Tag Archives: Citrix Synergy

Best Practices for Provisioning XenDesktop

We’ve written a lot here regarding XenDesktop’s two provisioning methods: Provisioning Services and Machine Creation Services. Earlier this week, at the Citrix Synergy Conference in San Francisco, there was a session specifically devoted to discussing those two provisioning methods, providing a high level overview of how they worked, the best practices for deploying each of them, and even some guidelines for how to determine which approach is best for your organization. For the benefit of those who couldn’t make it to Synergy - or those who did make it, but would like a better way to share that information with others in their organizations - that session was recorded and is available on Citrix TV. You can view it below:

First Look at Citrix Access Gateway 5.0

At the recent Synergy Berlin conference, Citrix announced Access Gateway 5.0. We have confirmed that, as of now, 5.0 is available for download from the Citrix download site - both as an update for the CAG 2010 hardware appliance, and in Access Gateway VPX (virtual appliance) format. (Note: you will need a “mycitrix” account to download the software.)

One of the things I really like about 5.0 is that it now supports running two 2010 appliances in an active/passive HA configuration with automatic failover. This was a serious shortcoming of the original CAG appliance.

In earlier versions, if you were using the Access Gateway as a general-purpose SSL VPN, you could configure HA of a sort within the Access Gateway client plug-in, by defining primary and secondary Access Gateways for the client to connect to. However, if you were simply running the Access Gateway in “CSG replacement” mode to connect to a XenApp farm without requiring your users to first establish an SSL/VPN connection, you had no ability to provide automatic failover unless you had some kind of network load balancing device in front of multiple Access Gateway appliances. That meant, of course, that to avoid having the load balancing device become a single point of failure, you had to have some kind of HA functionality there as well. By the time you were done, the price tag had climbed to a level that just didn’t make sense for some smaller deployments.

NOTE: This specifically applies to the 2010 appliance. The CAG Enterprise models, because they are built on the NetScaler hardware platform, have always supported operation as HA pairs with automatic failover. Of course, a CAG MPX 5500 also carries a $9,000 list price, compared to $3,500 for a CAG 2010.

Now, with the release of 5.0, you can purchase two 2010 appliances (which will cost you less than a single MPX 5500), and run them as an active/passive HA pair. Thank you very much, Citrix CAG team!

Here are a couple of videos from Citrix TV. The first deals with how to upgrade an existing CAG 2010 to the 5.0 software using a USB flash drive, and then set up the basic system parameters:

The second video shows how to configure a pair of appliances for active/passive failover:

You can access several other “how-to” videos by going to http://www.citrix.com/tv, and searching on “Access Gateway 5.0.”

Citrix Announces XenDesktop 5

Earlier today, at Citrix Synergy in Berlin, Citrix announced XenDesktop 5, which is scheduled for availability in December, 2010. Naturally, we went looking for the “what’s new” list. You can find that list on the Citrix Web site, but, just to save you a few clicks, here’s our take on it.

Most of the user-facing features are evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary. There have been incremental improvements in devices supported by the Citrix Receiver, the performance of Citrix HDX, user self-service provisioning, and single sign-on. There is also support for XenClient and XenVault, which were recently made available for download as part of XenDesktop 4, Feature Pack 2. But the truly revolutionary, knock-your-socks-off features are on the management side.

Installation and deployment of a large XenDesktop environment is now a snap using the new Desktop Studio tool. Since a video is worth a thousand words, check out the following video demo of Desktop Studio:

But wait! That’s not all! There’s something here for the help desk staff as well, and this may be the coolest part of all. Take a look at a demo of the new Desktop Director tool:

One of Citrix’s stated goals with XenDesktop 5 is to take VDI from “wow” to “how” - to show you how to easily install, scale, and manage a desktop virtualization deployment. Desktop Studio and Desktop Director are huge steps in that direction.

Five Cool Products from Synergy 2010

As many readers know, I spent last week attending back-to-back Citrix conferences in San Francisco. Monday and Tuesday (“Summit”) was for Citrix Partners, Wednesday through Friday (“Synergy”) was for the larger user community. In the coming days, I expect to be writing a lot about stuff I learned there – to the extent that I can without violating the Non-Disclosure Agreement that all attendees agree to as part of the registration process.

