Where does Microsoft fit in the future of VDI and remote applications?

Users say they prefer Citrix over Microsoft for desktop virtualisation, but will Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 change that?

A quick audience poll at BriForum London 2013 indicated that 85% of the attendees either use or prefer using Citrix seamless remote applications over Microsoft applications. 

In the desktop virtualisation area, BriForum speaker Jeroen van de Kamp said: “Right now in the VDI space, it is Citrix versus VMware versus the rest of the world."

Will Microsoft Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 change this equation?

Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 were released in October 2012. In the latest version, Microsoft ironed out desktop virtualisation implementation problems and did a lot to improve Remote Desktop Services (RDS) and its remote display protocol technology RemoteFX, experts said.

The latest version of Windows has new RDS features to ease virtual desktop management, plus more high-availability options, and RemoteFX offers improved graphics rendering, multi-touch features and remote desktop access over the wireless area network (WAN). 

Microsoft Windows Server 2012 is miles ahead from its previous versions in terms of features at the desktop virtualisation front, but it is still early days for the product,” said Jim Moyle, a desktop virtualisation consultant at Atlantis Computing.

Another virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) expert, Ngenx CTO Rick Dehlinger, agreed. “Microsoft has made good progress in Windows 2012, but it squeezed it out a bit early,” he said.

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Citrix wins on features and tools

According to Dehlinger, Citrix scores over Microsoft in the VDI space because its virtualisation products have more features and tools.

Citrix’s suite of desktop virtualisation products is called Citrix XenDesktop. Through its bundled components, XenDesktop can deliver several different types of virtual desktops, including VDI desktops and hosted shared desktops called XenApp.

XenApp extends a company’s existing Microsoft Remote Host desktop sessions and applications to users through the Citrix HDX protocol. It allows IT professionals to virtualise and manage Windows apps, and deliver them as a service to users’ devices.

Citrix released XenDesktop 7 at its recent Citrix Synergy 2013 event, giving Citrix VDI administrators the unified XenDesktop and XenApp management and deployment model.

Meanwhile, VMware’s desktop virtualisation product is called VMware View.

Experts pointed out that the Citrix VDI protocol is more efficient and helps improve remote access – a feature useful in today’s IT consumerisation and bring your own device (BYOD) era. It also allows remote printing, which Microsoft doesn’t.

“Citrix has a large installed base because it has been doing this for 20 years – VDI is its niche,” said Peter Sterk, a Netherlands-based VDI solutions architect.

In addition, enterprises buy Citrix ZenDesktop because it gives them access to XenApp and provisioning tools, whereas if they buy just XenApp they also need to buy the expensive platinum version if they need provisioning tools.

Citrix XenDesktop and XenApp features put it in the lead in the VDI space, even when it is more expensive than Microsoft.

“Most enterprises have Microsoft as their underlying infrastructure. This makes adding a Citrix layer on top more expensive,” said Claudio Rodrigues, CEO of WTSLabs and a speaker at BriForum London.


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Microsoft VDI licensing woes

But features are not the only issue. Microsoft’s complicated VDI licensing is also putting enterprises off.

“Microsoft’s VDI licensing policy has lot of issues for enterprise users and desktop as a service providers,” said Rodrigues.

For instance, a desktop as a service (DaaS) provider cannot do multi-tenant Microsoft VDI because of its licensing. They need to have separate environments to provide desktop services to every customer. 

“Imagine being a DaaS supplier and having hundreds of Microsoft VDI customers, you will need that many environments – it is a nightmare,” he said. 

“The licensing gets even more complicated with users,” he said. "For instance, an employee using a tablet device has to buy Microsoft VDI and remote desktop licensing to use it on the corporate network. But the minute he steps into Starbucks next door and uses their network to access the remote desktop on his tablet, he is violating licensing policy and will need a separate licence to use it in Starbucks. It’s dumb.”

But what’s ticking for Citrix is not just the features – the features alone are not worth the extra money – it is the fact that Citrix supports a variety of endpoints, such as Android, Linux, thin clients, said Atlantis Computing's Moyle. That is useful for an enterprise looking to develop a long-term desktop virtualisation strategy, he added.

“Microsoft supports only Microsoft endpoints,” said Moyle.

VDI market equation in the future

“Windows 2012 will not change this, but there may be third-party suppliers that will develop apps to support other endpoints, and Citrix will soon start losing ground,” said Moyle.

“Citrix is probably already losing ground if you look closely at XenApp’s revenue recently. Its future is in cloud and mobile, and that’s what it is mostly focused on these days,” he said.

Sterk agreed: “Microsoft launched Windows 2012 only in October. Things might improve, we just need to wait a little longer. But yes, right now, over 90% of our customers use Citrix products for VDI.”

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