Citrix lowers sword, will take more time on 'Project Avalon' virty PC broker

Scaling to 1 million desktops... not so easy

Citrix Systems is hosting its Synergy partner and user conference in Barcelona this week, and has done a core dump on them with a barrage of announcements intended to demonstrate that Citrix, too, is down with the modern, post-PC, cloudy world.

More than anything else, the announcements are trumpeting that the firm has made a slew of acquisitions that have kept it relevant and which it believes it can weave together in a kind of uber-operating system. By the time it's done, Citrix will be linking data centers and cloud apps and cloud storage to a mobile workforce that never gets to stop working, even at home.

Here at the El Reg systems desk, the key announcement coming out of Citrix is an update on the "Project Avalon" mashup of its XenDesktop desktop virtualizer and CloudStack cloud control freak, which was announced at its Synergy event in San Francisco six months ago, when Citrix had just acquired Virtual Computer for its NxTop client virtualization tool, which has subsequently been rebranded XenClient Enterprise. That was the same week that Citrix released the supported version of CloudStack, called CloudPlatform.

Project Avalon was revealed very briefly as a tune up of CloudStack and XenDesktop, making them work well together and to scale virtual PC infrastructure from 100 sets all the way up to 1 million seats, all under a single pane of management.

Citrix never put a launch date on Project Avalon, but this integration and scalability is obviously a bit more of a challenge than Citrix anticipated because Project Avalon is not here yet and has in fact been split into two separate projects. And the final version is not even expected to be in technical preview until late next year, which probably means it won't be production grade until early 2014 at best.

Because XenDesktop includes both XenApp, the application broker that has its roots in the old Presentation Server created by Citrix, as well as tools for brokering whole virtual desktops from the data center, Avalon is about brokering both apps and desktops, seamlessly. It is a "true cloud service," as Wes Wasson, senior vice president of strategy, put it in a briefing ahead of the Synergy Barcelona announcement deluge. As it turns out, Citrix will be delivering Project Avalon in two phases.

The first phase is a release code-named "Excalibur" and it will contain an updated version of the FlexCast approach to desktop and application virtualization, giving Windows admins a single pane from which to package up apps using XenApp or whole virty PCs using XenDesktop. Citrix is calling this FlexCast 2.0 because it will be able to stream apps as well as PC images from the data center down to thin or thick clients.

FlexCast 1.0 just did the virty PCs, and you had to use XenApp and XenDesktop separately. (Yes, this is a bit odd because XenApp licenses are included in XenDesktop, but just because the software is bundled does not mean it is integrated to work from a single management console.) The point is that with a universal Receiver client on PCs and mobile devices of every kind – there are now over 3 billion devices running Receiver, according to Wasson – and a back-end that can stream apps or PC images down to them, Citrix can claim it can cover all scenarios. Well, once Project Avalon ships, anyway.

The initial Excalibur release of Project Avalon will include upgrades to the HDX "high definition experience" features that have been woven into XenDesktop to make virty desktops less jittery and slow. The updated HDX software will have a "super codec" that is compatible with the H.264 standard, which is used for Blu-Ray discs and YouTube, just to name two.

The upshot of HDX 2.0, says Wasson, is that it will be able to deliver twice the frame rate to mobile devices working from slow networks (aren't all networks slow?) and be ten times as efficient with the bandwidth when serving up video or static rich media. Excalibur will have a new feature called HDX EdgeSight, which will provide analytics into runny virty apps and PCs so admins can see what is slowing down performance for end users when they complain.

The Excalibur release supports the new Windows Server 2012 and impending Windows 8 as well as distributing images of Windows XP, Windows 7, and Windows Server 2008 R2. It can run on Windows Server 2008 R2 or Windows Server 2012.

With the follow-on "Merlin" release of Project Avalon, The XenDesktop and XenApp virtualizers will be propped up onto CloudPlatform, the commercial-grade version of the open source CloudStack cloudy control freak that Citrix is championing instead of OpenStack. This integration between Project Avalon and CloudPlatform will allow enterprises and service providers to build multi-tenant and multi-site clouds to run their virty apps and desktops.

