Bare Metal Battle: Microsoft and Citrix vs. the World

Microsoft leads partners to side with Citrix in virtualization's newest battle.

The battle of the client hypervisors is on, and Microsoft channel partners are right in the middle of it. Many Microsoft partners have close alliances with virtualization market leader VMware Inc., but Microsoft is encouraging those partners to consider the potential of a new bare-metal client hypervisor -- the world's first -- which its longtime technology partner Citrix Systems Inc. just announced.

Citrix beat its chief rival, VMware, to the punch when it unveiled its new XenClient at the company's annual Synergy conference, held in San Francisco in May. Citrix developed the client-side hypervisor with Intel Corp., optimizing it for the chip-maker's vPro processors to accelerate the delivery of client-side virtualization. XenClient is designed to let organizations deploy centrally managed virtual PC images to run natively on notebook or desktop systems, even if they're not connected.

During his keynote address launching the new client hypervisor, Citrix CEO Mark Templeton described XenClient as a "super fast, 64-bit, bad-to-the bone hypervisor -- a true Type 1 hypervisor that bonds to the laptop and delivers a bare-metal experience to the apps and OS and things that run on top of it."

The company has made a trial version available for download, and promises general availability later this year. "Corporate laptops are the last mile in extending the full benefits of desktop virtualization to all users in the enterprise," Templeton said.

Both Citrix and VMware promised in 2008 to deliver a client-side hypervisor in 2009. Now that Citrix is a step closer to delivering on that promise, Microsoft channel partners have some questions to consider. Is now the time to begin working with Citrix (or extend work with the company), or is it wiser to wait and see what VMware comes up with? Maybe it's better to wait for a pure Microsoft solution? But also, how important is a client hypervisor in the overall ecosystem versus the traditional Windows desktop and mobile clients?

"Corporate laptops are the last mile in extending the full benefits of desktop virtualization to all users in the enterprise."

Mark Templeton, CEO, Citrix Systems Inc.

"I think Citrix is making inroads, but VMware still has a lot of the server market," says Robert Bello, vice president of sales and a partner with Bit By Bit Computer Consultants Inc., a New York-based Gold Certified Partner that has partnerships with Citrix and VMware. "People like the [VMware] products -- they do a great job with the product and they have strong research development."

That said, as a Microsoft partner, Bello says there's growing interest from customers in Citrix -- and the Microsoft partnership with the company is definitely having a persuasive impact. "It's an interesting battle," he explains. "I think Citrix aligns itself with Microsoft very well in that battle. I think they have a very strong story to tell as they come into the market together." Many customers are now prone to seek quotes from both VMware and Citrix, he points out.

Though he hasn't yet tested the new Citrix bare-metal client hypervisor, Bello believes it will up the ante for Citrix. Certainly it adds new capabilities for client-side virtualization that aren't available to mainstream customers.

"I look at the client hypervisor as technology with the potential to enable better manageability, easier support and easier migration," says Mark Margevicius, a Gartner Inc. research director. "But Windows is still very important and clients need to stay with that."

The bare-metal client hypervisor is essentially the same technology used on servers, but designed for a client machine. Although it's possible to use a server hypervisor on a client machine, it's not made for that hardware, so you lose things like support for USB devices, graphics devices and other features essential to the client.

Citrix XenClient is a Type 1 hypervisor, a native hypervisor that runs on bare metal in client machines. Existing Type 2 hypervisors -- which have been around for a long time and allow users to do things like run Windows on a Mac (Player, Parallels) -- aren't as secure as the native versions, because Type 2s run on an operating system and that OS can be hacked.

The hypervisor serves as "a foundation for centrally managed OS/user environments to be streamed, cached and executed locally on desktop/laptop devices, including off-network mobility," according to a statement by both Citrix and Intel. Citrix says it already has serious momentum on the desktop: In the past two quarters, it sold 1.5 million licenses for its XenDesktop virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) product. Broad support for the new XenClient could be a harbinger of things to come in Redmond as well.

"If and when Microsoft adopts a client hypervisor as part of Windows, it's likely it will be Xen-based," Margevicius predicts. "This is especially true if Intel continues to adopt it further. Microsoft, Intel and Citrix: It's a trifecta of sorts."

No Rush
Citrix has generated big buzz with its new client hypervisor, but the final product is yet to come, Margevicius points out. He says there will be plenty of time for Microsoft partners to kick the tires. "This market is going to move more slowly than originally predicted," he says. "We're looking at mainstream adoption for enterprise use no sooner than a year from now."

