Citrix and Microsoft: who’s really leading the transformation agenda?

Citrix loves Microsoft and Microsoft loves Citrix – OK, maybe I’m exaggerating to make a point, but that’s the gist of the official lines you get from both companies. But looking in from the outside, it’s always seemed like a bit of a weird relationship. Most of what Citrix did in the early days around Windows desktop virtualisation could have easily been replicated by Microsoft. Indeed, over the years, Microsoft has developed its capabilities considerably in this area. But Microsoft always left enough room for Citrix to differentiate itself and continue serving an important segment of the Windows user base.

While I’ve never really figured out the behind the scenes story, I’m sure the fact that virtual desktops have historically represented the boring and utilitarian end of the Windows use-case spectrum has had something to do with it. Microsoft does, after all, like hyping up its desktop OS. Enabling armies of people to do non-demanding task work – the traditional targets for server-based desktops – just isn’t as sexy as information workers doing funky things with the latest tools on shiny new PCs.

Enabling task workers may be unexciting, but it’s essential

So Citrix found a nice niche helping customers deliver desktop services more cost-effectively to groups of users who just needed to get routine work done. Essential, but unexciting. And I’m afraid to say that this still defines Citrix in the minds of many people we speak with. It’s a perception issue that Citrix insiders quietly acknowledge as an irritating and ongoing challenge.

While the view I’ve described is incredibly outdated, I thought it was important to acknowledge the history so we can contrast it to what Citrix is really about today. It’s actually now positioned firmly at the leading edge of a set of transformations we are seeing in the end user computing space.

Firstly, let’s look at how the original core proposition has evolved. One of the reasons Citrix dominated the early days of desktop virtualisation was the clever engineering it used to overcome problems with latency. With adequately spec’d infrastructure, it could deliver a responsive user experience that was imperceptible from a local PC. Now add in the fact that the back-end architecture can today include high performance GPUs, and much of the conventional wisdom around use cases gets turned on its head.

Increasingly, remote can work better than local – and cost less

Nowadays the needs of highly demanding users, such as engineers and analysts doing advanced modelling and design work, can arguably be met better by a server-based desktop than a workstation under the desk. And this matters when you consider trends such as hybrid and collaborative working. Your expensive talent can take advantage of all that expensive equipment without it needing to be in the same room. Put simply, even very demanding users can work effectively from any location using any shape, size or class of device. The ability to allocate and reallocate computing resources freely then allows you to support changing project needs and various contractor and co-creation scenarios.

And if this can be done for demanding users, then the same trick can be played with many other user categories. Provided people can get a reasonable network connection, they’re in business. And if you frame it in the right way to the employee, it’s nothing like the old days when you were often perceived to be asking users to compromise for the good of the company. You can now offer them a higher degree of personal power, freedom and flexibility, while the business and IT team reap the benefits of lower costs, simpler management and enhanced security.

But the propositions we’ve touched on so far revolve around Windows-based desktops and applications, which are clearly now only part of the mix. What matters to users today is quick, convenient and reliable access to all of their applications and data, including stuff in the cloud. This is the realm of Citrix Workspace, which brings everything that’s important to the user together into a coherent digital workspace that again, can be accessed via any device – including Windows PCs, Apple Macs, Chromebooks, tablets and so on.

From application streaming to desktop-as-a-service

To enable this, Citrix provides what’s needed to package and stream individual Windows applications, along the hooks necessary to stitch SaaS applications and local or cloud-based file stores seamlessly in the environment. Facilities are also available to surface alerts and tasks from back-end systems, and develop simple workflows through an integrated low-code environment known as App Builder. The idea is to allow the user to perform as many day-to-day operations as possible in one place.

One of the other nice things about Citrix Workspace is its single sign-on capability. Apart from enhancing the user experience, this has obvious benefits from a business security and risk perspective, over and above those inherent in server-based computing in general – centralisation of data and access policies, for example.

Picking up on the earlier mention of cloud, a big focus for Citrix at the moment is Desktop as a Service – commonly referred to as DaaS. While any virtual desktop delivery could arguably be put into this category, what most people mean when they refer to DaaS is the concept of desktops delivered from a public cloud environment. Microsoft has its own plays here, and Citrix complements those, but what we like about the Citrix approach is its openness and flexibility.

You can run your own Citrix landscape on any public cloud, for example, and keep control of everything but the physical infrastructure layer. At the other extreme, you can work with a Citrix partner who delivers desktops on demand via a pure consumption-based model. In between those two, partners are free to offer any shape and size of hosted and managed service proposition.

While it’s still early days for DaaS, and many IT teams (and vendors) haven’t yet got their heads around the various pricing models, interest is growing, so we expect this area to become quite lively over the next couple of years.

Aspirational ideas or addressing practical needs?

In the meantime, it’s worth mentioning that the Citrix portfolio of offerings has been steadily broadening, even though many outside of the core existing user base are not aware of this (another ongoing frustration for the company). From secure private access, to collaboration and project management solutions, Citrix has been steadily rolling out offerings with that same pragmatic mindset and philosophy that’s part of its DNA. What I mean by this is that, unlike a lot of players who major on abstract aspirational ideas that don’t always translate to product reality, Citrix consistently looks to address practical needs that we hear articulated by business people and IT pros.

Wrike is a good example of this. It’s an acquired solution targeted at an under-served part of the market that sits between heavy, formal project management and the lightweight team/task coordination. Again, the idea is to deliver business control and efficiency, but with a heavy focus on user experience. A familiar balancing act for the company.

This clear focus on customer needs and interests is one of the reasons I find Citrix more interesting than Microsoft nowadays – sometimes you need less lofty talk and more action on the things customers really care about. Coming back to my earlier point, however, this has on occasion put Citrix at a disadvantage from a visibility perspective.

Because everyone could usefully have a Plan B

The other reason I have a lot of respect for Citrix is because it helps dyed-in-the-wool Microsoft customers raise their heads, look at other options, and understand and embrace alternative solutions more easily. This is very relevant to the discussion in my recent piece on Chromebooks, in which I highlighted ideas to escape Microsoft lock-in. Drop Citrix Workspace onto a Chrome OS device and you can deliver applications that don’t run natively, as well as apply advanced security to SaaS services and Web apps that load locally.

In this context, and in a number of other ways, I think of Citrix as offering a nice combination of the familiar and the disruptive. This post is me doing my bit to raise awareness of how much the company has evolved over the years, and that’s without considering the impact of adding Tibco solutions into the mix – a move that I’ll be watching with interest.

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