Today’s post is about five cool products that I think are worthy of further investigation. I should stress that, aside from Wyse, we do not currently sell any of these vendors’ products, and we may or may not partner with them in the future. So this should not be interpreted as an endorsement other than to say that these products intrigued me and I believe them to be worth looking into.

Wyse XenithTM “Zero Client”
Finally, a non-Windows-based thin-client device with HDX MediaStream video support! I can hardly wait for us to get our hands on one of these for testing. Up until now, if you wanted high performance video, you needed to buy a Windows-embedded thin-client, and install the same Citrix Receiver and plug-ins that you would install on a full-blown desktop PC. And, unfortunately, a Windows-embedded thin-client can easily cost as much as a low-end PC. While I don’t have firm cost numbers yet, I was told it would be “sub-$300” (which I assume to mean $299).

At the Wyse demo, they plugged in the box, turned it on, it auto-discovered the XenDesktop infrastructure and automatically configured itself accordingly, and was ready to use literally in a few seconds. Wow.

Kaviza’s “VDI-In-a-Box”
[Editor's note: Since this post was written, Kaviza was purchased by Citrix, and is now the Citrix "VDI-In-A-Box" product.]

Kaviza has an intriguing product. It won the “Best of Synergy” award in the “Business Efficiency” category. As the product name implies, they make a virtual appliance that handles the provisioning, load-balancing, and management of virtual desktops in a single package. Their original appliance was designed to run on VMware, but the Beta of v3.0 they were showing at Synergy will run on XenServer. They do not require shared storage (i.e., a SAN), or a separate connection broker. When you add more of their appliances, their “grid” automatically reconfigures itself to incorporate the new appliances, replicating desktop template images as required.

They’re positioning this as an SMB solution – up to a couple hundred desktops. If you’re going to grow beyond that, you’re probably going to want the greater storage efficiency of storing your desktop images on a SAN and using the provisioning services of XenDesktop 4. Also, this is specifically a VDI solution, by which I mean a bunch of virtual PCs running on one or more virtualization hosts. As we’ve discussed in other posts, VDI is only one kind of desktop virtualization. If you want the flexibility of being able to leverage all the different kinds of desktop virtualization, XenDesktop gives you that flexibility.

Suggested list price is $125 per concurrent user. Citrix has a VDI-only version of XenDesktop (which does include provisioning services, but does not include any other form of desktop virtualization) which lists for $95 per named user, or $195 per concurrent user. So, taking into account the cost savings from reducing the back-end infrastructure requirements, Kaviza is certainly competitive for smaller deployments, if you’re looking for strictly a VDI solution. Kavisa estimates that, including the virtualization hosts, you’re still under $500/user.

Interestingly enough, Citrix recently made a “strategic investment” in Kaviza, and has licensed their HDX high-performance video technology to them. This suggests that, at some level, Citrix does not necessarily view Kaviza as a competitive threat to XenDesktop 4.

You can view a demo of an earlier version of Kaviza on Brian Madden TV, or go right to the source and sign up for a Webinar on their upcoming v3.0 release.

[Editor's note: Since this post was written, Citrix purchased this product. So they obviously thought it was pretty cool, too!]

Good Lord, if we’d only had a tool like this a few years ago. Several years ago, we worked with a major financial institution that will remain nameless (you know who you are) to build an infrastructure of what was then called Presentation Server that would serve up roughly 300 different applications to roughly 1,000 users. Application Isolation wasn’t available at the time, so we had to do things the hard way. We had a team of several engineers who spent months on application compatibility testing – not only to see which apps would run in a Presentation Server environment, but to see which apps could co-exist in a single server image. It was a huge project, and cost the customer a very large pile of money.

The App-DNA AppTitudeTM software automates the process of application compatibility testing. You give it access to the installation packages of your applications, and it will tell you which Windows desktop and/or server Operating Systems they are compatible with, whether they’re 64-bit compatible, and whether you should be able to package and stream them with XenApp’s app streaming tool or with Microsoft’s App-V. Moreover, if there’s an issue with an application, it tells you what the issue is and makes suggestions as to how you may be able to remediate it!

