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Channel company executives said a recently unveiled Citrix hyper-converged infrastructure initiative aims to take much of the grunt work out of deploying virtual desktops, but still leaves plenty of room for partners to add value.
In January 2017, Citrix announced its Citrix Ready HCI Workspace Appliance Program, which brings together a new line of hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) appliances with the previously released Citrix Cloud. The combination aims to ease the task of assembling the technical underpinnings of a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).
VDI deployments, in general, represent an early -- and still popular -- use case for HCI. In a VDI rollout, compute, data and applications migrate from desktop devices to a centralized infrastructure. That infrastructure, however, needs to provide sufficient performance and capacity to ensure an acceptable user experience. Sizing and assembling the necessary server and storage components has kept some customers out of the VDI market due to the expense and complexity involved. HCI, however, which combines compute, storage and virtualization in the same box, provides what the technology's proponents contend is a simpler and more cost-effective way to support a VDI deployment.
Citrix has been active for years in the VDI space, with partners selling XenDesktop as a core part of a virtual desktop offering. It has also made previous attempts at infrastructure simplification, such as the now-disbanded VDI-in-a-Box product. Since 2015, however, the company has turned toward converged technology and the new appliance program is the latest move in that direction.
A midmarket target
Citrix hyper-converged technology could benefit channel partners' midsize business customers.
"Many midrange clients haven't adopted a virtualized environment yet due to cost, complexity and security concerns," said Nancy Pautsch, president of Envision IT, a Madison, Wis., company that offers consulting, software development and managed services. "Citrix's HCI strategy takes those obstacles off the table and makes modernizing technology a no-brainer."
"The appliance program ... is really going to be a great benefit to the midmarket enterprise," added Carl Gersh, director of sales and marketing at Forthright Technology Partners, a consulting, implementation and managed services firm with offices in Florida and North Carolina.
Midmarket customers have an interest in virtualizing the desktop, but often lack the funding to acquire the necessary technology and the skills to manage it on an on-going basis. Citrix's latest take on HCI, however, removes a couple of key barriers, according to Citrix channel partners.
First, Citrix Cloud, which debuted in 2015 as Citrix Workspace Cloud, absorbs the complexity of running the Citrix control plane, Gersh noted. Citrix Cloud delivers, manages and monitors applications and desktops in the VDI environment and also encompasses StoreFront, which provides self-service access to virtual desktops and applications. Prior to Citrix Cloud, the customer was on the hook for hosting the control plane and Storefront enterprise app store.
"[Citrix Cloud] abstracts the control plane and makes it available as a service," Gersh said, adding that Citrix offers a service-level agreement around the control plane.
But while Citrix Cloud eased the management burden of VDI infrastructure, it left customers to work out the nontrivial matter of where to host virtual desktop workloads. Citrix's hyper-converged appliance initiative answers this question, according to Gersh.
Customers can host their workloads on the hardware devices available through the Citrix Ready HCI Workspace Appliance Program. Those appliances, a Citrix blog noted, link with Citrix Cloud to "stand up and deliver virtual desktops and apps."
Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Atlantis Computing provide the initial appliance in the Citrix hyper-converged approach. The package consists of the HPE Edgeline EL4000 intelligent Edge Workspace, Atlantis USX software-defined storage offering and Citrix Cloud XenApp and XenDesktop Service.
The combination of Citrix Cloud and the HCI "give smaller IT shops the ability to deliver high-performing virtual desktops without the complexity and cost of a traditional VDI solution," said Beau Smithback, Envision IT's founder and CEO.
And HCI is pivotal for getting on-the-sidelines customers into VDI. Smithback said hyper-converged technology addresses the three main hurdles of complexity, performance and cost. HCI, he said, provides a single management interface for compute and storage resources, reducing complexity.
As for performance and cost, "a well-built HCI solution will leverage RAM and flash to eliminate storage bottlenecks and potentially create a better-than-physical experience and HCI will often cost less than traditional architectures -- even at scale," Smithback explained. "Given their dominance in the VDI market, I think HCI is a winning strategy for Citrix to break into the midmarket."
"Their HCI offering definitely points in the direction that the market is going," added Bill Kleyman, CTO at MTM Technologies Inc., an IT solutions provider.
"We're happy to see HPE and Atlantis Computing -- both great partners -- doing so much to progress converged computing," Kleyman said. "Still, we enjoy the diversity of the market."
Room for value-added services
The packaging of cloud and HCI technology eliminates some management chores -- for customers and channel partners -- but opens other opportunities to provide services. Gersh said partners won't have to manage the Citrix control plane environment, but can offer managed services around the HCI appliance. He said partners can make the appliance easier to set up, make sure it runs smoothly and offer remediation services should something go wrong.
"Those needs still exist," he said.
Carl Gershdirector of sales and marketing, Forthright Technology Partners
In addition, Citrix channel partners can provide consulting services with respect to HCI and VDI, provide advice on the overall architecture and help customers translate the technology into business value, he added.
For clients who are newer to cloud and VDI, partners can provide help in designing, operationalizing and managing the solution to ensure it's delivering an exceptional user experience and long-term business value, Smithback said.
The Citrix hyper-converged technology, along with VDI, can also position partners for future cloud migration business down the road. Citrix Cloud and the HCI appliance provide a hybrid offering that Smithback said lets customers deliver on-premises virtual desktops, while keeping the management layer in the cloud. From that hybrid position, a further jump to the cloud is relatively straightforward.
"Citrix Cloud is a great transitional platform for companies looking to move into the cloud," Smithback said. "As companies get further into their cloud journey, and they decide to move server workloads and desktops into [Microsoft] Azure, the move from on-premises virtual desktops to cloud-based VDI is an easy one."
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