deliver a desktop and focus on the applications. But of course when Horizon ships there is and will be a substantial gap between “what is in the workspace now” and “a pure SaaS delivery mechanism”. Deploying virtualised application packages is insufficient: this is application delivery, but you also need to consider data delivery. For many applications for businesses today it is the marriage of the data and application together that needs to be virtualised and presented to users for those users to work effectively.

Perhaps an acquisition of the likes of Ericom could offer an opportunity for VMware. Ericom’s PowerTerm WebConnect provides a management interface for PV, and they have developed an innovative remoting protocol in Blaze that not only offers an alternative to RDP and could compliment PCoIP as well as being one of the first vendors to deliver a usable HTML 5 client offering.

Flexibility is Key for Workspace Delivery

Can a hosted desktop vendor survive without having something similar? Of course. But, can a customer offer a viable and cost effective workspace delivery platform if they only use VDI?

If you are able to utilise Presentation virtualisation/Remote Desktop Session host whenever you can you can reduce the cost per user significantly over VDI.  Having a range of flavours better suits user’s tastes. Local VMs, client hypervisors should not be considered as simply “Offline VDI”. If you have a device capable of delivering a quality experience with a local VM then why not use it all the time and avoid the need for additional costly datacenter hardware running hosted VDI for each user. And of course, do not ignore the question – “what to do with the desktops that can’t be virtualised”.