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XenDesktop 5.0 mega upgrade may spark virtual desktop strategy reviews

IT managers asked for the improvements, but the upgrade to Citrix's new management architecture in XenDesktop 5.0 is a whopper and may require starting over.

NEW YORK -- IT shops using Citrix Systems' XenDesktop 4.0 or earlier will face a tough choice later this year. A new version of the product will be released with a radically different back-end architecture -- possibly making it easier to scrap what's installed and start all over again.

XenDesktop 5.0 will include significant changes to the Internal Management Architecture (IMA), which serves as the underpinnings of the virtual desktop architecture for XenDesktop 4.0 and earlier. The product was disclosed at the Synergy conference in Berlin in early October, though few details about the new IMA were given. Migrating to XenDesktop 5.0 will require changes to all the servers that control the XenDesktop environment, the database that keeps track of permissions, the connection broker that listens for incoming connections, and the software that maintains the environment.

Citrix customers that use XenApp are fresh from their own rocky transition moving from XenApp 5.0 to XenApp 6.0 caused by changes to Windows Server 2008 R2 and its support for 64-bit processing. Customers needed a special migration tool that came out as a beta roughly 90 days after the general availability of XenApp 6.0.

For Citrix users, now is the right time to make the jump to a new architecture, said Rachel Chalmers, an analyst at The 451 Group in San Francisco. VMware's View 4.5 release was disappointing because it didn't have application virtualization, PC over IP got mixed reviews, and View 4.5 doesn't have feature parity with XenDesktop 4.0, Chalmers said.

"If you are Citrix and you are thinking about making architectural changes, now is a good time to do it," she said. "They've got a lead in the market and a lot of runway to get another release out."

Citrix's IMA has existed since 2001, but it wasn't designed for virtual desktops on a grand scale, which is to say for the performance and simplicity that IT shops may need for installations with hundreds of thousands of end users. Customers requested these improvements. So far, Citrix has given few details about the new IMA. But in a blog post earlier this month, the company provided some generic descriptions of the enhancements that it planned to make.

In an interview at Interop here last week, Citrix Chief Technology Officer Harry Labana gave few details about the new IMA, which he said began development a year ago. The code is still under wraps, according to several experts who routinely test new Citrix products. Labana said his company has yet to determine the scope of the new IMA and how and when to productize various features.

One thing is certain. Because the architecture is so radically different from the current IMA, it's very likely there will be no direct mapping from XenDesktop 4.0 and earlier to XenDesktop 5.0. At this point, Labana said, there is no straight answer. "But most of the customer base won't bother upgrading," he said. "They'll rip and replace."

Labana added that Citrix will offer consulting and migration help, but he didn't specify just how much or at what cost. Here's one upside: The upgrade from XenDesktop 5.0 to XenDesktop 6.0 should be a snap, he said.

Cold comfort to those planning XenDesktop 4.0 rollouts
Since Citrix has released no details about the new IMA code, it's hard to evaluate the changes. Many IT managers currently running trials may put the brakes on those trials until they learn more about the new architecture.

IT managers have had to climb difficult migration paths many times before when their vendors made great leaps forwards. Some bad moments in IT history include Microsoft Exchange Server upgrades and the jump from Windows NT to Windows 2000 and Active Directory.

Such quantum leaps are always tough for IT shops. "If they are truly changing the architecture so that the product has no upgrade path, then they should question whether it's a Version 5.0 or a different product," said Andrew Mercantini Sr., director of IT services at Ravago Shared Services LLC, a recycling company in Norwalk, Conn.

Mercantini, who said he has seen it all before, said he does recognize that the product is ultimately much better. His company is planning its XenDesktop 4.0 migration, and it wasn't planning to put the software into production until 2011 anyway. But given the new situation, Mercantini said he'd consider holding off entirely until he learns more about the future of IMA.

Opportunities to reassess your virtual desktop strategy
Though it may be depressing when it's easier to scrap an entrenched product and start over than it is to upgrade to the product's next version, there can be a bright side for some IT managers. These radical shifts give everyone a moment to pause and consider whether or not the technology is right for their enterprise. It may be a good time to make a change, if change is warranted.

While a product back-end redesign may be completely justified, big product transitions create a moment when another vendor can stick its head in the door and woo the customer with something new. "I can see some of the smaller companies, like MokaFive, not VMware, saying, 'Look, you don't have to rebuild your back end, so why not go with us?'" said Mike Nelson, an IT manager at a large consumer goods manufacturer in the Midwest.

Another hot possibility for virtual desktop deployments might be a combination of Pano Logic and Unidesk as Unidesk radically simplifies the back end. And Pano Logic is a little box with a lightning-fast protocol, The 451 Group's Chalmers said.

Nelson recommended that IT shops soldier on with their trials. He said he never rolls a [dot-zero] release into production anyway, though Nelson acknowledged that some managers do. XenDesktop customers can still get support for XenDesktop 4.0 for a year or two. Citrix will have to provide some help to make the upgrade.

But the fact that the upgrade is so large does offer IT managers in the thinking stages of their planning a chance to stop and take a step back. "When VMware said it wouldn't do a client-based hypervisor, some View customers took a step back and decided to look at Citrix," Nelson said. "Maybe this will open the eyes of Citrix. When they [upgraded XenApp], it angered some people, and it created a decision point for some."

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