VMware and Citrix put gloves on, customers prep for winning products

Whether Horizon 6 or XenApp is better doesn't matter; the longer VMware and Citrix duke it out, the better both products will be for customers.

After 17 long years, VMware and Citrix are finally bringing some much-needed competition to the application delivery market.

I've been working in IT since 1995, and I was involved with my first Citrix project in 1997, running Citrix WinFrame, for those old enough to remember that product. One of the interesting things about the Terminal Server/Citrix application delivery market is that Citrix has always had a monopoly. Sure, smaller competitors such as New Moon (now ProPalms), Provision IT (now Dell vWorkspace) and 2X popped up over the years, but when it came to Terminal Server-based session hosting, Citrix owned more than 95% of the market. (Citrix WinFrame became MetaFrame, then Presentation Server, and finally XenApp.)

In 2006, VMware entered the market with virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), and Citrix responded by creating XenDesktop. But VDI deployments never gained more than 2% or 3% enterprise desktop market share, with the remaining 97% or so using setups based on Terminal Server/Remote Desktop Session Host (RDSH) and running Citrix XenApp.

The reality is that it doesn't matter if Horizon 6 is better than XenApp.

The reasons for this are many -- and beyond the scope of this column -- but they mostly boil down to the facts that session-based desktops are cheaper than VDI, and that Citrix XenApp's application "publishing" feature allows companies to seamlessly deliver individual Windows remote applications to users, rather than an entire remote desktop. This is great for workers who use Windows or Mac laptops and already have "local" desktops -- they don't need an entire secondary desktop from VDI just for a few remote applications.

So for 17 years, we've seen Citrix XenApp dominate with its RDSH-based published application model.

That all changed on April 9, when VMware announced that its newest desktop virtualization product, called Horizon 6, will add support for RDSH-based sessions and application publishing. It is the biggest development since I started out in the desktop virtualization world. I cannot emphasize enough how big this is for the industry.

In the weeks since then, there has been a lot of discussion about whether VMware Horizon 6 is a better product than Citrix XenApp and whether current Citrix customers will move to VMware. The reality is that it doesn't matter if Horizon 6 is better than XenApp. The important thing is that Citrix now has real competition, and that is always a win for customers.

VMware and Citrix fight, but the customer is always right

To understand why, just take a look at what happened in desktop virtualization. Back in 2006, Citrix was humming along with XenApp, called "Presentation Server" at the time. Then VMware created VDI, and Citrix reacted by creating XenDesktop. The first version of XenDesktop was very basic, but thanks to the competition from VMware, Citrix learned quickly, and within a few short years, Citrix XenDesktop actually had more features than XenApp. This is still true today: Citrix XenDesktop 7.5 has far more features than XenApp 7.5.

So now that VMware is positioning Horizon 6 directly against XenApp 7.5, I'm excited to see what's in store for Citrix. I truly don't care whether XenApp customers stick with Citrix or move to VMware -- I know that customers are going to win either way.

Here's hoping that VMware and Citrix enter into a massive pricing and features war, because the winner of that war will be us, the customers.

Now, if only we can do something about the Windows monopoly ...

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