XenServer: A Hypervisor to Be Reckoned with in 2016?

As part of the revised Citrix focus on app and desktop delivery, the XenServer hypervisor is gaining increased attention within Citrix. Is it too little too late, or will IT shops find a way to get over the betrayal they felt when Citrix seemed to abandon XenServer?

One of the reasons VMware has achieved success with Horizon 6 is because one-stop shopping is enabled based on the hypervisor purchase. I.e., if you have purchased VMware vSphere, there is a good chance that VMware will entice you to extend it with its application and desktop virtualization solution. Further, VMware has made it clear that it will not port Horizon 6 to any other hypervisor.

Citrix purchased XenSource in 2007, and during the subsequent years, there has been intermittent emphasis on XenServer. For the first four years, it was top of mind, with robust engineering, new enhancements, and evangelism by the brilliant Simon Crosby. However, for a few years after Simon’s departure in 2011, the XenServer team became scarce and quiet. Rumors surfaced that the lack of focus meant that Citrix was abandoning XenServer. New releases were few and far between, and marketing was lackluster. Hands-on Labs at Citrix Synergy in 2012 were based on Microsoft Hyper-V, which further caused participants to question the future of XenServer.

During that time, VMware continued to improve vSphere and made strong market share gains with its hypervisor. Despite its cost, VMware vSphere became the de facto standard within many organizations, including those IT shops that had previously started down the path of XenServer. Having spent many hours with VMware vSphere, I can say it is certainly a robust, scalable, and feature-rich hypervisor.

Although Microsoft threatened to become a major force in the hypervisor market starting with Windows Server 2008 R2, and there was a surge with the Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 R2 releases, it never overtook the market or retained significant share. Having spent a fair amount of time hands-on with Hyper-V, I found it to be clumsy and lacking intuitiveness.

Fast-forward to 2015. With the XenServer 6.5 release early this year, Citrix added features and let it be known that XenServer wasn’t going to roll over and die. The new feature set was compelling, including such items as 64-bit hardware support, impressive vGPU scalability, and significant performance improvements.

However, XenServer had gone eighteen months without so much as a dot release or feature enhancements, and in the world of technology, that’s equivalent to forever. The market had to be re-introduced to XenServer, and IT shops that had felt betrayed during that quiet period needed to be convinced that it was here to stay. Marketing and stated focus can only address some of that; longevity and persistence are the real tests.

It’s difficult to ascertain the real market share of VMware vSphere, Microsoft Hyper-V, and Citrix XenServer as it pertains to application and desktop virtualization workloads. Of course, we know that Horizon 6 workloads run 100% on VMware vSphere. A fair percentage of Microsoft Remote Desktop implementations run on Hyper-V, but statistics vary as to whether most XenApp/‌XenDesktop deployments run on VMware vSphere or Citrix XenServer.

From an IT perspective, migrating to XenServer for XenApp/XenDesktop workloads has some advantages. “Free” is a compelling word. Very compelling. Citrix includes XenServer as part of XenApp/XenDesktop Platinum licensing. Even those who felt betrayed throughout the silent years or voice concerns that its feature set or management tools are not as sophisticated as VMware vSphere’s may get overruled based on price. It’s hard to argue with free.

Is XenServer a force to be reckoned with in 2016 for XenApp/‌XenDesktop implementations? Some Citrix statistics will tell you that the majority of XenApp/XenDesktop implementations are based on XenServer. I’m not so sure about that, but its definitely a fair percentage and growing. After all, XenServer is straightforward yet full of features and functionality. Out of the big three hypervisors, it is definitely the easiest to use.

From a support and maintenance perspective, running your application and desktop virtualization solution on that vendor’s hypervisor makes business and technical sense in many ways; e.g., issue resolution is much easier. VMware fully realized this several years ago. Citrix has finally come to that realization as well, but is it too little too late?

With the economy improving, many IT organizations are finally moving forward with much-needed system upgrades in 2016, which may include the application and desktop virtualization solution, as well as the hypervisor. As XenApp/XenDesktop upgrades are planned, XenServer has greater potential to become the new hypervisor platform.

Staying hypervisor agnostic has its advantages, and Citrix is in an excellent position to support its own and other hypervisors for XenApp/XenDesktop workloads. If Citrix can demonstrate long-term XenServer focus, an increasing number of IT shops will forgive and forget the blunder of 2012–2014, and it will be a hypervisor to be reckoned with in 2016.

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