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Citrix simplifies VDI again with XenDesktop 7-XenApp combo

Citrix VDI admins can deploy and manage XenDesktop and XenApp under the same architecture, something they expected for years.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Citrix VDI administrators will finally get the unified XenDesktop and XenApp management and deployment model that they have expected for years.

Details of XenDesktop 7, previously codenamed Excalibur, were released here at the Citrix Synergy 2013 conference. It is the first release of Project Avalon.

Bringing virtual desktops and apps under the same umbrella, this release unifies XenDesktop and XenApp management and deployment under the FlexCast Management Architecture. XenApp previously ran on the Independent Management Architecture.

"The days of having to deploy extra agents, extra consoles, extra databases -- gone," said Simon Plant, a director of product management at Citrix Systems Inc.

It’s a move that's long overdue. Citrix customers expected to see a unified XenApp-XenDesktop model back in 2009 and simplification has been promised in years since then, beginning with XenDesktop 5 in 2010.

This time around, Citrix has distilled the number of management consoles from about 20 down to just two: Citrix Studio for overall management and Citrix Director for monitoring. Director combines performance monitoring, reporting, real-time assessment and troubleshooting, plus network metrics so help desk staff can view users' usage details, such as latency.

"They're integrating NetScaler -- that will be big," said Steve Beals, manager of client technologies at Omega Engineering, a manufacturing company based in Stamford, Conn.

Citrix also touted a much faster install time for the XenDesktop/XenApp package.

"It's literally eight clicks in 20 minutes to deploy the whole console," said Calvin Hsu, a Citrix spokesperson. "It's a lot faster than anything we've had in the past -- a lot more automation."

VMware Inc.'s virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) product, View, is known for a simpler installation process, so Citrix needed to cut down on the complexity and number of components required for XenDesktop, said Peter Krisch, infrastructure and virtualization engineer at a West Coast AAA branch.

Citrix customers have heard the speedy-install guarantee before, however. With XenDesktop 5, Citrix representatives promised that its installment wizards and new intuitive interfaces allowed for a 10-minute installation time.  

While the new 20-minute install timeline might be more realistic, it may still be too good to be true.

"That's probably for basic install," Krisch said. "Most people won't do basic install, though."

XenDesktop 7 does simplify the deployment options for virtual desktops and apps themselves, however. It comes with a bulk publishing feature and more wizard-driven deployment methods.

"I like how easy it is to publish apps," Krisch said. "Automatic publishing is great. That will save a lot of time."

XenDesktop 7 supports Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8, and it separates the management layer from the OS, allowing IT to deploy multiple different servers alongside each other. For instance, administrators can now manage Windows 7 and 8, Windows Server 2008 R2 and 2012 servers in a single farm. That can reduce the number of servers required for XenDesktop by up to 40%, according to Chris Lau, senior product manager at Citrix.

XenDesktop 7 adds mobile, cloud support

XenDesktop is no longer only suited for virtual desktop access on a PC-like endpoint. The new version brings some new features for desktop and app delivery to mobile devices.

HDX for mobile enhances the HDX protocol technologies to improve the display and touch capabilities on smartphones and tablets. It includes greater WAN efficiency, better scrolling and gesturing, and support for native mobile functions such as GPS and cameras. It also provides HD video processing, even over lower-quality connections such as 3G.

Another major addition to XenDesktop 7 is a deployment option for Windows as a Service that delivers virtual desktops and applications from the cloud. Customers can choose any cloud provider platform, such as Amazon Web Services, and then deploy XenDesktop on that service. Citrix's Hsu said that Project Merlin, which didn't get much time at the conference and does not have a release date yet, will be a complete Windows as a Service offering.

Citrix also disclosed details of XenApp 6.5 Feature Pack 1, which adds graphic processing unit (GPU) sharing for HDX 3D Pro, improved local app integration and automated physical-to-virtual migration through AppDNA.

What Citrix did not mention is that the Application Streaming feature in XenApp will no longer be supported once customers migrate to Windows Server 2012. The company recommends customers move to App-V, but some are not happy with the extra migration and licensing concerns that presents.

Citrix XenDesktop 7 and XenApp 6.5 Feature Pack 1 will ship in June 2013.

XenDesktop VMs to share GPU

In related news, NVIDIA delivered a new GRID vGPU to allow multiple virtual machines (VMs) to share the GPU. For XenDesktop, this means more than one virtual desktop can run off the GPU.

With VDI, most rendering is done through the CPU, so end users lose something in terms of performance. A lot of companies use GPUs in their VDI environment for engineering applications, but traditionally it has been a 1:1 matching, which makes GPU-based virtual desktops expensive, said David Johnson, an analyst with Forrester Research, Inc.

"This opens up [using the GPU] to a wider variety of use cases," Johnson said.  "We may end up seeing this approach being used by default in VDI infrastructures."

The GRID vGPU is integrated into XenServer, and runs on NVIDIA GRID enabled servers from Dell and others.

While running more than one VM on a vGPU will lower the cost of using GPUs in VDI environments, the hardware that supports NIVIDIA GRID costs more.

"However, the additional cost for the hardware that supports vGPU is worthwhile, because performance issues are the Achilles heel of VDI," Johnson said.

In comparison, VMware's VSGA software driver allows View users to run multiple VMs on its hypervisor. Because it is a software layer that recreates NVIDIAs driver before it runs on the actual driver, performance is affected, according to Sanford Russell, a NVIDIA spokesperson.

"[VMware's VSGA] is a heroic effort done before our solution came out, and it’s good for knowledge workers, but power users want the type of performance you get from running directly on the hardware," Russell said.

Bridget Botelho, News Director, contributed to this report    

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