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Who's who in the desktop virtualization space

Get to know and understand the four primary desktop virtualization vendors: Citrix, VMware, Symantec and Microsoft.

I'm writing this week's column from my hotel room at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas where I'm attending Citrix Synergy, the weeklong industry conference with quite a bit of content on desktop virtualization. In addition to Citrix, there are over 100 vendors in the desktop virtualization space, and trying to learn about all of them is completely overwhelming.

There are, however, four primary vendors that are worth understanding and getting to know: Citrix, VMware, Symantec and Microsoft.

Citrix deserves credit for "inventing" desktop virtualization, at least this time around. Their WinFrame and MetaFrame products of the 1990s introduced the masses to the concept that your desktop could be managed separately from your client device. They, also, single-handedly introduced Windows server-based computing and thin client computing to the world.

While Citrix has dominated the terminal server-based market, they're facing tough competition in the VDI space. Now, Citrix is at somewhat of a crossroads where they are trying to protect their Terminal Server revenue -- with "XenApp," the current version of MetaFrame -- while trying to compete on price and features in the virtual desktop space -- with "XenDesktop," their desktop product.

If Citrix "invented" server-based computing, then VMware "invented" virtualization. Everyone knows VMware's server virtualization products really took off, and in many ways they only entered the desktop virtualization space after thinking, "ok, now that we've virtualized all these servers, what else can we virtualize?"

Because VMware is a hardware virtualization company, all of their desktop virtualization products have focused on VDI (where you run a bunch of Windows XP virtual machines in your datacenter) instead of terminal services. But now VMware is scrambling to build, buy or partner with companies who can round out their solution set, for application virtualization, display protocols, profile management, etc.

Symantec has been in the client management space for a long time, both with their antivirus and management products they got when they acquired Altiris. Virtual desktops could be somewhat of a risk for Symantec -- if all your desktops are virtualized, you don't need Symantec to manage them.

More from Brian Madden:
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  • Virtual desktops -- not less to buy but likely less to maintain
  • Remote display protocol advances will usher in a new era of VDI
  • Symantec is tackling that challenge very strategically. Over the past two years they've acquired or licensed several key pieces of desktop virtualization technology, and now they have a fairly impressive suite which includes application virtualization and streaming, a connection broker and profile management.

    This is interesting because, as a company, Symantec sells more products each year than Citrix and VMware combined. And while Citrix and VMware are locked in battle with their "niche" customers, Symantec is well positioned to swoop in and lead their "mainstream" desktop customers into the world of desktop virtualization.

    Microsoft is the dark horse in this race. Clearly they have the most to lose since they have a monopoly on the corporate desktop. Microsoft fought desktop virtualization for years with arcane licensing policies that essentially prohibited customers from virtualizing their Windows desktops. But now even they are understanding that desktop virtualization is real.

    Microsoft has a massive amount of technology in this space -- protocols, client virtualization, application virtualization and VDI capabilities -- all built-in to the upcoming release of Windows Server 2008 R2. And by working with partners such as Citrix and Quest Software for desktop virtualization, Microsoft will ensure that their version of virtualization for the desktop will be relevant.

    It's an interesting time to be watching this market. We have four huge companies who have each dominated a certain area of IT over the years, yet with desktop virtualization, we have no idea who's going to win. How exciting!

    Brian Madden, Independent Industry Analyst and Blogger
    Brian Madden is known throughout the world as an opinionated, super technical, fiercely independent desktop virtualization expert. He's written several books and over 1,000 articles about desktop and application virtualization. Brian's blog,, receives millions of visitors per year and is a leading source for conversation, debate and discourse about the application and desktop virtualization industry. Brian is also the creator of BriForum, the premier independent application delivery technical conference.

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