Notes From The Road 10 – Citrix XenDesktop 5.6

Spring has sprung, the flowers are blooming and Citrix is releasing the newest version of XenDesktop. Is there any better time of the year? I was at a gathering of over 250 seasoned Citrix customers and partners in LA learning about the newest virtualization technologies and strategies available. The west coast team, Nathaniel Chadbourne and Rick Eilenberger, host these Technology Exchanges a few times each year and every one is more impressive than the last. The Tech Exchanges are a full day of immersive presentations on new features and functions. I also got to listen in to my new friend, Bhumik Patel’s presentation on using XenDesktop with Cisco UCS. Pretty darn impressive I must say. It’s also a great opportunity for those customers to hear how technologies from RES, eGinnovations, WhipTail and the like can enhance and even accelerate their Xen experiences. All in all, a great show. But I’m not here to discuss this show, or even what the customers were most keen on seeing from RES. No, what I am here to discuss today is the newest release of XenDesktop 5.6 that Citrix is shipping out the door this week.

As usual, I got ta debrief from Citrix on the newest features and pillars that XenDesktop is addressing. RES was part of the technology preview for XD 5.6, and we have fully tested our products in lab against the newest release to ensure that our award winning software was just as complimentary as it was in version 5.5 … and it is. I will list below the newest features in 5.6 and then address the ones that I find most interesting, and hopefully you will too.

  • Tablet Optimized Desktops
  • Personal VDI Desktop with vDisk
  • Mobile App Access
  • CloudGateway Express
  • XenClient 2.1
  • System Center 2012 Integration
  • AppDNA 6

I think one of the new features in 5.6 that customers will be most interested in, especially as it relates to RES is the inclusion of vDisk for personal VDI use cases. If you recall from previous NFRs, I blogged about Citrix acquiring this technology from RingCube. Or more accurately, Citrix acquiring RingCube itself. You see, I wrote back then and still hold true today that VDI is not the correct solution for every user nor for every scenario. It definitely has its merits, and aspiring to a centralized management of the user’s desktops is definitely ideal. However, the challenges we have always faced here remain untouched, until recently. Unless you provide users with a single image unto themselves that they “own,” then the persistence of a VDI image that is lost on session termination will be an obstacle for users. Gone are the days when it was dictated by IT, and what IT said was gospel and users shall bow to the totalitarian rules pushed out from the data center. Back in those days it was acceptable to say, this is not your computer, you are being allowed to use it temporarily, but anything you do to it or on it is at the discretion of IT. Heck, I remember the days when users would share a physical PC. One user would use it Monday and another would sit at it Tuesday. If you think of stateless images in VDI, it’s not that different. Anything you do with, to or on the image is lost tomorrow just like when your cube mate used the shared computer.

Now that Citrix has RingCube in their toolbox, some of that has changed. RingCube was based on the notion of providing every user with their own vDisk. This technology or concept is certainly not foreign, and in many ways was inevitable. I know I draw back to my experiences at Softricity a lot in these blogs, and I will do so here. What I mean is the concept of a personal vDisk for VDI is very similar to the concept of virtualizing the applications, like Softricity. You are providing a virtual drive that is a mount point to each user. We did this at Softricity with our Q drive acting as a mount point that contained all the applications assets that would have normally been installed. Instead when the calls get made for these assets the mini filter drivers intercept and redirect the calls to the mount point. Only, in this case, it doesn’t contain the application’s assets — it contains the user’s assets or settings. This vDisk is really a VHD file that gets mounted as a drive letter V, and in it is a copy of the Windows profile. This needs to get attached at boot time so that RingCube can capture applications that lay down drivers or use kernel objects. It’s pretty cool and certainly addresses some pretty powerful use cases in a VDI environment that wants to do pooled images (pooled static that is, not pooled random).

Now you may again find it peculiar that a guy who gets his paycheck from a company that is well known for being in the user state virtualization space would be so complimentary about personal vDisk. It really isn’t that complicated at all. You see, RES Workspace Manager is a great compliment to RingCube and stands to make the personal VDI scenario leveraging pooled images all that much better. User installed applications as supported by RingCube is a great advancement to VDI scenarios and carrying some specific user personality with it, even in the data center. But what about the security? What about controlling the user experience based on the user’s real time context? If you think of the settings required for the user experience to be tied to the application and not bound to a “profile” you start to see how much more efficient and faster boot times can be, especially in a pooled VDI scenario, because the settings are loaded at application launch time. The user doesn’t have to wait at start time for a full directory structure to be loaded.

