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Citrix Xen desktop challenges VMware

At iForum 07 this week, Citrix will show IT managers its desktop virtualization strategy as it moves toward a new life beyond that of Microsoft bedfellow.

LAS VEGAS – The old Citrix Systems Inc. is familiar to IT managers in Windows shops as a stalwart of thin client computing and for being a close partner of Microsoft.

IT managers at the Citrix iForum 07 Application Delivery Expo here this week will see an updated Citrix -- now fortified by its late August acquisition of XenSource Inc. -- ready to rumble with client and server virtualization's Bigfoot VMware Inc.

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In the first half of 2008, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Citrix will release of XenDesktop, a platform that gives customers a one-stop shop for desktop virtualization using the Citrix ICA delivery protocol. XenDesktop will ship with the Xen hypervisor but customers can still use VMware virtual machines if they wish.

The technology joins the newly rebranded server virtualization platform Citrix XenServer, formerly known as just XenServer, and Citrix Presentation Server, the company's application virtualization platform.

"By using the XenSource [virtual machines], IT shops can, but no longer must, use VMware virtual machines, which were necessary to deliver complete desktop virtualization," said Natalie Lambert, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm.

There is more than one way to offer virtualized desktops, whether it is by running them on a data center server or by running on the OS in a virtualized PC, for example. Lambert added that Citrix now has an advantage over VMware in that it can manage multiple types of virtualization from one console, compared with VMware's Virtual Desktop Infrastructure architecture that only allows the type of hosted desktop based on the use of virtual machines.

When XenDesktop ships next year, it will come in several versions: standard, enterprise and platinum, depending on the size of the customer installation.

Customers are expressing huge interest in desktop virtualization as a way to lower costs, improve security and to simplify desktop management. Citrix has had to pick up the pace to compete in a world it once owned. It now faces stiff competition from new players and new technologies.

The main event at Citrix is its Presentation Server, which adds features on top of Microsoft's thin client Terminal Services computing platform. Although VMware dominates the overall virtualization market today, Citrix also has a large customer base.

One customer with products from both companies said Citrix's experience with server-based computing, plus its deep relationship with Microsoft, might bode well for them. Thomas Direct Sales Inc., a Clifton, N.J.-based marketing and promotional advertising company uses Citrix Presentation Server and VMware's ESX server virtualization platform.

About 65% of Thomas Direct end users run applications on thin clients. Frank Urena, chief information officer at the company, said he checked out VMware's desktop virtualization product, VDI, back in 2004, but it was determined that the Citrix thin client set up was sufficient. "We didn't see a need to make a jump to VDI, but that can change -- especially if Citrix gets into the game," Urena said.

Citrix has provided thin client computing through a variety of products starting in 1989. Its portfolio was transformed more than once before it licensed Microsoft's Terminal Server and sold added functions on top of that platform with what is known now as Presentation Server.

Citrix diversifies

"Citrix has, by hook or by crook, been in a position where the majority of its revenue, profitability and business come from one product," Mark Margevicius, a research director and vice president at Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm.

In the past few years, Citrix has made numerous acquisitions, notably NetScaler, which makes network load balancing gear; and Ardence Inc., which provides application delivery tools; and XenSource. All of the acquisitions and technologies are aimed at providing ways for Citrix to diversify from Presentation Server, Margevicius said.

Also at iForum 07, the company will add a smart auditor to its Presentation Server, a policy-driven feature at the user and application level that does a full recording and playback of any application session.

And Citrix executives said the company will embed a telephony feature within its application delivery infrastructure. Easy Call lets a user click on a phone number and initiate a call from within an application.

Easy Call comes standard in the Platinum editions of Citrix NetScaler for Web applications and Citrix Presentation Server for Windows applications, company executives said. It will work with both traditional and IP-based phone systems. The technology requires a Citrix Communication Gateway, which sits between the PBX and the Citrix delivery infrastructure. The gateway sells for $3,500 and supports about 10,000 users.

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