IT Industry News

Citrix Extends Client Virtualization

Editor's note: Per a reader suggestion, we are currently working to clarify some facts in this article. Specifically, two points have been called into question: whether this is, in fact, the "world's first bare-metal client hypervisor" and whether this should be termed a beta or a "release candidate." We will note when changes have been made, if any. [June 17, 2010, 9:10 a.m.] --David Nagel

Virtualization software maker Citrix Systems last week unveiled the world's first bare-metal client hypervisor and announced a new version of its server virtualization platform.

Citrix used its annual Synergy show, held this year in San Francisco, to let partners and customers know that it is aiming to extend its ecosystem.

The new XenClient product is a "super fast, 64-bit, bad-to-the bone hypervisor--a true Type 1 hypervisor that bonds to the laptop and delivers a bare metal experience to the apps, OS and things that run on top of it," said Citrix CEO Mark Templeton, speaking in his keynote address. The company made an "express kit" trial version available for download and promised general availability later this year.

"Desktop virtualization is going mainstream," Templeton said. "It's becoming more and more of the fabric of enterprise computing." Computer makers Dell and Hewlett-Packard disclosed plans at the show to roll out new laptops designed to support the new XenClient hypervisor. The bare-metal client hypervisor is essentially the same technology used on servers, but designed for a client machine.

Although it's possible to use a server hypervisor on a client machine, it's not made for that hardware, hence it lacks support for USB devices, graphics accelerators, and other features essential to the client. Templeton declared that XenClient would "change the game" by adding a local hypervisor to the laptop, allowing a single-client box to run multiple VMs.

The advantages of running multiple VMs on a single corporate laptop are myriad: A user can, for example, keep personal computing files and apps on a corporate laptop securely isolated in a separate VM. IT can provide a temporary employee or contractor with VM loaded with corporate apps.

And client-side hypervisors make provisioning to mobile client machines much simpler. "People forget that last [point]," said Ovum senior analyst Tim Stammers. "But if you talk to IT departments, they'll tell you making images for machines is a real pain. The local hypervisor solves that problem."

Both Citrix and rival virtualization company VMware promised in 2008 to deliver a client-side hypervisor in 2009. "The fact that they were both late shows that this is very hard stuff," Stammers said.

Native Bare Metal Hypervisor
XenClient is a Type 1 hypervisor, a native hypervisor that runs on bare metal. Existing Type 2 hypervisors, which have been around for a long time and allow users to do things like run Windows on a Mac (such as Player and Parallels), aren't as secure as the native versions, Stammers said. Type 2s run on an operating system that can be hacked.

The XenClient was developed in collaboration with chip maker Intel, and optimized for Intel Core 2 desktops and laptops with its vPro technology. The hypervisor serves as "a foundation for centrally managed OS/user environments to be streamed, cached and executed locally on desktop/laptop devices, including off-network mobility," the two companies said in a statement.

According to sources close to the company, VMware is concentrating on refining its Type 2 virtualization technology, rather than pursing a bare-metal client strategy. VMware had not returned calls for comment at press time. But Stammers believes that VMware will probably come out with a native client hypervisor later this year.

Conference attendee Larry Cohen, a systems administrator for a Silicon Valley manufacturer he preferred not to name, was impressed by the XenClient technology, but said he wished the company would focus more on XenCenter, the company's XenServer management console. In particular, he'd like to see a better event viewer and logging capabilities. "It would make troubleshooting issues on the physical hardware a lot easier," Cohen said.

Server Upgrade
Citrix also launched XenServer 5.6 at the show. The latest version of its server virtualization platform mainly fills in some gaps in the previous version, Stammer said. Memory management was one of the key enhancements, he said, but also pointed to new features in the Enterprise and Platinum editions, including automatic work-load balancing, power management and storage integration with StorageLink, Citrix's platform for providing linking server virtualization to storage resources.

"This market has become a constant race to add tools," Stammer said. "I often say that server virtualization gives you great flexibility, but flexibility can tie you in knots. So we do need these tools, and different shops need different tools."

XenServer 5.6 comes in four editions: Free, Advanced, Enterprise and Platinum. Each edition provides additional features.

The free version of XenServer has become an "entryway for new virtualization customers" for Citrix, said IDC analayst Al Gillen. IDC is seeing a growing number of infrastructure vendors using the "free-plus-premium"offering strategy (sometimes called "freemium") to build market share, Gillen said.

Stammer applauded both Citrix releases, but said that the future of XenServer is uncertain. Increasingly, this market looks like it's going to come down to Microsoft's Hyper-V and VMware ESX, he said. He points to statements by Citrix executives, who as recently as 18 months ago, said that in the future most of Citrix's business will come from the sale of tools used to manage Hyper-V.

HP Readies XenClient Notebooks
HP made a splash at the show with demos of the industry's first Citrix-ready XenClient platforms. "Using a local hypervisor, the ability to bring the virtual machine down and run it locally, allows you to be productive whether you're connected or not," said Jeff Groudan, director of thin client solutions for HP's person systems group. "So you have the mobility, but also a lot of the management capabilities inherent of VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure), such as being able to manage the image centrally."

HP also gave a nod to Adobe's recently beleaguered Flash technology with an enhancement of the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) 6. RDP 6 is one of the most common VDI protocols used by VMware View and Microsoft Remote Desktop Services environments, but it doesn't Flash natively. The RDP Enhancements for Flash is a component that runs on the thin client machine and allows the server to redirect the Flash content down to the client, which also decompresses the file.

"One of the challenges of client virtualization, whether it's Citrix or someone else's VDI environment, is they don't handle Flash very elegantly," Groudan said. "The experience may not be very good, or it may overly load down the server when they do the decompression for the thin client. The RDP Enhancements fix that problem.

"It was clear to us that complexity of client virtualization has been an inhibitor of growth in this area, Groudan added. "So we have a laser focus on simplifying the process, but also on optimizing the end-user experience."

HP also unveiled VDI reference architectures for XenDesktop and XenServer at the Synergy event. Joseph George, client virtualization business lead for HP's infrastructure software and blades division, said the reference architectures are the fruit of his company's ongoing strategy of "converged infrastructure." HP believes that that strategy can accelerate the delivery of client virtualization.

"We've got the best portfolio out there when it comes to converged infrastructure and client virtualization," he said. "And the expertise we have in our ranks has allowed us to put together these new reference architectures."

The new HP and Citrix VDI reference architectures provide the functionality of a stand-alone desktop, George said, while enabling unified management of both physical and virtual infrastructures from the same centralized console.

The HP/Citrix VDI solution supports more than 1,000 users of XenDesktop 4.0, XenServer 5.5 or Provisioning Server 5.1, George said. It leverages HP BladeSystem's c-Class or HP ProLiant servers with HP Flex-10 technology, HP storage and networking and a choice of HP t5740 or HP t5325 thin client machines.

The big gadget news at the event came from Dell CEO and founder Michael Dell, who surprised conference attendees by unveiling his company's new mini-tablet PC during his keynote. It was actually more of a teaser than an unveiling of the device, a MID (mobile Internet device) dubbed The Streak, which Dell casually pulled from his pocket while onstage.

"The device we use to access our information shouldn't matter anymore," Dell said. "Whether it's a phone, or a notebook, a netbook, or a desktop PC, your client image can follow you everywhere." Dell then took the wraps off The Streak, which was loaded with the Android OS and Citrix's virtual desktop software. Dell said The Streak would be available first in Europe in June, with a U.S. launched planned for later this summer. The carrier will be AT&T.

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