This product won the “Best in Show” award at Synergy, as well as winning in the “Process Improvement” category. The people I talked to couldn’t give me pricing, but if you’re looking at a major upgrade or migration that involves a lot of applications, this could be a huge time-saver.

Liquidware Labs
Their Stratusphere FitTM product was a Best of Synergy finalist in the “Business Efficiency” category (the category that was won by Kaviza). This is a VDI assessment tool. It will monitor and log a bunch of desktop OS and user performance metrics, looking at network usage, application usage, disk and memory utilization, graphics intensity, disk IOPS, network latency between the current desktop location and the data center you’re hoping to move it to, etc.

After gathering information for a while (a minimum of two weeks is recommended), it will spit out both detail and summary reports that will identify good, fair, and poor candidates for virtualization, identify potential problem areas, and help you size the back-end infrastructure that will be needed to host all of the newly-virtualized desktops.

The cost of a time-limited license (90 days, if memory serves me correctly) is roughly $7 per user. Look at it this way: You can design your VDI hosting environment by the seat of your pants, and probably end up either over- or under-building the infrastructure, or you can spend a little bit of money to develop some hard data to guide the design decisions. If it helps you avoid design mistakes, and helps insure the success of your VDI project, that’s probably money well spent.

The Unidesk product competes directly with the provisioning services component of XenDesktop 4. Why, you may ask, would you want to pay extra for a third party product instead of using the provisioning functionality that comes with all versions of XenDesktop 4? Here are some possible reasons:

  • Unidesk integrates patching and version management into their provisioning tool.
  • Unidesk can deliver boot-time drivers such as antivirus software, VPN software, and printer drivers as components that are separate from your master OS image.
  • Unidesk integrates application management into their provisioning tool, including applications that have been packaged for streaming via XenApp, App-V, or ThinApp.
  • The big one: Unidesk treats user-installed applications as part of “user personalization” – yes, you can provision from a single master OS image and still allow users to install their own apps. (And you can also – relatively easily - repair the damage when a user installs an app that breaks something else.)

In some organizations, user acceptance will make or break a desktop virtualization project. In a native XenDesktop 4 deployment, if you want to allow the user to install applications, you have to dedicate an OS image to that user. If this is a requirement for a lot of your users, you’re going to burn up a lot of expensive SAN storage. If internal company politics will allow you to lock down the corporate desktop, great! Your life will be much easier. And, as we’ve observed elsewhere, XenClient promises to address this by giving the user multiple desktops: a corporate desktop that’s locked down, and a personal desktop where they can install their own applications. But if you are forced, for whatever reason, to allow your users to install their own applications on top of the corporate desktop image, Unidesk could save you a bunch of storage space, and maybe even your sanity.

Why Isn’t Desktop Virtualization More Widely Adopted?

I attended an interesting session at Citrix Synergy earlier today. It was conducted by Ron Oglesby, Chief Solution Architect of Unidesk, and the subject was why desktop virtualization has not taken off like server virtualization has. This is something I’ve wondered about myself, so I was eager to hear someone else’s view on the subject. Since a lot of the points he made could also be classified as “things to watch out for,” I thought others might also find it interesting.

First of all, it is important to recognize that “Virtual Desktop” does not equal “VDI.” (And by “VDI,” I mean turning your physical PCs into virtual machines that are running on some kind of hosting infrastructure, such as VMware, XenServer, or Hyper-V.) VMware has done a pretty good job in many cases of framing the conversation as though these terms were equivalent, because VDI is what they do, and it’s in their best interests to frame the conversation that way. Hats off to them for the degree to which they’ve accomplished that.

But VDI is just one form of desktop virtualization. The fact is that we’ve been virtualizing desktops since the debut of WinFrame a decade and a half ago. And it can be argued that XenApp is still the most cost-effective way to virtualize a desktop. I can pretty much guarantee that, on a given piece of server hardware, I can support more concurrent users with XenApp than I can by building individual virtual PCs.

