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Citrix Puts XenSource To Work For Desktop Virtualization

Citrix plans to make it easier to virtualize desktops for thousands of employees, letting companies tap an array of options.
Citrix Systems has started to reveal plans for its $500 million acquisition of virtualization software supplier XenSource, laying out the first two products it will base on the Xen hypervisor. On the desktop, in particular, things could get interesting quickly.

The first product, Citrix XenServer, is the repackaged Xen hypervisor for generating virtual machines on servers. The second, Citrix XenDesktop, should add much muscle to Citrix's existing products for generating virtual desktops on a large scale. Slated for the first half of next year, it will combine three separate capabilities of Xen and Citrix Desktop Server, the company's first desktop virtualization foray, launched in April. The promise is that IT departments will be able to deliver a virtual desktop based not just on who the user is, but also on what the person's trying to do, delivering exactly the applications and data center resources needed.

A person with basic computing needs may be assigned Windows desktop services delivered off a central server. Someone meeting certain role-based privileges may be sent a custom virtual desktop that runs on an individual machine, reflecting the apps he or she typically needs. Power users may even be given access to a blade server in the data center that gets loaded with business intelligence tools and data access privileges for detailed analysis. All of them can be provisioned through Citrix Desktop Server, which will be built into XenDesktop, says John Bara, chief operating officer of Citrix's virtualization and management division.

The standard way to distribute Windows services from central servers to clients is through Microsoft Terminal Services. To make that mechanism fast and scalable enough for large businesses, Citrix has layered into Citrix Desktop Server its own Independent Client Architecture protocol, which can communicate directly with Windows Server.

When Citrix XenDesktop becomes available, Citrix's virtualization products will stretch from the host server to employee desktops. Mainstream companies are ready for virtual desktops, says Wes Wasson, chief strategy officer at Citrix, "but it won't happen until someone like Citrix addresses the virtualization issues there."

Virtualizing a single desktop is simple with products such as Microsoft's Virtual Server and VMware's VMware Server. But virtualizing desktops for thousands of employees in different roles, while maintaining secure identification, is much more complex. In effect, Citrix plans to let companies tap an array of options, such as having users access virtualized Office applications on a central server, from either an unvirtualized or a virtualized desktop; having a virtualized desktop run on a central server or on the user's machine; or having that desktop stream through a provisioning server.

Citrix, at its iForum conference in Las Vegas last week, also showed off new features not connected to virtualization, including one that lets a person mouse-click on a number to dial it using the company's existing phone system. It's also offering SmartAuditor, a feature of Presentation Server that helps an IT manager record and play back an application session, to document employee activity tied to sensitive transactions and private data.

But the buzz around Citrix is virtualization. Dell has agreed to offer Citrix XenServer OEM Edition, a product based on the Xen hypervisor, on its PowerEdge server line, putting XenServer OEM Edition on par with VMware's ESX server, which Dell already offers. Hewlett-Packard has agreed to install XenServer Enterprise Edition--which includes management tools and features, such as XenMotion for migrating a running virtual machine--on its blade and ProLiant servers, certify it to run on the hardware, and offer a support contract for the software. HP virtualization manager Doug Strain says having the server maker install the hypervisor "gives the customer a higher level of confidence the two will work together."