The idea is to allow customers to build an internal cloud to stream stuff out to users and then allow them to burst out to Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Windows Azure clouds – or build there from the get-go if that floats their boat cloud. By running XenApp and XenDesktop on top of CloudPlatform, customers will be able to run a mix of different releases at the same time as well and automate the way upgrades to the infrastructure are performed without interrupting those pesky users, who do like to use their apps and PCs. The Merlin release will also weave in XenApp Cloud Provider Pack, special app streaming extensions normally given only to service providers for multi-tenancy, and CloudPortal, which will be single pane from which all virty apps and PCs will be managed.

The Excalibur release of Project Avalon goes into tech preview on November 1, and the Merlin release will be in tech preview sometime in the first half of 2013. Once again, Citrix is not committing itself to a firm date when either will be commercially available. To get the tech previews, you need to be a XenDesktop customer with a Subscription Advantage support contract.

In other virty news from Citrix

Citrix didn't roll out any updates to CloudPlatform or the open source CloudStack from which it is derived, but Wasson did talk a bit about the momentum behind the products. CloudPlatform takes CloudStack and provides patch and upgrade support for it as well as weaving in the XenServer Advanced Edition hypervisor (you can use KVM, Hyper-V, or ESXi if you want) as well as integrating with NetScaler application delivery controllers.

Wasson said that there were now over 30,000 members of the CloudStack community, which is considerably larger than the 5,600 in the OpenStack community. (Wasson didn't actually say the "O" word, but implied that it was smaller.) Customers are deploying around 500 new CloudStack-based clouds per month as far as Citrix can tell, and many of them have more than 1,000 server nodes and the largest one has 30,000 nodes. "These things multiply like rabbits," Wasson said. There are probably some bean counters that are pretty unhappy about that, but it is good news for Citrix. BT, China Telecom, EVRY, IDC Frontier, KDDI, KT, NTT Communications, and Slovak Telecom have all picked CloudStack to be their control freak. (Or, to be at least one of them.)

In November, Citrix will roll out a new version of the cloud connector called CloudBridge, which made its debut back in March 2011 when, the creator of CloudStack, had not yet been eaten by Citrix. CloudBridge maps the CloudStack APIs to those offered by Amazon with its EC2 compute and S3 storage clouds.

After having been put through the Citrix support paces, CloudBridge is being relaunched as CloudBridge for AWS, and Citrix is promising to deliver a version called CloudBridge for Azure that will go into tech preview in December and that will allow CloudStack customers to burst workloads out to the Microsoft cloud.

On the desktop front, Citrix said it has a Receiver client ready for Windows 8 when Microsoft launches next week. The XenClient Enterprise 4.5 hypervisor for PCs is in tech preview now and will be available in December. (XenClient Enterprise is the NxTop hypervisor that Citrix acquired in May 2011 and that runs on all kinds of PCs, while XenClient XT was the homegrown variant of the actual Xen hypervisor that Citrix created and restricted to PCs based on Intel vPro chips.)

XenClient Enterprise 4.5 can now run on PCs using Intel's "Ivy Bridge" Core and Core vPro variants (the latter of which have security hardening aimed at commercial customers), and specifically on the Ultrabook machinery that Intel is so hoping will revive its PC biz. Windows 8 is now supported on XenClient Enterprise as well, and the hypervisor now has VLAN tagging support that will allow the hypervisor and its VMs to have separate networks for different VMs. XenClient XT 3.0, available now, runs on the latest vPro chippery and supports Windows 8.

Finally, Citrix and Cisco Systems announced that they are extending their partnership and will be providing tighter integration between their two product sets. Specifically, the two will work to make NetScaler play nicely with Cisco's Wide Area Application Services and Adaptive Security Appliance software, which runs in its switches. The Nexus 1000V virtual switch will also be ported to the XenServer hypervisor (and now Citrix won't be dependent on the Open vSwitch virtual switch developed by Nicira and now owned by rival VMware.)

Citrix is now the go-to vendor for application acceleration, with Cisco's own Application Control Engine products still being sold and supported. Citrix is not OEMing NetScaler or actually selling NetScaler, but is doing "reference selling" according to Cisco chief technology and strategy officer Padmasree Warrior. Citrix and Cisco will also work together to develop joint roadmaps for the things they do in Layers 4 through 7 in the network stack.

The two companies will also get the CloudStack control freak tuned up on Cisco's UCS blade servers as well as its rack servers and external Nexus switches. ®

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