Comparing the features of Citrix and VMware's VDI software

Citrix and VMware offer tools to simplify VDI deployment and management for IT. Understand the key differences between Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops and VMware Horizon.

While VDI technology gives IT teams full control over virtual desktop deployment and management, tools from outside vendors such as Citrix and VMware can help make this process easier.

IT must consider various factors when investing in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) software. There is a wide range of VDI providers on the market today, including the following:

  • Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops
  • VMware Horizon
  • Azure Virtual Desktop
  • Parallels Remote Application Server (RAS)
  • Amazon WorkSpaces

The best option for an organization depends on how exhaustively IT administrators want to manage their infrastructure and whether they want to use cloud technology. Organizations that are less concerned with fully controlling their infrastructure and want to host their virtual desktops in the cloud may want to consider a traditional desktop as a service (DaaS) package rather than VDI software offerings. For situations where VDI is the best fit, Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops and VMware Horizon View are both feature-rich and able to support on-premises, cloud and hybrid deployments.

Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops and Citrix DaaS

Citrix's on-premises VDI offering is Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops (CVAD). CVAD is a full suite of products that enables IT to create a complete VDI environment and manage the user experience. The service is broadly accessible -- the Citrix Workspace App is available on a wide variety of devices, and even without a Workspace app client, users can connect to Citrix with an HTML5 browser. Other key features of CVAD include the following:

  • Citrix Hypervisor is a complete feature-rich hypervisor with virtual GPU (vGPU) support. CVAD comes with free access to Citrix Hypervisor Premium Edition features. But Citrix is not limited to the Citrix Hypervisor -- it works on Nutanix, VMware ESXi, Azure, AWS, Google Cloud Platform, Oracle and more.
  • Machine Creation Services is a simple image management tool that works on a storage base and can help to provision nonpersistent desktops quickly in the cloud.
  • Provisioning Services is a network-based advanced image management tool that lets admins stream virtual desktop images to any endpoint on the same network.
  • StoreFront is a customizable front-end website where users can access their applications and desktops.
  • Director is a help desk and troubleshooting tool that can give insight into the performance of the VDI environment.
  • Workspace Environment Manager is a user experience management tool that lets IT manage the virtual desktop environment of the end user.

Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops offers tiered subscription plans, which might limit the availability of these features.

VMware Horizon View

VMware's VDI offering is VMware Horizon View. Like Citrix, it's a full suite of features and products to make a complete VDI environment for end users. The most significant difference, however, is that VMware Horizon only supports VMware ESXi as an on-premises hypervisor. Some key features of VMware Horizon include the following:

  • VMware ESXi is a server virtualization suite component of VMware vSphere, which comes with VMware Horizon and has been a popular on-premises virtualization option for years. However, unlike Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops, VMware Horizon only supports ESXi as the on-premises hypervisor.
  • Instant Clones is a way to deploy virtual desktops from one image.
  • App Volumes is a way to package applications in application layers and manage applications separately from the OS image.
  • Dynamic Environment Manager is a complete user environment management tool that lets admins manage the end-user experience.
  • Horizon Help Desk Tool is an easy-to-use help desk tool for the ServiceDesk that enables IT to shadow users, remove frozen applications and more.

Comparing VMware Horizon and Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops

Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops and VMware Horizon View are similar in many ways. For example, both come with a hypervisor license and offer many of the same capabilities, including support for Remote Desktop Services (RDS) and Azure multifactor authentication (MFA). The following table outlines the vendors' different features:

VMware Citrix
Hypervisor Only VMware ESXi Citrix Hypervisor, VMware ESXi, Microsoft Hyper-V, Nutanix Acropolis
Storage-based image management Instant Clones Machine Creation Services
Network-based image management None Provisioning Services
Troubleshooting Horizon Help Desk Tool Director
App layering App Volumes Citrix App Layering
User management Dynamic Environment Manager Workspace Environment Manager
External access VMware Access Gateway Citrix ADC
VDI types Persistent, nonpersistent Persistent, nonpersistent
RDS support Yes Yes
Azure MFA support Yes Yes
HTML5 client Yes Yes
Cloud versions Horizon Cloud Citrix DaaS
DaaS solution VMware DaaS Citrix DaaS
Remote display protocol Blast Extreme HDX

The biggest difference is which on-premises hypervisor each supports. Citrix supports Nutanix, VMware ESXi, Citrix Hypervisor and Microsoft Hyper-V, while VMware only supports VMware ESXi. Organizations that choose VMware Horizon will have a vendor lock-in on their hypervisor.

Citrix also supports more clouds and is easier to use within the cloud. Organizations can either set up their CVAD environment in Azure or run Citrix DaaS with Azure. With VMware, the Horizon environment is linked to the VMware cloud, making it more like extending the on-premises environment to the cloud rather than fully transitioning to the cloud.

The last big difference between the two is their Remote display protocols. Citrix's protocol is HDX, and VMware's is Blast Extreme. Citrix HDX may be slightly better with peripherals such as USB devices, while VMware Blast Extreme may work better with vGPU. However, both are suitable protocols and offer a good user experience.

Choosing the right VDI provider

The best option for an organization depends on how exhaustively IT administrators want to manage their infrastructure and whether they want to use cloud technology.

The most significant difference between VMware Horizon and Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops is the vendor lock-in for the on-premises hypervisor. For organizations that already use VMware ESXi and don't plan to change their on-premises hypervisor, VMware Horizon could work. However, for organizations that use another hypervisor on premises or plan to take a hybrid cloud approach with different hypervisors, VMware Horizon might not be a good fit.

Another significant consideration is the knowledge within an organization. It may take time to retrain Citrix administrators to work with VMware and vice versa.

Both products are feature rich and support a variety of use cases. As cloud-based offerings like Azure Virtual Desktop grow in popularity, however, the more important choice will likely be between VDI and DaaS. Citrix and VMware are also shifting into the DaaS space with their products and offer hybrid options, which may be useful for organizations moving to the cloud.

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