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Microsoft, Citrix Take Partnership to Next Level with Azure Pact

Longtime technology partners Microsoft and Citrix this week unveiled their most extensive collaboration in 25 years.

Announced Tuesday by Citrix CEO and President Kirill Tatarinov at the Synergy conference in Las Vegas, the partnership entails Microsoft Azure becoming the strategic cloud for delivering on Citrix's imperative of cloud-enabling all of its offerings. The new partnership also covers Office 365, Enterprise Mobility Suite (EMS) and Windows 10 Enterprise migrations and deployments. On Citrix's end, the collaboration also covers a broad swath of its portfolio, including the Xen desktop and app offerings; AppDNA, Citrix's app migration tool; Netscaler, its application-aware load balancing controller and gateway; and ShareFile, its file storage and synchronization platform.

While Microsoft and Citrix have a long history of collaboration -- Microsoft even bailed Citrix out with a cash infusion in the late 1990s -- this new partnership represents their most extensive yet, in terms of the number of offerings and level of engineering involved.

"We are taking our relationship to the next level," Tatarinov said in his keynote. Tatarinov is relatively new to his role, having been a longtime top executive at Microsoft before taking the helm at Citrix in January this year. Tatarinov arrived as activist investor Elliot Management was pushing for changes at Citrix that were aimed, ostensibly, at growth for the company, which has invested heavily in engineering but not seen much payback.

At his first Synergy, Tatarinov announced that Citrix is refreshing its entire product line and that the company's entire portfolio will be cloud-focused over the coming months. "We're all in the cloud," he said.

Microsoft is going to be a key enabler of Citrix's accelerated push to the cloud, although the framework for that has been in place since last year, when Citrix announced that its new Workspace Cloud, which it has since renamed Citrix Cloud, would use Azure as its control plane.

By identifying Azure as Citrix's cloud of choice to deliver its own services, Tatarinov emphasized Citrix will continue to support multiple cloud services. The company has enabled customers, for example, to run their Citrix infrastructure in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud, though on a self- or partner-managed basis. Citrix offerings are also available as managed services by various hosting partners.

"Our job is to give customers choice and enable them to run Citrix from any cloud they choose," Tatarinov said in a press briefing following the keynote. "It's only logical for those who are deploying Office 365, Windows 10 powered from XenApp and Xen Desktop, for those Microsoft customers to expect those capabilities to come from the Azure cloud."

The component of the partnership that drew the largest applause was the option for customers who have licensed Windows 10 Enterprise (Microsoft's "current branch for business") to manage their Windows 10 images on Azure via XenDesktop without having to pay an additional license fee. It's the first time Microsoft has permitted this capability. Delivered as a service, the option will include the ability to use the Citrix AppDNA migration tool and deploy virtual desktops or apps.

"This is an industry-first. It's the first time we announced the ability for a Windows client to be hosted in a public shared cloud," said Brad Anderson, Microsoft's corporate vice president for enterprise and client mobility, onstage at the keynote. "It's a big, big deal for the industry. I really think this Windows 10 VDI service on Azure is going to open doors up. People are dying to take advantage of the Azure power to deliver VDI."

Anderson noted that this is not just a licensing agreement; the two companies have worked on technical integration for nearly a year. "I love the integration that's happened where XenApp apps can now be hosted in Config Manager, which [manages] 70 percent of the world's Windows devices," Anderson said. "It's the tool that everybody is using to upgrade to Windows 10 and now XenApp just fits inside, and you can publish all apps of all sizes in that Config Manager console and in one console you see everything."

On the Office 365 side, Citrix will now enable the suite to run in XenApp and XenDesktop environments. Xen users will be able to run macros and plug-ins, as well as run Skype for Business with what Citrix officials described as "dial-tone" service.

On the enterprise mobility management (EMM) side, the two companies are competitors and collaborators. Both offer their own EMM suites, though Anderson argued in favor of Microsoft's EMS, which includes Intune, Azure Active Directory and Rights Management Service. Citrix XenMobile and NetScaler will support EMS.

"NetScaler is going to be EMS-enabled," Anderson said. "What that means is as EMS-managed apps devices come though NetScaler at the perimeter, NetScaler is going to interact with EMS services and we'll be able to force initial access based upon the policies that are set by EMS. Literally every EMS customer can also be a NetScaler customer."

The two companies are also integrating NetScaler capabilities into the MAM SDK of Microsoft's EMS. That will allow any app in line with the SDK to connect with on-premises apps, according to Anderson. Citrix is also going to build its own new enterprise mobility service that will run on Azure but be offered as a Citrix service.

The two companies' competing mobility offerings will interoperate with each other, Anderson said. "Citrix will bring all of their experience in security compliance, especially these highly regulated businesses, and we'll do all that work in the cloud and apply that," he said.

Time will tell whether these moves merely help Citrix hold on to its existing customers or help grow the business. "All of the technology stuff makes sense. The big question to me is how will they execute together on that," said Enterprise Strategy Group Analyst Mark Bowker. "There's gaps in Citrix's portfolio, such as identity and access management. Microsoft can help clearly help fill in that gap."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.