Citrix brings virtualization closer to desktop

New client-based hypervisor allows users to run multiple virtual machines on one laptop, as Citrix execs tout era of virtual computing while noting that Sun was "too early" with its "network is the computer" vision.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

SAN FRANCISCO--The industry has moved closer to a new era of virtual computing with the unveiling of a new "bare metal" client-based hypervisor that allows users to run multiple virtual machines on a single laptop, according to Citrix Systems.

First announced in January last year, the Citrix XenClient sits directly on the user's device rather than the server and is optimized for Intel vPro-based systems, leveraging the chipmaker's vPro remote management technology.

This "bare metal" hypervisor architecture provides better performance and security on the client-device, and will help usher desktop virtualization into mainstream adoption, said Citrix President and CEO Mark Templeton during his keynote at the annual Citrix Synergy summit here Wednesday.

With XenClient, users will be able to run multiple virtual machines--for example, one configured to run stress tests and another to contain personal apps and settings--directly on their computer. This will allow IT administrators the ability to ensure critical corporate apps and data are managed in secured desktop environment, while still offering users the flexibility to install personal apps in a separate virtual machine on the same desktop.

XenClient users can run multiple virtual machines on one computer.

A free trial and evaluation kit of the client hypervisor, dubbed XenClient Express, is currently available as a download and Citrix is hoping this will entice companies to try out desktop virtualization in small deployments. The actual XenClient offering will be released only in the second half of this year together with the next release of XenDesktop, according to Citrix executives who said pricing details were not available as yet because the company's primary objective for now is to drive a wider distribution of the product.

The new offering includes Synchronizer for XenClient, which allows users to work offline and syncs the virtual machines when users are able to connect to the network. There is also Receiver for XenClient, a software client that enables users to create and manage their virtual desktops and apps via a range of devices including PCs and the Apple iPad and iPhone.

XenClient has been tested and certified to run on Hewlett-Packard and Dell Computer vPro-based systems, though in theory it should work on other vPro systems, according to Sai Allavarpu, Citrix's senior director of product marketing of delivery networks product group. The company is looking to extend the hardware support to include other PC vendors.

Allavarpu told ZDNet Asia there are currently no plans to extend XenClient availability to include AMD systems.

Sun was "too early"
Today's announcement is another iteration of Citrix's vision of virtualized computing where user devices will run as thin clients that compute and run apps directly from a central server network via the Web.

It is a vision not unlike Sun Microsystems' "the network is the computer" doctrine, first coined in 1984, which never really took off. So, why would virtualized computing see mainstream adoption now?

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, John Humphreys, Citrix's senior director of solutions marketing, said Sun--since then acquired by Oracle--was simply 20 years "too early" to the game.

Humphreys added that Sun had introduced the cloud-based services delivery model at a time when the technology was not ready to support this concept.

Templeton said Sun's proposition came when critical components such as Web connectivity and interconnectivity were not where they are today. The applications infrastructure needed to support a virtualized environment was also not ready, he said.

Business models today are also more focused on security and green IT and power efficiencies, he noted. He added that due to increased security concerns, there are now more geo-physical challenges that are beyond a company's control, so it needs to instead find ways to respond to such issues.

According to Humphreys, "technologically and culturally, we're now ready for virtualized computing".

However, an industry analyst believes desktop virtualization will still take another two years before it achieves mainstream adoption.

Speaking to ZDNet Asia at the Synergy conference, Robert Whiteley, vice president and research director at Forrester Research, said that while the introduction of XenClient takes the technology mainstream, "people's ability to adopt the technology and transform the desktop environment hasn't gone mainstream".

Whiteley said several missing components have now been addressed, pointing specifically to the Receiver and Synchronizer for XenClient, which he said offer better user experience and policy management.

For instance, he said that with Synchronizer, users can work offline and IT administrators have a "kill switch" that will remotely remove all critical corporate data on the device if it is stolen or lost. Such functionalities allow companies to better enforce local policy and governance.

"But it will take two years for organizations to digest it and go with it. It's the cultural aspect that companies need to resolve," Whiteley said, noting that IT helpdesk needs to figure out how to support this new virtualized computing environment. "Right now, they'll probably start off with [pilot trials among] subsets of users, before deciding whether to roll out to the wider enterprise environment.

"We do think desktop virtualization will go mainstream, but 2010 will be the year when companies establish a roadmap, with actual deployments to take place a year or two later," he added.

Whiteley noted, though, that the value of the technology lies in the breadth of availability rather than depth. He said it would be critical for Citrix to build out the XenClient to include as many platforms as possible, referring to the current lack of support for AMD-based systems.

And while its main rival, VMWare, has yet to intensify its efforts on desktop virtualization--choosing instead to focus on driving virtualization in data centers and seeing desktop as just another app or workload companies can put on the data center--Whiteley said Citrix's success will depend on how well it executes its strategy over the next couple of years.

Pointing to rumors that IBM and Cisco Systems are considering a Citrix buyout, he said the company is at "an awkward size" where it may prove too expensive to be acquired, but may also lack the size of an IBM and Cisco which it needs to drive adoption of virtualized computing.

Tying security into virtualization
At the Synergy conference, Citrix also announced a new partnership with McAfee that will allow XenDesktop users to extend the management of desktop security to virtual environments via McAfee's ePolicy Orchestrator.

Both vendors will build security tools for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)-based machines, allowing companies to centralize virus scans and patch updates, and thus offloading the compute workloads from the individual virtual machines.

The collaborative effort aims to reduce CPU, memory and storage requirements, and to simplify desktop security management.

New security offerings from the alliance are not expected for market release until the second half of 2010, and will be built to support XenDesktop running on three hypervisors: Citrix XenSever, Microsoft Hyper-V and VMWare ESX.

Eileen Yu of ZDNet Asia reported from Citrix Synergy 2010 in San Francisco.

Editorial standards