Citrix is one of those vendors that has been an integral part of the IT industry for as long as many people can remember. It is a company with a solid reputation for delivering an effective solution to the problem of runaway PC costs. Through its original Metaframe product line, now known as Presentation Server, it has achieved complete dominance in the area of deploying Windows client/server applications on servers rather than desktops, then allowing thin client access from a range of devices.
It is hard to find a large company that doesn’t have Citrix software running somewhere in its organisation, and Citrix has performed well over the years as a business, sustaining good revenues ($741m in 2004) and gradually increasing its market penetration. However, the company has been constantly frustrated by the fact that most of its customers, though they rely on Citrix solutions, still view it as a tactical rather than strategic supplier.
Part of the reason for this is because Citrix and its partners were often called in to apply the equivalent of a Band-Aid when an IT department was haemorrhaging budget into the relentless black hole of Windows PC maintenance, upgrade and support. Indeed, many originally considered Citrix a temporary solution until they could fix the problem “properly” at some point in the future, even though they are typically still running Citrix software years later.
Long term, short term fix
Over the past few years, Citrix has worked really hard to move its product portfolio forward, improving core capability and expanding functionality out into secure remote access over the Web, enhanced mobile device support and even online collaboration offerings. Its loyal supporters within the customer base have responded well to such moves, but the frustration has continued as the Citrix proposition has often come across as being incomplete and patchy. Incremental deployment of new solutions has therefore still fallen into the “tactical” category.
To make life even more challenging for Citrix, there have been a couple of industry trends that have threatened its future position for a while now. Many of the key applications Citrix helped its customers to deploy, namely ERP, CRM and other packages, have been moving from the client/server architectures which are well suited to Presentation Server, to a Web-based presentation architecture. With the Windows “client” component being replaced by a standard browser, the need for Citrix Presentation Server is reduced.
The other threatening trend has been the increasing move towards mobile computing. It is now becoming relatively common for organisations to replace a large proportion of their desktop PCs with laptops and the problem with this, at least from a Citrix perspective, is that these are often operated in disconnected mode or on relatively slow cellular network connections, making a thin client approach to application delivery impractical.
With its usual pragmatic approach, Citrix has tackled both of these potential problems head on.
Got to keep moving
Through acquisition, it is has incorporated a solution into its portfolio known as NetScaler. This is aimed at optimising the delivery of Web architecture based applications accessed either internally or externally. The idea is to offload much of the communication, security and physical content delivery work normally burdening the Web server infrastructure onto highly efficient appliances that sit between the browser and the Web server, intercepting and optimising the handling of all traffic that passes between the two. NetScaler uses clever caching, compression and connection optimisation to deal with the highly chatty nature of HTTP and the often redundant processing and retransmission of the same content when requested by different users in different contexts.
NetScaler, and other solutions like it from Cisco, Nortel, F5 and a few others, are already very well proven, particularly within the service provider community, and can lead to dramatic improvements in the performance, security and cost of delivering Web applications. One of the obvious questions is therefore why anyone should take notice of the fact that Citrix is now offering this kind of functionality. Well, the main reason is because this allows Citrix to position a Web application optimisation offering as an integral part of a broader access solution portfolio. From the customer perspective, this in theory allows open conversations to take place with a single supplier that has an application delivery heritage, rather than a networking heritage, and is able to discuss options for both client/server and Web-based deployment with no axe to grind.
From a Citrix positioning perspective, embracing Web applications in this way means it can offer much more objective advice to organisations wishing to create a coherent application delivery and access strategy, which is starting to sound a lot more like the role of a strategic supplier.
The potential for this transition to take place is further fuelled by an initiative known as Project Tarpon, which is an internal development aimed at delivering a solution in the area of application streaming. The basic idea here is to extend the concept of delivering applications on demand through server-based execution to allow client-side execution also, but in a safe and non-conflicting manner. Project Tarpon, which is still a work in progress, will achieve this by holding self-contained application packages on a server, containing all relevant operating system components as well as application objects, then allowing seamless behind-the-scenes download of those packages to the client machine as they are needed.
Rolling out Tarpon
The end result is that when a user executes a Project Tarpon-enabled application, the software is pulled from the network, cached on the local machine and run in self-contained “sandbox” so it is protected from conflict with other locally installed applications and other applications are protected from it. Going back to the challenge of mobile computing mentioned earlier, an important capability of Project Tarpon is that the cached local copy of the application package is persistent, allowing it to be executed in disconnected mode when the user unplugs from the network. Furthermore, application packages are resynchronised automatically on subsequent connection, providing a mechanism for software updates and additions to be distributed painlessly and cost effectively – i.e. with all the usual benefits Citrix customers have become used to over the years.
So with these moves, along with forays into other areas such as voice related solutions, is Citrix going to inherit the access infrastructure world?
The answer to this depends on how well it executes. Key to success is generating leverage across the portfolio of solutions as there is established competition in each of the individual areas. We have already mentioned the competitors to NetScaler, and in the application streaming area, Softricity in particular, a small but focused company with well proven offerings, will provide a challenge for Citrix as it drives its initial 1.0 release of Project Tarpon into the market.
Nevertheless, for the first time, Citrix really does now have a coherent and comprehensive story that can potentially elevate it to the position of strategic supplier that it has coveted for so many years. Those still thinking of Citrix as the Windows thin client vendor might be surprised at the way the company is now spreading its wings.®