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Improved Skype for Business support helps VDI shops

Until recently, IT shops experienced high bandwidth consumption and poor performance when it came to UC tools on VDI. That's changed with enhanced Skype for Business support from Citrix and VMware.

Performance and support problems have plagued unified communications on virtual desktops, but that's finally changing.

Businesses that use VDI for remote employees are often the same ones that adopt unified communications (UC) software -- for instance, remote call centers that want to replace employees' desk phones. But, until this year, VDI platforms did not integrate well with major UC applications, such as Skype for Business, leaving something to be desired when it came to performance. Citrix improved Skype for Business support in January -- and just last month, VMware followed suit.

"The lag time that's introduced is always a barrier," said Doug Grosfield, president and CEO of Five Nines IT Solutions, an IT consultancy in Kitchener, Ont.

Unified communications tools provide workers with capabilities such as instant messaging, video conferencing, calling and more collaboration technologies. Organizations use UC tools, including Google Hangouts, Cisco WebEx and Jabber, among others, but the most common enterprise application for video and voice collaboration is Microsoft's Skype for Business.

UC tools require a lot of bandwidth and CPU processing to function properly, however, so streaming Skype for Business from the data center can result in lower-quality performance. The issue, called hairpinning, is video and audio decoding happens on the server side, and the data doesn't take a direct path between the two endpoints that are communicating, creating a lag.

Excellent Skype for Business support is a vital capability for VDI solutions.
David Johnsonanalyst at Forrester Research

For businesses trying to integrate Skype for Business in VDI, it's been a challenge, because there are multiple stacks for the data to process through, said Alan West, CEO at XMS Solutions, a service provider in Henderson, Nev., that helps companies deploy collaboration and messaging software, including Skype for Business.

Organizations with workers in remote offices, for example, need communications tools to get work done with colleagues in other offices. It's critical for there not to be a drop-off in Skype for Business performance for those users who do their work from virtual desktops, said David Johnson, an analyst at Forrester Research.

"Excellent Skype for Business support is a vital capability for VDI solutions, because two of the top drivers for IT decision-makers now are to give employees more flexibility and to provide better remote access," Johnson said. "Skype for Business is a key enabler for those."

Microsoft offers a plug-in to help improve Skype for Business VDI performance, but the plug-in has some limitations. It only works on full virtual desktops, for example, and it requires an on-premises server infrastructure.

Citrix, VMware strengthen Skype for Business support

The major VDI vendors -- Citrix and VMware -- have worked to enhance Skype for Business support on their platforms and ensure better performance.

In January, Citrix rolled out the HDX RealTime Optimization Pack, which integrates Skype for Business with its HDX remote display protocol technology. HDX compresses audio and video data and dynamically chooses the best location to process the data -- endpoint, server or network -- to produce the strongest user experience. This setup results in Skype for Business running partially on the endpoint and partially on the corporate server, and it allows the application to make calls directly from one device to another.

VMware in October answered with its own enhanced support for Skype for Business on VDI. Similar to Citrix's approach, it works by offloading the video and audio rendering from the VDI servers to the endpoint device and enables direct device-to-device communication. The capability will be available in the first quarter of 2017, VMware said.

"VMware now going out there and being able to do this, too, is a big deal," said Robert Young, research analyst at IDC. "Citrix obviously has a first-mover advantage because they've been able to do this for a while now. They can add additional capabilities and make sure it's integrated right."

It will be interesting to see how well Skype for Business integrates with VMware and if Citrix's deeply entrenched partnership with Microsoft will be an advantage, Young said.

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