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Citrix vs. VMware -- which is enterprise-ready?

Between VMware View 4 or Citrix XenDesktop 4, one is more fully baked than the other. But both are missing critical capabilities for production environments.

If you're considering VMware View 4 or Citrix XenDesktop 4 for desktop virtualization, wait for the next versions of each; neither is ready for enterprise-level production environments.

That's the conclusion of a 45-page Burton Group report, "Server hosted virtual desktops: What the vendors aren't telling you," which was presented at Citrix Synergy 2010 in San Francisco last week.

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Burton Group evaluated VMware View 4 and Citrix XenDesktop 4 in terms of features necessary for an enterprise-ready platform. Criteria included user experience, service advertisement and connection brokerage, business continuity, network, storage, back-end virtual infrastructure, management, security, guest operating system support, licensing, and third-party vendor and product support. The capabilities were ranked "required," preferred" and "optional."

While both products fall short in the required, preferred and optional requirements, XenDesktop 4 has more of each and is closer to being an enterprise-level product than View 4, the report said.

That stunned some virtualization users who had the impression that VMware offered a more complete package.

"It does surprise me a little that VMware doesn't have the clear lead you would expect to see from them, as they are always considered the 800-pound gorilla," said David Sobel, CEO of Fairfax, Va.-based IT services firm Evolve Technologies. "[View] 4.5 clearly is the important next step for them."

Dennis Rachiele, a senior network administrator at a manufacturer in Rhode Island, attended the Synergy session last week. He had already evaluated both offerings and is about to roll XenDesktop 4 into production, starting with 140 end users.

"VMware does have a great product with View 4, but the user experience is what caused us to choose XenDesktop for the enterprise rollout," Rachiele said.

What View 4 and XenDesktop 4 don't have
XenDesktop 4.0 is missing a few "critical" features, including security logging and auditing of administrative actions and three-year support for its entire product portfolio. It also lacks security hardening guidelines and is complex to deploy, and the management console scales to only 5,000 desktops. VMware View 4's management console has the same scalability maximum.

"Five thousand desktops is not very many when you are talking about enterprises with hundreds of thousands of desktops," said Chris Wolf, a Burton Group virtualization analyst and co-author of the report. "This means they have to use multiple management consoles to manage their users, and that isn't acceptable."

Though VMware's virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) market share is growing, Burton Group doesn't consider View 4 an enterprise-class server hosted virtual desktop platform because it lacks role-based access controls, enterprise management integration and Windows 7 guest support. It also needs a user application self-service portal (like Citrix Dazzle) and low-bandwidth WAN support.

The product also locks customers into the VMware server hypervisor, since it doesn't support any other hypervisors. VMware claims this isn't an issue because the majority of virtualization users buy VMware hypervisors, but that isn't the case.

Keith Lee, an IT manager for end-user services manager at a large hospital in New England, uses Hyper-V in his all-Windows shop. He wants to upgrade the hospital's Citrix Terminal Services environment with a VDI product, but said he won't buy VMware View until it supports his hypervisor of choice.

Burton Group also took issue with VMware's new PC-over-IP (PCoIP) protocol because it lacks integration with WAN acceleration products.

In general, Citrix's ICA/HDX can support connections with latency of 150 milliseconds or more and bandwidth of 50 Kbps without experiencing unacceptable performance degradation, and it integrates with external WAN acceleration devices by disabling ICA compression.

VMware View 4's PCoIP does not meet the bandwidth/latency criteria of 50 Kbps/150 milliseconds, and IT pros are advised to use the "local desktops" feature to deliver virtual desktops across low-bandwidth environments. In addition, PCoIP does not support WAN acceleration devices because there is no way to disable PCoIP's native encryption/compression feature.

"HDX is a more mature protocol, and it offers the type of configuration granularity that PCoIP is still developing," Wolf said. That said, he added that "most people are happy with PCoIP in LAN environments."

Rachiele, who runs VMware ESX on his servers, chose XenDesktop because of the performance that HDX delivers. "We use View 4 for some remote engineers. It is a great product for them because they do not need a rich user experience," he said.

VMware, Citrix react
When asked to comment on the Burton Group's findings, VMware did not remark on View 4 falling short for enterprises but said, "View 4.5 satisfies all the required features that have been attributed to an enterprise-ready desktop virtualization solution."

The upcoming release of XenDesktop will also include the critical features that Version 4 lacks, and both offerings will offer more of the preferred and optional features, but not all, according to Wolf.

Citrix said it has several very large installations in place and in progress, with customers that have purchased up to 140,000 licenses, and it will continue adding features based on customer demands.

"From these large-scale deployments, we are learning and documenting many best practices and key product enhancements that will continue to drive our product innovation -- and pave the way for mainstream enterprise adoption," said Calvin Hsu, Citrix XenDesktop marketing manager.

While Citrix and VMware plan to offer enterprise-ready platforms this year, IT decision makers still need to look beyond the vendor marketing materials and ask specific questions on user experience, configuration granularity, performance, scalability and management capabilities, according to Burton Group.

IT pros should also be aware that they won't see a return on investment for three to five years, and that return will probably only be in terms of operating expenses, not capital expenses.

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

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