Citrix advances management simplicity with XenDesktop 5.0

Citrix XenDesktop 5.0 gets early raves from IT pros, many of whom claim virtual desktop tools are still too complicated. But XenClient 1.0 gets only raspberries.

In the developing virtual desktop market, leaders Citrix and VMware constantly leapfrog each other with each product refresh. Citrix Systems Inc. took a turn this week by disclosing a revamped version of its flagship software, XenDesktop 5.0, with improved integration, interface and, above all, simplicity.

The company took the wraps off of XenDesktop 5.0 at Citrix Synergy 2010 in Berlin this week. The software adds the ability to encrypt corporate data on employee-owned PCs, and it has a new application-delivery portal that offers more IT control over Web-based apps. Also, the company promised that it will take only 10 minutes to deploy XenDesktop 5.0's virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) components. IT departments that install Citrix's Type 1 client hypervisor, XenClient, can also add offline support to XenDesktop 5.0.

Citrix's biggest competitor for virtual desktops, VMware, started shipping its View 4.5 product with offline support via a Type 2 client hypervisor in September, and the company discussed an application delivery strategy at VMworld 2010 last month.

Eugene Alfaro, an IT operations and support manager at Simpson Strong-Tie in Pleasanton, Calif., has long used Citrix XenApp to deliver applications to the construction product company's 3,000 end users. He has thus far resisted XenDesktop because the technology didn't included offline support or the type of portability he needs.

But in the new release, Alfaro said, "XenDesktop with XenClient makes virtual desktops portable and creates the type of desktop environment we have envisioned for a long time."

IT pros who tested XenDesktop 5.0 said it is a major improvement over the previous version. It has improved management integration, a better look and feel, and simpler installation. But experts were disappointed with XenClient and its shortcomings.

XenClient: Your typical 1.0 product
Citrix released XenClient 1.0 late last month and said it would integrate the software with XenDesktop 5.0. But its limitations overshadow the offline support benefits. For example, XenClient only supports Intel vPro chips, it has very limited hardware compatibility, and the "seamless application-sharing" feature uses local configuration files, so there is no central management layer, said Jonathan Hassell, president of The Sun Valley Group Inc., an IT consultancy in Matthews, N.C.

In addition, many of the features in XenClient 1.0 remain experimental, including 3-D graphics support and "secure app sharing," which let users access apps from multiple virtual machines (VMs) on their desktop. Dynamic Mode, where a single gold master image on the network can be accessed by many different users at once, is also experimental, according to Brian Madden, a desktop virtualization expert and industry blogger.

Hassell said there are plenty of quirks that nontechnical end users might not notice. In fact, there isn't much advantage to using XenClient 1.0, he said. "The good stuff is all premature and not supported, and it's a management nightmare," Hassell said.

XenDesktop 5.0 easier to deploy, manage
Citrix overhauled its desktop virtualization strategy last year by unifying XenApp and XenDesktop to simplify licensing. Ironically, combining those two products added complexity to architecting a XenDesktop 4.0 environment.

So in this version, Citrix added deployment wizards and intuitive interfaces that make it much easier to set up. "Now, you can go from the box to fully installed in 10 minutes," said Wes Wasson, chief strategy officer at Citrix.

One of the new tools is Desktop Studio, a wizard that guides IT administrators through installation, configuration and creation of new virtual desktops. Another tool, Desktop Director, is a place for help desk admin to see the entire desktop environment and troubleshoot problems with specific desktops.

Those tools plug into larger management systems, such as Microsoft Systems Center, and XenDesktop 5.0 includes a new software development kit (SDK) for integration with third-party systems management tools.

It was critical for Citrix to address management and deployment complexities, since they were the two greatest sources of aggravation to IT managers in XenDesktop deployments, according to Chris Wolf, a virtualization analyst at Gartner Inc.

Self-service application delivery
Citrix also added capabilities to its application-delivery portal, Citrix Dazzle, but it dropped the "Dazzle" name in favor of "Citrix Receiver."

Either way, the "universal software client" lets end users access both local and Web-based applications from various types of client devices using a single sign-on. Here's how it works: When users search for external Software as a Service (SaaS) apps such as Salesforce.com or Dropbox through Citrix Receiver, the apps appear in the Receiver app store along with internal Windows apps. If a user is authorized to use the requested app, his login credentials are used to log him in automatically.

The single sign-on capability requires Citrix NetScaler and the new Citrix "OpenCloud Access" module, a technology that coordinates user credentials between cloud apps and internal apps.

Citrix Receiver is similar to VMware's Project Horizon desktop application delivery strategy , but VMware's product won't be ready until sometime next year.

Whether it's from VMware or Citrix, IT pros like the idea of end-user self-service because it lightens the help desk workload and gives them more control over applications located in public clouds, Simpson Strong-Tie's Alfaro said.

"With [Citrix Receiver], we can preapprove enterprise apps and noncorporate apps and deliver what we want end users to access within a controlled environment," Alfaro said. "It gives us more visibility over what end users are doing."

Encrypting corporate data on BYOPCs
Another new capability in XenDesktop 5.0 is XenVault, a response to the growing "bring your own PC" or BYOPC trend.

With XenVault, IT shops can deliver corporate apps as an on-demand service, plus encrypt and save any related documents automatically in a folder on the user's laptop. Then, when employees leave the company or if laptops are lost or stolen, IT can remotely wipe any corporate data from the encrypted file.

The combination of Citrix Receiver and XenVault will be important to companies that support BYOPC, Gartner's Wolf said.

"The bring-your-own-device approaches only works when you can support all of the common devices users' access. That's something Citrix can do today," he said. "Bringing more in terms of self-service to Receiver and the SaaS integration is a very big deal."

Overall, XenDesktop 5.0 offers support for some of IT's most pressing issues, such as supporting external contractors and offshore developers, as well as addressing integration with SaaS, Wolf said.

XenDesktop 5.0 is scheduled to ship in the fourth quarter of 2010 and is priced the same as XenDesktop 4.0, starting at $95 per user or per device for the VDI-only edition. The Enterprise or Platinum editions are priced at $225 and $350, respectively.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, Senior News Writer.

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