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Building a XenDesktop virtual architecture requires care

Desktop virtualization products such as Citrix's XenDesktop require a solid plan, close cooperation among teams and reasonable expectations. Anything less could spell trouble.

Many IT pros who thought they could build a virtual desktop environment without a well thought out strategy, defined use cases and cooperation from the disparate IT teams in the data center have all learned one thing -- these products are not toys.

That's what Citrix said in response to complaints from people about various problems with architecting XenDesktop. One such person is Jeremiah Logan, a desktop administrator at an insurance company in Lansing, Mich. He has been testing Citrix XenDesktop 4 and VMware View 4 over the past month as part of a 1,500-seat desktop virtualization trial.

The company already had VMware's ESX on the back end and ThinApp for application virtualization, so Logan was familiar with VMware technology. He put View 4 on two VMware-based servers and XenDesktop 4 on another two VMware servers, and within two weeks of going live, the VMware View users were up and running "with very minor wrinkles," he said.

More on XenDesktop:
What you need to know about Citrix XenDesktop 4

VMware vs. Citrix virtual desktops -- what's the better deal?

Citrix to combine virtual desktop products, lower cost

The Citrix side has been another experience entirely.

"I was pretty agnostic over which technology we used, but the difference in configuration, performance and ease of administration has been incredible," Logan said. "[With XenDesktop], simple issues such as adding an application to the master template have required two working days to implement, with on-site visits and screen-sharing sessions lasting six hours or more."

He also had trouble integrating Citrix Password Manager into XenDesktop. After hours troubleshooting problems, Logan was directed to a Citrix article stating that it simply would not work. "This one, I am still trying to wrap my mind around," he said.

Logan gave Citrix until the close of business on Feb. 26 to get XenDesktop up and running, but Citrix could only get about 90% of it done and no users live, so Logan canceled the Citrix side of the pilot altogether.

"By no means do we have a terribly complicated environment, and if we could not succeed, I wonder what this means for companies that have more precise needs," Logan said. But, he added, "I still don't believe Citrix is a bad product necessarily, just that we encountered a lousy implementation of it."

Claudio Rodrigues, CEO of WTS.Labs Inc., also had a frustrating experience testing XenDesktop on VMware ESXi 4.X. He hit a number of snags along the way, including virtual machines (VMs) that did not run when they should and unreliable connections, which he has also blogged about.

Citrix: No one said it was easy
Citrix is aware that IT professionals are having difficulties with XenDesktop and said that most problems are to the result of poor planning, a lack of cooperation from the various teams in the datacenter and improper expectations about how quickly it can be installed.

"Customers get excited and want to see everything put together in one [proof of concept], and they want to be able to play with everything right away," said Calvin Hsu, a product director for XenDesktop. "But there is a process of defining use cases and the types of apps they need to have in place first. You can't just plop XenDesktop on top of everything as an afterthought."

Of course, enterprise IT departments wouldn't have those improper expectations if vendor marketing spin didn't lead them to believe that they could get hundreds of virtual desktops running in no time, said Dennis Rachiele, a senior network administrator at Providence, R.I.-based Taco-HVAC who is in the midst of a XenDesktop deployment project.

"While that is true in the aspect of creating the VMs, actually getting 1,500 users to connect to them takes planning and time," he said.

Vendors talk a lot about deployment times, and VMware often says it takes three times longer to install and integrate XenDesktop that VMware View. However, IT admins should know that's because View only does one part of what XenDesktop does. Since XenDesktop has many capabilities bolted together into one offering, it makes sense that it takes more time to architect, according to a number of IT consultants.

In fact, Citrix published a XenDesktop Modular Reference Architecture manual in January that states, "Creating an all encompassing architecture could take years to design and implement." The manual is designed to help enterprises get virtual desktops up and running as quickly as possible.

Rachiele, who is moving 140 PCs to virtual desktops using XenDesktop in a vSphere environment, said having a plan and the right people in place are critical. In addition to having cooperation from folks in applications, networking and servers, as well as traditional desktop admins, he hired East Providence, R.I.-based IT services firm CBE Technologies to help complete the project.

"As far as the [idea that deploying XenDesktop] is very difficult and takes too long to do, I do not agree with that," Rachiele said. "Keep in mind what you are doing is a complete 180 from what you are used to doing. But at the end of the tunnel, your job will be easier and much more flexible."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer, or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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