I haven’t had a chance to mention the context aware settings that Workspace Manager can leverage. With increased mobility of users it is more and more prevalent that a user could be roaming, literally roaming from one geo to another, in real time. Workspace Manager has the ability to dynamically alter their experience based on an administrator’s rules matching to their real-time context. Context here being defined by such criteria as geo fences, time of day, device, etc., and rules applied include access to applications, data, settings and configurations. For example, a user leaves a defined geo fence and their access to corporate sensitive data or applications that are secured is rescinded in real time. Think of a doctor who travels across boundaries in a hospital.  Or, how many times does this happen adversely and result in a help desk call? For example, a user travels to a branch office and needs to print their boarding pass when they get ready to leave. They need to find their printer, search for it in AD and then install and set as the default printer. With Workspace Manager the admins can dynamically set their default printer for the user based on their context.

Now another pretty wicked cool feature in XD5.6 is CloudGateway Express. This is a great step forward in empowering users to self-service applications from a storefront service right from the receiver on their Citrix enabled client, be it a Windows PC, MAC, Smartphone, tablet, etc. If you think of it, the user requests or “subscribes” to an application, and that app is delivered to them through a Citrix Flexcast delivery technology based on how the user is trying to access it and what method the admin has made available. When done with the application, they can send it back to the content controllers. This is super. Think of the time and effort that it can save the IT staff. No more requests coming from the user population for a specific app they need at that time to do their job. If it’s available, they can provision it through CloudGateway Express. Some companies had this concept, but it was more a skin since they didn’t own the delivery technology that actually controlled how the application was “installed.” The Citrix solution is a great way to give users access and control of their web, SaaS, mobile apps and data.

If a user is given an AppStore full of glossy, shiny apps they will surely be tempted to pick them all, even ones that they don’t actually need. This is like setting me loose at an all you can eat buffet with a cheese cake table at the end. Soon enough, the more apps they consume the more bloated systems will become and slowdowns will be aplenty. Luckily, CloudGateway Express shows applications to users based on groups, which helps control the number apps available to each user. RES Software can help manage this even further by providing a thorough understanding of context awareness of users. RES can help admins provide 90%-ish of the services that a consumer requires to their start menu and desktops. This will allow the self-service portal to be a gateway for items that fall outside of the standard scope. You know—the ones that fall on the edges of typical usage behavior. I say that is quite the value add.

In an effort to keep this at a readable length I will cover one more feature in XD56 that excites me.

The deeper integration with System Center 2012 is pretty flippin’ cool. If you look at this with a VDI lense, we see that System Center was always a bit challenged when it came to managing VDI scenarios. SCCM did a fine job if the VDI play was a 1:1 dedicated image to each user. That’s because they could treat each image as a separate windows device and manage like a traditional desktop with a traditional SCCM agent. Each had their own unique GUID and therefore inventory, asset management, etc. all worked like it normally would. But, take that to a pooled image where users would spin up a session on the server and all sprout from the same golden image, you would have identical GUIDs and also run the risk of storms because the agent settings are all identical. When you scale to thousands of identical desktops and they are all being spun up at 9:00am Monday morning, this could be an issue. I won’t geek out too much here, in fact it better for me to link to my good friend, Rod Hoffman’s blog on the subject. But Citrix is able to assist SCCM in managing virtual desktops properly.

Now just a short blurb about the integration work done with SCVMM. When it comes to VDI, you need to keep in mind that the users are requesting a desktop session when they start work. In this scenario, the request goes through XenDesktop. Well, XD turns around and could make that call to fulfill the connection for the users by going to SCVMM to spin up the desktop session. SCVMM was not originally developed to handle desktop requests. It was developed to manage virtual server requests. No one ever requested 3,000 virtual servers on Monday morning at 9:00am. As a result SCVMM would, for lack of a better word, choke on so many simultaneous requests from XD. I expect in this year’s releases we will see challenges like this solved as a result of the hard work between these two titans of desktop virtualization. At RES, we are proud of our close strategic alliances with Microsoft and Citrix so that when these new features come to market we can ensure that our solutions work effectively and add tremendous value to their platforms.

That’s going to have to do it for me for now. Maybe later I will write about the new AppDNA 6. I am very happy for my friends at AppDNA in not only their acquisition by Citrix, but also their latest enhancements in accelerating desktop transformations.

Until then, stay virtual my friends.

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