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Citrix halfway to Avalon with XenDesktop 7 desktop and app virtualizer

New edition just for app streaming

Citrix Systems is just as eager to cloudify its installed base of customers as is VMware. And so it has taken one step closer to accomplishing that goal with the launch of XenDesktop 7 at its Synergy customer and partner event in Anaheim.

Both companies have vast installed bases: VMware has 500,000 customers with around 38 million virtual machines who can be abstracted one higher level up to transform their server clusters into clouds. Citrix has 260,000 customers who are streaming virtual apps or virtual PCs down to some 100 million users worldwide.

These Citrix XenApp and XenDesktop customers are the easiest shops to sell on the idea of cloudifying the infrastructure supporting that virtual desktop infrastructure. That's one of the reasons why Citrix bought back in July 2011 and transformed it into the Apache CloudStack project, which is the main open-source alternative to the OpenStack cloud control freak.

A year later, Citrix announced "Project Avalon" at the Synergy 2011 event, with the lofty goal of fluffing up the XenDesktop app and PC broker onto a CloudStack-based cloud and providing up to one million virtual end user seats under a single pane of management and with all of the disaster recovery and horizontal scalability of a cloud underneath it.

This goal was a bit too lofty, as it turned out, and at the fall Synergy event in Barcelona last year Citrix broke Project Avalon into two halves. The first half, called Project Excalibur, is an update of XenDesktop, which launched this week as release 7.

Merlin not yet wielding Excalibur

Calvin Hsu, vice president of product marketing for desktop and apps at Citrix, would not give a final launch date for the full-on Project Avalon, which includes the CloudStack integration, known as "Project Merlin," but as far as El Reg knows the plan last October called for Merlin to be in tech preview sometime in the second half of this year, perhaps with availability early next year.

The Merlin release will use the commercial-grade version of CloudStack, known as CloudPlatform, to provide multi-tenant and multi-site clouds that can be used to manage virtualized apps or PC images from a single logical cloud. Among other things, propping up XenDesktop and XenApp onto a cloud will allow customers to mix different releases on the same infrastructure and do rolling upgrades, something they cannot do today.

The premise behind XenDesktop 7 is simple enough. "We stepped back and asked: If we were to build this thing in the world of mobile and cloud, how would we build it?" Hsu explained to El Reg.

For one thing, the workload plane in the XenDesktop stack is not separated from the management and control plane, which means you no longer have to rebuild an entire server (or pool of servers) from scratch when you upgrade XenDesktop. So, for instance, you could decide to keep the management and control portion of XenDesktop running on Windows Server 2008 R2 while upgrading the nodes that are brokering PC images down to thick or thin clients or Windows-based apps using the XenApp that comes bundled with XenDesktop these days. The workloads can run on Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 or on Windows Server 2008 R2 or Windows Server 2012.

XenDesktop 7 has one set of management consoles for app and virty PC streaming, and Hsu said that it has much-improved installation wizards that allow a XenDesktop server to be set up with eight mouse clicks and about 20 minutes of waiting.

Release 7 also has automation for common tasks, such as server workload provisioning or setting up a desktop inside of a virtual machine. Complete automation of XenDesktop upgrades is not yet finished, and Hsu said there is an update coming for the Merlin code that will allow admins to set policies and upgrade the back-end systems in an orderly and automated fashion. XenDesktop 7 also includes the AppDNA tool that Citrix acquired back in October 2011 to convert physical apps running on a PC to virtual ones stashed back in XenDesktop.

On the client, XenDesktop 7 includes new HDX Mobile features, which are part of the second generation of so-called FlexCast technology, which pushes out apps and PC images to client devices running the Citrix Receiver client software.

The most important collection of updates in XenDesktop 7 (and which were previously available through an add-on called Mobility Stack) is the ability to translate Windows applications running on the back-end systems to run in a "fat finger friendly" mode on tablets and smartphone. Rather than convert Windows gestures to equivalent pinch, poke, swipe, scroll, and other functions, the HDX Mobile features built into Receiver and XenDesktop 7 do the opposite by taking the native gestures in Android and iOS devices and finding the equivalent function in the Windows app that is being streamed down to it. (Think of it as the opposite of screen scraping.)

The HDX update also includes H.264 "super codec" compression, which cuts the bandwidth required for a remote client in half and doubles the frame rate over the wide area network link. HDX compression can also optimize the bit rate of full high-def video so it can be viewed over a 3G wireless network.

And finally, the HDX software has been tweaked so VDI and XenApp functions can make full use of virtualized graphics processors, such as Nvidia's Grid K1 and K2 cards.

Citrix has added an App Edition of XenDesktop with release 7

Citrix has added an App Edition of XenDesktop with release 7

In addition to the new features in XenDesktop 7, there is a new variant called App Edition. And as the name suggests, this is just for those companies who want to be able to stream apps from XenDesktop and not do the flexcasting with various levels of VDI. (How this is different from the XenApp function that is embedded inside of XenDesktop was not immediately clear as El Reg went to press.)

XenDesktop 7 will be available by the end of June.

One last thing. Citrix is still selling the standalone XenApp, which used to be known as Presentation Server back in the day, for customers who want to just do old-fashioned app streaming from centralized Windows apps out to PCs using the RDS protocol. XenApp is getting its own set of HDX enhancements as well, so if you are a XenApp shop, don't feel like you are being left out. ®

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