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5/22/2008
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Microsoft, Citrix Unveil 'Swiss Army Knife' Remote System

New all-in-one system for branch offices delivers applications, while minimizing complexity.

Citrix Systems and Microsoft have co-developed an all-in-one device for delivering applications to branch offices. The new Citrix Branch Repeater is the latest in a breed of products aimed at simplifying remote office IT infrastructure by consolidating functions into a single piece of hardware.

Branch offices have taken on an expanding array of devices to support the extended workforce--routers, domain controllers, WAN optimization and security appliances, IP PBXs, and print servers. The problem is that few, if any, IT staffers work in those offices.

At the branch offices of concrete company Ozinga Brothers in Chicago, IT infrastructure takes up precious space, while cooling and ventilating systems suck energy. The company is testing Citrix Branch Repeater as a way to eliminate some of its equipment. "Anything that can reduce our footprint at remote sites, that's good for us," says IT director Tom Allen.

Citrix and Microsoft aren't the first to come out with an all-in-one branch office device. Cisco Systems introduced its Integrated Services Router three years ago. That product doesn't support Windows services, a requirement for many branches, though Windows services will be part of Cisco's Wide Area Application Services device when it ships later this year. Packeteer, Riverbed Technology, and Expand Networks package application services into their WAN optimization products, while Nortel Networks sells a combined router-unified communications device for branches. This trend could "ultimately mean the end of the specialized device in the branch," says Gartner analyst Joe Skorupa.

All-In-One Branch Options

Cisco Systems' Integrated Services Router comes with security, voice, and routing

Nortel Networks can add VoIP and unified communications to its branch office router

Packeteer's iShaper and Expand Networks combine WAN optimization and Windows Server services

Riverbed hosts third-party apps on a WAN optimization device
Citrix Branch Repeater is intended for "application delivery," including application virtualization, network optimization, and some Windows services. Unlike Cisco, Citrix and Microsoft didn't include routing capabilities in the box. Inside Citrix Branch Repeater is a stripped-down version of Windows with file and print services, authentication, and networking services such as DHCP and DNS.

The product marks Microsoft's first foray into WAN optimization, a market that's been dominated by Riverbed and Cisco. It optimizes traffic on a protocol-by-protocol basis, including CIFS, HTTP, TCP/IP, and application streaming protocols including Microsoft's RDP and Citrix's ICA.

Citrix's XenApp virtualization technology is baked into Branch Repeater, so applications don't have to traverse a wide area network every time an employee needs access. A future version of Branch Repeater will integrate Microsoft Application Virtualization.

Citrix Branch Repeater supports varying speeds. The 1-Mbps model is priced at $5,500, and the 2-Mbps model, $7,500. Pricing for the 10-Mbps model starts at $11,500.

HOW TO MANAGE?

Management is key to any branch-office-in-a-box system. Citrix Branch Repeater can be managed locally or remotely via Microsoft's System Center Operations Manager. "They've actually done full native integration" with System Center, says Forrester Research analyst Rob Whiteley. In addition to integrating WAN optimization and storage in a Windows appliance, "they're exposing it through Microsoft management."

While network managers expect continuous uptime, server administrators must periodically apply patches that require shutting down a machine. In Windows environments--like that on Citrix Branch Repeater--the problem potentially could be more pronounced than in a Cisco or Riverbed box, which run virtualized instances of Windows services on Linux, meaning only the VM would have to be restarted, not the entire device.

For some organizations, says Gartner's Skorupa, "Windows appliance" is an oxymoron. Microsoft and Citrix will have to prove that their slimmed-down Windows system is stable enough for locations without on-site IT pros.

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