But what seems to be happening in some cases is that management has seen the tremendous cost savings that have been achieved through server virtualization, so they decide that they should virtualize desktops the same way they virtualized servers, expecting that they will see the same kind of dramatic cost savings. Often, they are painfully disappointed.

Dramatic cost reduction through server virtualization is a no-brainer. You take a bunch of servers that are already in the data center, most of which are probably idling along at less than 10% processor utilization (if that), and consolidate them onto a smaller number of servers. You save space. You save power (both the power it takes to run the servers and the power it takes to cool them). You gain agility and fault tolerance through things like live motion technology. The CAPEX (capital expenditure) savings are obvious. You can probably show a positive return on investment in the first year.

Near-term CAPEX savings are almost impossible to show in a VDI project, because of the back-end infrastructure you have to put in place to host your virtual desktops. (Note that we’re talking here specifically about VDI as I defined it earlier in this post.) Your savings are primarily in ongoing operating expenses, and (according to the Burton Group in a different session I attended) it may take as long as 3 – 5 years to see a significant ROI. Beyond that, you’re talking about things that are very hard to quantify at all, such as the benefit of giving your employees the flexibility to be productive from anywhere. Great idea, difficult to quantify.

Unless you are using some kind of tool that will let you provision multiple virtual desktops from a single shared image, your storage costs are going to skyrocket, because you’re replacing cheap SATA storage on the desktop with expensive SAN storage in the data center – and a Windows 7 image with all the apps on it can easily run 30 Gb. Moreover, the way a desktop OS uses storage is completely different from the way a server uses storage. Your typical Windows server probably averages about 5 IOPS (Input/Output Operations Per Second), with a read/write ratio of 2:1 to 3:1 (more reads than writes). A Win7 system averages more like 30 IOPS, and the read/write ratio is just the opposite.

In other words, workstations aren’t servers, and they won’t behave like servers just because you move them into your data center and put them on a SAN, and therefore you can’t treat them as though they were servers. If you do, you probably won’t be happy with the result.

Finally, although IT guys love standardization, users don’t. They’re used to being able to personalize their personal computers, and they won’t easily give that up. And they definitely won’t be happy if all of the personalization they’ve done suddenly disappears when you replace their PCs with virtual desktops. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand you can wave that will transform a bunch of diverse PCs that have been highly personalized into a single shared image while still preserving all of the personalization. There are some tools that will help you with this, but you have to plan, you have to test, you have to be careful, and you need to have a roll-back plan.

So does this mean that desktop virtualization is a bad idea? No, not at all. It does mean that you need to take the time to understand your users, and come up with a desktop strategy that encompasses all of your use cases. And you need to recognize that classic VDI is probably not a “one-size-fits-all” solution for all of your users:

  • Task-based workers (e.g., call centers) are probably very well served by “Hosted Shared Desktops,” a.k.a., virtual desktops running on XenApp servers.
  • Remote workers may also be covered by Hosted Shared Desktops, although those who need more power, or need the flexibility of a dedicated OS, may be well served by a hosted virtual PC – traditional VDI. For example, a contract programmer may be a continent away, and may need the ability to do things that cannot be done on a shared server OS, like modifying the registry or rebooting the system, but the employer may also want the security of knowing that the code never leaves the datacenter. VDI is a perfect solution for this use case.
  • Office workers may be served by hosted virtual desktops (VDI), but could also be served by streaming the PC operating system from a central shared image directly to the PC hardware on their desks. Managing that central image beats running around to all the desktops with a backpack full of CDs to do your upgrades!
  • Power users who might, for example, need the power of a dedicated 3D graphics processor might be best served by streaming a central shared image to a blade PC in the datacenter, which the user then accesses via a thin-client desktop device.
  • Mobile users, by definition, need to work when they’re not connected to the corporate network. This is the use case addressed by XenClient.
  • In all of the cases above, having a provisioning tool that allows you to boot and run multiple systems from a single shared image is going to save you a bundle on storage.

The cool thing about XenDesktop 4 is that you can handle all of these use cases, and mix and match the best virtual desktop deployment method to each group of users, and they’re all included in your XenDesktop 4 Enterprise or Platinum license. No other vendor offers that flexibility.