Citrix unveils bare-metal desktop hypervisor, ahead of VMware

Test version out this week

Citrix is unveiling its bare-metal desktop hypervisor, known as XenClient, with a test version being released for download this week and general availability expected within a few months.

Client hypervisors allow desktops to run in a virtual machine installed directly on a user's laptop, rather than in a server inside the data center. The approach allows centralized management of desktops, while potentially giving users better performance than VDI technologies that require applications to run on remote servers.

FAQ: Desktop virtualization

Citrix and VMware were both planning to ship bare-metal desktop hypervisors last year, but have suffered delays attributed to the process of developing drivers needed by PC users and persuading PC vendors to support the hypervisors.

But Citrix's release of XenClient signals that the client hypervisor technology is almost ready for enterprise use. XenClient will be ideal for bring-your-own PC scenarios, for companies that want to put more than one desktop image on a laptop, and users who need separation between their personal and corporate desktops, according to Citrix.

For now, Citrix is issuing XenClient as a release candidate and an express kit allowing IT pros to test it out, and connect virtual PCs to existing XenDesktop deployments. Citrix has tested XenClient with partners Intel, HP and Dell, but haven't yet tested the hypervisor with all types of use cases, says Wes Wasson, Citrix's chief marketing officer.

General availability should occur "shortly," within a few months, and will be shipped pre-installed on hardware by major desktop vendors, he said.

Releasing XenClient puts Citrix ahead of VMware in the client hypervisor race, but this is still a maturing technology that probably won't attain wide adoption until 2011 or 2012, says Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf.

IT security pros are wary of bringing employee's personal computers onto the corporate network, and Citrix still has some convincing to do despite promises of greater isolation between personal and corporate applications on XenClient, he says."For an initial 1.0 product it has the minimal set of features you would expect in a client hypervisor, in terms of isolation," Wolf says.

Building a client hypervisor is more complicated than creating server-based technology because of issues with audio, USB devices, webcams, wireless networking and Bluetooth, Citrix explains in a video about XenClient.

But there are numerous advantages. Users can switch back and forth between personal and corporate desktops simply by hitting a hotkey, and yet the personal and business desktops are completely separate from a security perspective, at least according to Citrix.

With a personal desktop on a company machine, Citrix says users have a safer way of installing personal applications without compromising their company's network. IT can set policies preventing users from copying and pasting data between corporate and personal environments, or preventing one desktop image from accessing certain networks. All business apps and data can be synced to the corporate network, so the employee's desktop can be recovered even if the physical machine is lost.

Citrix has created a good model for application access, Wolf says, but still has to improve replication of desktop images for more efficient backups. "Image management in general is an area they're going to improve," he says.

Companies with mobile workforces may be interested in XenClient, but one shortcoming is that this version seems to work only on laptops, because the device drivers haven't been adapted to work on desktop machines, Wolf says. Some customers may want a client hypervisor even if they're not deploying it to a laptop, he says.

Availability of XenClient is one of several announcements Citrix is making this week at its Synergy conference in San Francisco.

The announcements include:• HDX "Nitro," an update to Citrix's high-definition desktop technology, allowing instant startup of applications on virtual desktops, and various other techniques to optimize user experience across different devices and network connections. Features include up to 300% speed increase for virtual desktops; faster printing, and WAN optimization. Nitro will be incorporated into upcoming releases of XenDesktop and XenApp.• "Safe Zone" technology that automatically encrypts all data delivered to users through application virtualization platforms. "As long as users have this plug-in, any data created by corporate applications or saved in a secure safe zone directory is automatically encrypted, regardless of where the users are located or what device they are using," Citrix says. A technology preview of Safe Zone is available today.• A partnership with McAfee to make desktop security tools work better in virtual environments. "Citrix plans to collaborate with McAfee to develop security solutions for VDI-based virtual desktops that centralize all virus scanning and virus signature file updates, off-loading the processing intensive actions from the individual VMs," Citrix says. "The goal of this solution is to enhance the security and scalability of virtual desktop deployments by reducing CPU, memory and storage requirements, and to simplify desktop security and life-cycle management." A release based on the collaboration is due the second half of 2010.

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