A decade ago, Ionia, Mich.-based Independent Bank began using Citrix Systems Inc.'s XenApp during the WinFrame days, and today the company uses application virtualization software to deliver some 140 applications to 90% of its end users.
Ben Kohn, a senior systems architect at Independent Bank, said the company's virtualized applications with Citrix Systems' XenApp 5 (with Service Pack 1) run the gamut from Internet Explorer Web pages with specific ActiveX Controls to Adobe Acrobat. The bank delivers these apps using Citrix terminal services to 1,300 users in local and remote branch offices.
The biggest benefit of XenApp, which essentially enables IT virtualize desktop applications and deliver them to end users via the data center, is in management. XenApp allows IT to manage desktop applications as a single image and makes tasks such as patch management and installing security updates much easier, Kohn said.
Kohn plans to upgrade to XenApp 5 Service Pack 2 (SP2), which was announced earlier this week, when it is available on Sept. 29. New features in SP2 add management capabilities and are intended to improve the end-user experience -- which is an important factor in IT's willingness to adopt XenApp.
Despite benefits, application virtualization adoption low
Independent Bank is part of a small subset of virtualization users that have implemented application and desktop virtualization. In the Virtualization Management Survey Report by Boulder, Colo.-based consulting firm Focus, 31% of 262 respondents from small, medium-sized and large companies said they use application virtualization, and only 21% said they use desktop virtualization. This compares with 80% of companies running server virtualization in production.
Part of the problem is that many desktop and application virtualization solutions don't give end users an experience that mirrors native performance, said Andi Mann, the vice president of research at Enterprise Management Associates Inc. (EMA).
This is a problem, Mann said, because 75% of organizations rate quality-of-user experience as the top decision factor for endpoint virtualization. "Bottom line: If users aren't happy, endpoint virtualization projects stall, underachieve or fail," he said. "IT admins need to make sure end users can access all their applications seamlessly."
Part of the problem is that some applications don't work well -- or at all -- on server-based terminal services and need a local, desktop operating system to run properly.
VM-hosted apps feature extends application virtualization
That makes the VM-hosted apps capability one of the most notable features in XenApp SP2. The new capability allows IT to install applications onto a virtual or physical PC and run these apps inside a virtual machine hosted in a data center.
The VM-hosted model of application virtualization also eliminates interoperability issues by encapsulating apps in a virtual machine (VM). While application compatibility isn't a huge problem today, "there are some cases -- as with old legacy apps or homegrown apps -- that have compatibility issues," according to Bill Hartwick, a product marketing manager at Citrix. "This feature is the problem-solver for that issue."
Independent Bank's Kohn has beta-tested the VM-hosted apps feature in XenApp 5 SP2 and said its true value is that it lets IT deploy apps they wouldn't have touched before.
"This feature is good for apps from ISVs [independent software vendors] that won't support their products in Citrix but will support it in, say, Windows XP for a single user," Kohn said. "This capability allows us to install a single instance of the app. And now we can virtualize that last 5% to 10% of apps we wouldn't have considered before."
Of course, there are downsides to the VM-hosted model. One is that full VMs are more resource-hungry than are terminal services, so you can't get as many users onto each server. There are more active images too, so that can require more management and maintenance, Mann said.
"But for the edge cases that need it, this is a very smart solution that is going to really help customers achieve endpoint virtualization goals," he said.
XenApp 5 SP2 adds management, improves end-user experience
The new service pack also includes policy-based power management capabilities to reduce power consumption and load-testing capabilities to test server capacity and utilization. This is huge for Kohn, because capacity management is a challenge. "It is a manual effort to manage capacity," Kohn said. "This feature lets you, on demand, spin up servers when needed and spin down servers when capacity is low without the end user ever knowing."
Other new features in XenApp 5 SP2 include HDX (high-definition experience) MediaStream for Flash, which uses client-side resources to process Flash-based content like videos, so it seems as if the content is running on the desktop. Without this feature, there is performance overhead as the Flash-based content bits are delivered from the server to the desktop.
XenApp SP2 also includes an improved HDX IntelliCache for messaging application programming interface (API) protocol for better performance of Microsoft Exchange email to branch and mobile users. It eliminates protocol "chattiness" and automatically compresses and deduplicates email attachments so that Outlook and Exchange response times are faster over high-latency connections.
Note: While Citrix XenApp is a major player in the application virtualization space, several other providers offer various methods of delivery. More information can be found in BrianMadden.com's Applications Virtualization Solutions Overview and Feature Compare matrix.
Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.