Even so, Margevicius believes the client hypervisor has a lot of potential that Microsoft partners will want to begin exploring now. Enterprise customers especially will want to consider the advantages of running multiple virtual machines (VMs) on a single corporate laptop. Users could, for example, keep their personal computing files and apps on the corporate laptop securely isolated in separate VMs. The company could provide a temporary employee or contractor with a VM loaded with the corporate apps. And client-side hypervisors make provisioning to mobile client machines much simpler.

"It's the promise of hardware-independent images," Margevicius says. "I think that alone will generate a lot of interest over the next year."

Interest in the new XenClient does appear to be high; Citrix is reporting thousands of downloads per week since the release of the trial version. Sumit Dhawan, Citrix vice president for desktop virtualization marketing, says he's not surprised by the level of interest in a client hypervisor because it addresses a common pain point in the enterprise.

"Part of the goal of a virtualization strategy should be not to add any additional management overhead," Dhawan says. "It should only simplify things. And that's one of the promises of the XenClient. It removes one of the big problems in managing laptops in enterprise environments. Managing multiple types of images for each and every piece of hardware -- and yet giving users the flexibility to be able to have their personal applications on those machines -- has become extremely challenging."

Ovum analyst Tim Stammers agrees that Microsoft partners would be well advised to take the time to download the trial version of the XenClient and do some tire kicking, to see how they might want to leverage a client-side hypervisor. Also, it'll be worth getting familiar with the new Citrix product both because it has gained such a technical lead over VMware with this release, and because of the company's close relationship with Microsoft.

"Citrix is Microsoft's closest big software partner," Stammers says. "Remember that Microsoft partly funded Citrix when it was founded, and even gave Citrix access to Windows source code. They've been extremely close ever since then. There was some speculation last year that the relationship was cooling, but that turned out not to be so."

 "With application virtualization, what we're doing is taking all the assets, all the experience from the desktop [and] applying it to the server."

Brad Anderson, Corporate Vice President, Management and Security Division, Microsoft

Making Server Inroads
Bello, of Bit By Bit, believes Microsoft and Citrix have aligned themselves well. "I think they do a good job of stating that Microsoft Hyper-V serves a purpose and Citrix sits on top of that and adds value to that, and I think Microsoft does a good job of not trying to compete with Citrix but treating them as a true partner," he says. Bello sees Citrix using its desktop strength to try to gain more inroads into the server virtualization market.

Brad Anderson, whose role at Microsoft was recently changed to corporate vice president for the company's Management and Security Division, gave a keynote address at the Citrix event, where he announced that the next version of Microsoft System Center, due out in 2011, will manage the Citrix XenServer hypervisor.

"With application virtualization, what we're doing is taking all the assets, all the experience from the desktop [and] applying it to the server, and this will be released in conjunction with the next version of System Center in 2011," Anderson said in a recorded discussion with Simon Crosby, CTO of the Citrix Datacenter and Cloud Division.

"Think about this as being embedded into [System Center] Virtual Machine Manager [SCVMM], [which] gives you the ability to separate out your existing applications so that you can actually have that separation of the app and the OS and dramatically reduce your number of operating system images," Anderson said.

One of the things Anderson demonstrated in his keynote was the next version of SCVMM making XenServer a first-class citizen. "The integration is definitely there," Anderson said.

"You can drag and drop a multi-tier app from XenApp and XenDesktop, which has tons of components, and it just magically shows up," Crosby added. "One cool use case: Once you've done all this virtualization, it's a good way to deploy things into the cloud, so I can then take an app that I've virtualized and pop it up into Windows Azure."

The Desktop Challenge
Meanwhile, Microsoft has fallen behind in the desktop virtualization race, according to Stammers. The company only added support for hosted virtual desktops (desktops as VMs) last year. "As it did with thin clients for years, Microsoft is saying very publicly that customers who want to make big VDI deployments should go to Citrix," Stammers explains. "Microsoft is, however, developing the screen-delivery protocol, so obviously it does have some sort of VDI ambitions."

Ovum also believes that, though VDI will help to grow thin-client market share, it won't grow substantially in the near term. "Bare-metal client hypervisors will make thick Windows clients much cheaper to manage, and workers want offline-capable laptops, not thin clients," Stammers notes.

"We're very closely aligned with Microsoft when it comes to desktop virtualization," Dhawan says. "We have joint offerings for VDI and hosted virtual desktops. In terms of XenClient adoption, Microsoft and Citrix agree that it's going to appeal to less than 10 percent of the total desktop and laptop population in the next year or two. But while Microsoft expects XenClient to be a niche [technology], we expect it to have broader appeal."

Right now customers are just trying it out and finding the potential of where the technology can be leveraged, Dhawan adds. "The second half of this year is when we'll begin to have XenDesktop products," he says.


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