Virtual Desktop Software – the Choice

Given the impetus for me to begin thinking about implementing virtual desktops was a Citrix-sponsored webinar, as well as our own in-house experience with Citrix Presentation Server, the choice to go with Citrix XenDesktop to provide virtual desktops might seem like a quick and easy one, but it wasn’t.

We began this journey during the deepest recession in modern history, and as a state-funded institution, our budgets have been tightened every year, so cost was a major consideration.  Citrix is the market leader in this space, and it prices its products accordingly.  Even looking at our pretty good educational/government discount, the initial quotes for moving just our campus computer labs to XenDesktop were high enough that we had to be willing to research and consider other options.

So research them we did, giving both Quest vWorkspace and VMware View a look. Ultimately, our choice was driven by the answers to three key questions:

  • Can we stream virtual desktops to our existing physical computers?
  • How can we achieve the highest user density?
  • Can we provide robust clients for every platform imaginable?

Streamed Virtual Desktops to Physical Computers

One of the features we found most appealing about XenDesktop was its ability to stream a virtual desktop disk image to a physical computer.  We replace about a quarter of our several hundred computers each year, so at any time 3/4 of the computers across our campus have 1-3 years of warranty left, and at least that much useful life ahead of them.  We would need to find the money to pay for the virtual desktop software somewhere, and the thought of transforming the majority of our existing lab computers into something very like a thin client from a support perspective was very attractive.

vWorkspace and View didn’t offer this as a feature.  Right off the bat, this put them behind in the competition for our dollars.

User Density

As much as the focus in many blogs and articles then – and now – seems to be on VDI, our experience in providing dozens of apps to thousands of users with Presentation Server shaped our perceptions of what constituted a virtual desktop.  We also knew our users were comfortable with the concept of running seamless presented apps on their own computers.

So we asked a simple question early on – what are the hardware implications & requirements of running applications on either a large farm of virtual terminal servers, or on a much larger number of individual virtual desktops?  Put another way, what do I need to allow 100 users to run Word in each scenario?  It quickly became clear that we could achieve much higher user density in a blended terminal server / virtual desktop model.

VMware View fell further behind in our scoring at this point, although to our VMware account team’s credit, they made sure we understood we could run all the virtual terminal servers on vSphere and use them to host apps for View.  The thought of managing hundreds of vanilla Windows terminal servers wasn’t appealing.

Quest vWorkspace and Citrix XenApp both offer solutions that make leveraging terminal services less painful.  We would eventually do a full vWorkspace POC and found a lot to like about vWorkspace, especially in terms of simplifying the backend system administration.  Likewise, as Presentation Server became XenApp and moved from version 5 to 6, it continued to impress.

Client Support

It should come as no surprise that, as a university, we’re not an all-PC/Windows shop.  I don’t have official numbers, but from my own observation, both among faculty/staff and especially students, PC usage continues to decline and Mac usage continues to grow.  I haven’t owned a PC personally for several years, and nearly everyone in leadership in our division uses a Mac laptop, as do many important decision makers around campus.  So Mac users in my environment are not a tiny percentage of eccentric nerds – they’re some of the most vocal and influential people on campus.

We also have a great many Linux/Unix users, especially among the faculty/staff in Computer Science, Engineering, and the sciences.  Like many of the Mac users on campus, these folks are not typically friends of Windows.  Any service we stand up has to deliver a good experience to Windows users but can’t be DOA to Mac and Linux users.

Add to that the skyrocketing popularity in mobile devices, especially the iOS-based iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, and it has been clear from the beginning that our virtual desktop solution would need to provide robust clients for every platform imaginable.  This mirrors a broader initiative within our division to make all of our services available via any client.

When we began this journey in 2009, the choice was very easy.  Neither vWorkspace nor View offered a Mac client.  Still, given the two year planning phase for this project, the client landscape had time to change and grow, and it did.

Ultimately, though, it didn’t change much, aside from all three companies finally managing to produce iPad clients.  View, to the best of my knowledge, still doesn’t offer a Mac OS X client, although there is an open-source project available that we didn’t consider sufficient to meet our support needs.  vWorkspace offers a Mac OS X client, but during our POC it proved to be buggy, and was then and still is today not a native OS X client, but some sort of port (I assume) of their Linux client that runs via X11.  As a geek I found that to be interesting, but we didn’t want to try to support it and didn’t believe our Mac users would like it.

Putting it all Together

It took a while, but it became clear that Citrix XenDesktop was the best choice for our environment and our users.  I’m the first to admit that there are good things about each product, and environments where I see each of them making sense, but for our users, in our environment, XenDesktop makes the most sense.

I often hear Streamed Virtual Desktops, what Citrix is now calling Streamed VHD, referred to as a corner case, and I suppose in some environments it may be.  But with the number of computers we have all over multiple campuses, all of which are connected to a reasonably robust network infrastructure, it screams cost-savings to us.  I can see a future where most of our computers are thin clients hitting VDI instances in our data centers, but for the next few years we’ll be able to avoid spending even more money on compute power in the data center by leveraging the computers we already own.

The user density question is one that I know is open for interpretation, and believe me, I’ve had plenty of arguments about it with our lead vSphere admin, but for us, the choice of running most apps on shared XenApp servers makes the most sense.

The multi-platform client support question wasn’t close two years ago, and I’d say it still isn’t close today, although Citrix Receiver’s lead may be decreasing.  One of our projects primary objectives is to deliver virtual apps and desktops to any user on any device, and the best way I know of today to do that is with Citrix Receiver.

So that’s how we made our decision to implement Citrix XenDesktop/XenApp.

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