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VDI shops mull XenDesktop vs. Horizon as competition continues

Citrix still holds a large advantage in the desktop virtualization market, but several factors could allow VMware's market share to grow.

As the desktop virtualization market evolves, the long-standing competition between Citrix and VMware leaves IT pros with a difficult decision when choosing a product.

Citrix XenDesktop and VMware Horizon each hold their own appeal to different customers. Some are drawn to the security features and graphics-related innovations of XenDesktop, while others see Horizon as more cutting edge.

"[Citrix] was the standard for a long time," said Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research. "Over the last few years, VMware really has put their foot on the pedal as far as innovation goes."

A closer look at XenDesktop vs. Horizon

XenDesktop -- now transitioning to the name Citrix Virtual Desktop -- accounts for 57.7% of on-premises VDI deployments compared to Horizon's 26.9%, according to Login VSI and Frame's "State of the EUC 2018" report released in May.

VMware is doing what it can to close the gap, however. In 2015, the company introduced Instant Clone, a feature that allows IT to clone a VM while it's running. VMware also added Blast Extreme, a proprietary remote display protocol, in 2016.

VMware has also improved its standing in the XenDesktop vs. Horizon debate by integrating with F5 Networks to improve network performance in the last couple of years. XenDesktop uses Citrix's proprietary product, NetScaler, which is not on par with F5's offering, Kerravala said.

The University of Arkansas chose VMware Horizon over XenDesktop about a year and a half ago because of Horizon's emphasis on the cloud.

"The Citrix solution felt like it was an evolution of on-prem," said Jon Kelley, associate director of enterprise innovation at the university. "The VMware technology was more for the cloud-type stuff with disposable infrastructure. We wanted to be a little more forward-thinking and be software-defined."

Horizon also appeals to customers because of its integration with other VMware products, according to Sheldon D'Paiva, director of product marketing at VMware.

"Workspace One has all the best-of-breed pieces integrated with it," D'Paiva said. "It brings together VDI with Horizon and identity and access management so you can have single sign-on for all your apps. VMware can provide everything from the storage layer, the hypervisor, the broker ... We can provide the entire stack."

XenDesktop's innovation has been strong when it comes to security improvements around consolidation and encryption, said Jeff Kater, director of information technology at the Kansas Development Finance Authority, a corporate finance entity that uses XenDesktop. Citrix integrated XenDesktop on top of an open API stack, which enables more secure browsing, among other benefits, Kater said.

"[Citrix's] API stack on [Bitdefender Hypervisor Introspection] allows me to have file protection baked into the image, but also have memory introspection actually living one layer beneath the hypervisor, and so, virtually, we're impenetrable," he said. "I deny all rogue access. I was only able to get that with XenDesktop."

Security is one of several aspects of Citrix's virtual app and desktop offering that draw customers, according to Thomas Berger, senior product marketing manager at Citrix.

"It offers the best user experience for any application and user data over any network and on any device," Berger said. "Its context-aware security is stronger and more flexible. And its specialized built-in support and management tools make management simpler and more efficient and agile."

Citrix is also moving ahead when it comes to delivering graphics to virtual desktops. The company allows GPU-accelerated VMs to float dynamically among hosts so IT pros don't have to shut down a VM when it moves to a new host. VMware offers a similar capability in vSphere 6.7 where IT pros can suspend desktop sessions to migrate GPU-accelerated VMs from one server to another.

Ultimately, though, it's the customer-first approach that attracted Kater to XenDesktop, he said.

"They want to make sure you're a happy customer," Kater said. "If the customer has a request, Citrix works overtime trying to fix that and resolve that in future releases."

Customer support is a strong element of VMware's offering, as well, Kelley said.

"[VMware was] invested in making sure the vision they sold us was actually what we were going to get," he said. "They focus on how to make it easier for people to get to the data and the stuff they need to get the work done."

Is change in the air?

The XenDesktop vs. Horizon battle could shift thanks to a confluence of factors experts said. For starters, last summer, Citrix went through yet another CEO change -- its third in five years.

"We do look for strength in the company as a point for how we make some of these decisions," Kelley said. "[VMware] actually had a fully fleshed out strategy for where the thing was going."

When you combine the uncertainty with the company [Citrix] with the end of the support for products, fiscally responsible [companies] are going to take a look around and see what else is there.
Zeus Kerravalafounder and principal analyst, ZK Research

In addition, XenDesktop 7.0 reached its end of life on June 30, 2018. When a product reaches the end of its mainstream support, it's a natural opportunity for customers to consider other options, Kerravala said.

"That opens the door for customers to go," he said. "When you combine the uncertainty with the company [Citrix] with the end of the support for products, fiscally responsible [companies] are going to take a look around and see what else is there."

The changes don't mean that existing customers are running scared, however.

"Everything has fit the bill wonderfully for us," Kater said. "Citrix is in a good spot. And as long as it continues to innovate, people will take note, and that will smooth things over."

Still, Kater keeps an eye on how a major change at Citrix would affect his users.

"If something goes end of life, if they sell off a part of their company, I want to make sure that every product they put into production has the ability -- with a Citrix tool -- to export my images, my products, into a kernel to any other of the major players and [that] they do that," Kater said.

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