Do you need Citrix, or is Microsoft Remote Desktop enough?

Using only Microsoft Remote Desktop Session Host products won’t do unless you have a very simple environment. Here’s why adding Citrix XenApp or Quest vWorkspace makes sense.

If you want to build a Microsoft Remote Desktop Session Host-based desktop and application delivery platform, are...

the "in the box" capabilities of Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 enough, or do you also need to add a product like Citrix XenApp?

It has been six years since I wrote my last "Do you need Citrix?" article. Amazingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, I still get asked that question quite often. While this article specifically focuses on Citrix XenApp, the features "missing" from Microsoft products that XenApp provides are also provided by Quest vWorkspace, Ericom PowerTerm, 2X and a few others.

Are we still talking about ICA versus RDP?

The good news is that within the past six years, Microsoft made many, many improvements to Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). In fact, now you can even claim that RDP is usable and say it with a straight face!

Of course, Citrix also made many improvements to ICA during that time, including changing its name from ICA to HDX.

So, while RDP is great today, HDX is still more advanced. You'll never notice the difference if you're just using productivity apps on a LAN. But if you want to use applications that have a lot of moving objects, videos and Flash, then you'll definitely want to use HDX instead of RDP.

The same is true for slower WAN connections. Citrix HDX does a better job "scaling down" to slower connections than RDP does. And the higher-level versions of Citrix XenApp also include the "Citrix Branch Repeater" capabilities, which are enterprise-class, network-optimization virtual appliances that can really make your HDX sing over slow connections.

Another thing that's still true --and perhaps even more relevant today -- is that Microsoft only officially supports Windows and Mac clients for RDP. Citrix, on the other hand, has ICA clients (now called Citrix Receivers) for Windows, Mac, Linux, BlackBerry, Android, iOS, HTML5 and Java, among others. Any of those platforms for pure Microsoft environments requires a third-party client.

What about the "real" features?

If you look at the product feature list on Microsoft.com, you'll see that the "in-box" Remote Desktop capability list for Server 2008 R2 SP1 actually looks pretty good. Microsoft includes load balancing, the ability to route users to a server where they have a disconnected session, a Web interface, an RDP Secure Sockets Layer gateway, seamless windows and app publishing, and the list goes on.

Citrix, Quest and others have also continued to add features and provide more than Microsoft. If you need only the features listed, however, should you stick with the out-of-the-box offerings?

The main problem with using a pure Microsoft setup is that in its world, each server needs to be configured on its own. The company doesn't really have the concept of a single, central database that all of the servers use for configuration management. So, if you want 10 servers to be configured in the same way, those settings are stored in the registry of each of them. If you want to publish Microsoft Word across five servers, you need to configure that on five individual servers.

Of course, anything that's stored in the registry can be configured via policies, and in fact that's what Microsoft assumes you're going to do. The problem with this, though, is that Windows Group Policy Management capabilities don't make it easy. Think about how complex the policies are: You have to build out so many different levels, then deal with permissions and inheritance, then push them out to the individual servers, etc. And then if you just want to quickly see a setting for a group of servers, you have to go through that whole resultant set thing. It's just really mucky and not good.

Compare that with the "real" third-party tools with "real" admin consoles. You can easily see and view changes via an interface that was designed for this.

Finally, because the Microsoft Remote Desktop components are all separate, getting your environment up and running can be a nightmare with just Microsoft tools. Citrix, Quest and other vendors provide a more straightforward process for your initial installation.

So, by now it's pretty obvious that I'm not a fan of using only the in-box Microsoft Remote Desktop Session Host unless you have a very small or a very simple environment. Sure, you'll save money by not using an additional product like Citrix XenApp or Quest vWorkspace, but at what cost?

Brian Madden is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as an opinionated, supertechnical desktop virtualization expert. He has written several books and more than 1,000 articles about desktop and application virtualization. Madden's blog, BrianMadden.com, receives millions of visitors per year and is a leading source for conversation, debate and discourse about the application and desktop virtualization industry. He is also the creator of BriForum, the premier independent application delivery technical conference.

Dig Deeper on Terminal Services and Remote Desktop Services