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5/20/2008
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Microsoft, Citrix Push 'Branch Office In A Box'

The software is the latest in a recent push by vendors to simplify the increasingly complex IT infrastructure at many companies' branch offices with a do-it-all piece of hardware.

Citrix and Microsoft are joining forces with the co-developed Citrix Branch Repeater, an all-in-one device for delivering applications to branch offices, the companies announced Tuesday.

The Branch Repeater is just the latest in a recent push by vendors to try to simplify the increasingly complex IT infrastructure at many companies' branch offices with a do-it-all piece of hardware. The problem? An ever-expanding array of devices at branch offices includes routers, domain controllers, WAN optimization devices, security devices, some sort of VoIP infrastructure, print servers, and more, but few or no IT staff on site.

At the small branch offices Chicago-area ready-mix concrete company Ozinga Brothers, which is testing a Branch Repeater with an eye on getting more, too much IT infrastructure takes up too much space, and cooling and ventilating quickly becomes a problem.

"Anything that can reduce our footprint at remote sites, that's good for us," Tom Allen, the company's IT director, said in an interview.

Companies from Nortel to Cisco to Expand Networks have been trying to simplify things and cut acquisition costs with single devices that handle a number of those branch office services, sometimes with the help of a software company like Microsoft. The joint venture between Microsoft and Citrix is a further indication that this trend is here to stay.

"One could argue that it will ultimately mean the end of the specialized device in the branch," Gartner analyst Joe Skorupa said in an interview.

Citrix and Microsoft are targeting "application delivery," which includes virtualization, network optimization and a number of Windows services that can be hosted in the device. It's a culmination of two years of work between the two companies, which will also co-market the Branch Repeater, and another area where Microsoft and Cisco are increasingly on competitive footing. However, though Cisco includes or will include some routing in its all-in-one devices, Citrix and Microsoft have opted not to, indicating there may be some limits to all-in-ones.

The first element of the Branch Repeater is the consolidation of Windows branch services. The product includes a stripped-down version of Windows that comes with file and print services, authentication services via Active Directory, and networking services like DHCP and DNS. It's many of the typical services that would be typically hosted locally in a branch office server wrapped into a much slimmer package.

The Branch Repeater also marks Microsoft's first foray into WAN optimization, a market dominated by the likes of Riverbed and Cisco. The device optimizes traffic on a protocol by protocol basis, tweaking specific protocols including CIFS, HTTP, TCP/IP as well as application streaming protocols like Microsoft's RDP and Citrix's ICA.

The Branch Office Repeater will come with tiered bandwidth capabilities. The 1 Mbit 100 model goes for $5,500, the 2 Mbit 200 for $7,500 and the 10 Mbit 300 starts at $11,500.

With interest in virtualization soaring, Microsoft and Citrix are baking in features that stage applications streamed via Citrix's XenApp application virtualization inside the Branch Repeater so that traffic won't have to travel across the wide area network every time an employee needs to access a virtualized application. A later version of the Branch Repeater will also integrate with Microsoft Application Virtualization, formerly SoftGrid.

One of the keys to the success of any branch-in-a-box will be management. The Citrix Branch Repeater can be managed locally, or remotely via Systems Center Operations Manager. "What I like from the Citrix announcement is that they've actually done full native integration, so in addition to integrating all the forms, they're also exposing it through Microsoft management," Forrester analyst Rob Whiteley said in an interview.

However, though many mid-size companies have one team managing both a company's network and servers, larger companies have a wider division of labor. Whereas the network team is used to non-stop uptime, the server team must periodically apply invasive patches that might require shutting a machine down. "A lot of enterprises will be quite vocal that the term Windows appliance is an oxymoron," Skorupa said.

With a Windows environment like on the Branch Repeater, the problem could be more pronounced than in a Cisco or Riverbed box, which run virtualized instances of Windows services running on a Linux host, so only the guest machine would have to be restarted there, not the entire device. Microsoft and Citrix will have to prove that their slimmed-down Windows is stable and secure.

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