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Microsoft fine-tunes desktop virtualization story

Connection broker: Check. VDI suite: Check. Microsoft is polishing its desktop virtualization act with Citrix in a starring role.

Microsoft and Citrix Systems Inc. are close and getting closer when it comes to delivering virtual desktops to the enterprise.

Just one week after buddy Citrix disclosed its own application virtualization plans, Microsoft has detailed a virtual desktop infrastructure strategy with Citrix in a lead role.

Microsoft will release to manufacturing the System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) this week. After that, Citrix and Microsoft will offer a joint virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) suite sometime this quarter. The VDI product will include Citrix XenDesktop 2.1, which includes the Citrix connection broker (Microsoft has decided not to build it own broker), running on Hyper-V, Microsoft VMM and other System Center products.

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It's unclear today how Microsoft and Citrix will rationalize overlaps in their respective product lines when they debut the VDI suite. Both companies sell application and server virtualization products and terminal services on their own, for example.

The close alignment is good news for enterprises on several fronts, experts say. Citrix, via its Presentation Server, now called XenApp, has been in the business of virtualizing applications and desktops longer than anyone.

The virtual desktop is a great story for anyone who has already invested in Citrix, said Nelson Ruest, principal at Resolutions Enterprises Ltd., a Victoria, Canada-based consulting firm that specializes in Microsoft technology.

"XenDesktop runs on any platform," Ruest said. "We've had a lot of customers who use both Citrix and VMware so it's great to see that they can move forward with the investments they've already made."

And Microsoft is smart to hook its wagon to Citrix because the vendor's technology is used by more enterprises than any other vendor's to virtualize desktops, added Andi Mann, research director at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA), a Boulder, Colo.-based consulting firm.

On the other hand, Microsoft has long been in the desktop lifecycle management business, which is a discipline that Mann said he believes will encompass desktop virtualization.

"Providing applications to the end user has always been a function of desktop lifecycle management, and the player I see leading this space is Microsoft, but there are others such as Symantec and LANDesk," Mann said.

Application Virtualization 4.5

Microsoft will also release to manufacturing Application Virtualization 4.5, the SoftGrid technology it acquired when it bought Softricity. It will be part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) 2008 R2 release, and be available in the next few weeks.

The release works with its line of System Center management products and has a feature called dynamic suite composition that allows virtualized applications to share middleware components. Two virtualized applications can now share a copy of a SQL Server database, for example, rather than having to configure and test the database for both applications.

In addition, a kink has been worked out that prevented two virtualized applications from talking to each other.

"All the major players -- ThinApps [now owned by VMware], Altiris' Software Virtualization Solution [now owned by Symantec] and Microsoft all had the problem of applications not being able to integrate when they were virtualized unless they were packaged together before they were deployed," Ruest said. "That was a big challenge they've all worked out."

Challenges ahead

Microsoft's Scott Woodgate, director of Windows client product management, said he believes that application virtualization will dominate the desktop just as hardware virtualization dominates the server today. Application Virtualization 4.5 should play a big role in the game, he said.

Well, perhaps not, unless Microsoft offers the technology to all customers and not just those with Software Assurance, Ruest said. MDOP and, in turn, Application Virtualization 4.5 is available only to customers with Software Assurance licensing maintenance agreements.

"If Microsoft makes [Application Virtualization] 4.5 generally available as its own SKU, then it could take the world by fire," he said.

More licensing tweaks

Last month, Microsoft introduced broad licensing changes for application virtualization by allowing IT managers to move 41 server applications between servers and server farms without having to pay more for licenses. But, by comparison, it has made few changes in desktop virtualization.

Now Microsoft is tweaking its Vista enterprise desktop license. Today, IT shops can download a virtual machine with a corporate image onto a USB stick for employees to take home, for example. A corporate image can now be put on a contractor's laptop, and employees who own their own laptop can download a virtual machine that has a standard corporate image. All of these scenarios are now allowed under the customer's Vista enterprise desktop license agreement.

For service providers, Microsoft is licensing its Application Virtualization 4.5 technology to let third-party vendors stream applications to the client as part of its service provider licensing agreement.

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