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By | Timothy Prickett Morgan 12th May 2010 20:56

Citrix previews bare-metal virt

New client, fresh server, embedded antivirus

Citrix Systems shelled out $500m to buy XenSource and get its hands on the Xen open source hypervisor, and it looks like 2010 is shaping up to be the year that the Xen family of products starts to pay back some of that dough.

This week, at the Synergy 2010 conference in San Francisco, where Citrix is holding court with customers, partners, and a few rivals in the desktop and server virtualization racket, the company plans to preview its long-awaited bare-metal desktop and laptop PC hypervisor, XenClient, and discuss updates to its XenServer server hypervisor, also a bare metal or type 1 product, in the virt lingo and something that has been woven into existing Citrix application streaming and virtualization technologies to create something Citrix is calling FlexCast.

With FlexCast virtualization, Citrix is delivering a Swiss army knife approach to virtualization, giving customers lots of different ways to virtualize machines or applications, each tailored for specific needs. It starts with XenApp, which is the renamed Citrix Presentation Server from pre-XenSource days that hosts shared PC applications on servers and gives end users access to them over local or remote networks. Over the past year, XenApp has been mish-mashed with the XenServer server virtualization hypervisor and the XenDesktop virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) tool that rides atop it to stream virtual PC images down to PC clients over local networks and it is hard to tell where one product begins and the other ends.

As far as Citrix is concerned, having distinct products no longer matters, but what is key is having a set of tools with a predictable revenue and maintenance stream that keeps Citrix in the game. In any event, the converged XenDesktop and XenApp software allow for hosted PC images to be either streamed down from the data center and run locally using XenClient or hosted in the data center with only their video and local peripherals running locally, using a protocol Citrix calls HDX (what Citrix calls) and supporting maybe 125 users per server and allowing personalization of desktops. Using XenApp to host a common, shared desktop, you can get maybe 500 users on a server, and using streamed VHD, which is halfway between a PC hypervisor and hosted VDI, Citrix says it can support for up to 5,000 users per server.

One important bit of the FlexCast equation has been missing, however, and that is a bare-metal hypervisor on the client itself that can run multiple and possibly incompatible operating systems on a single machine. This would provide better isolation and security for desktop software that is hosted on the PC, whether it's streamed down from the network using the XenDesktop/XenApp combo or hosted back on the data center servers using the same middleware.

XenClient is that missing piece. And it is late, considering that when Citrix and Intel announced their development partnership back in January 2009, they said they would have the product in the field later in 2009. That clearly didn't happen, which is why software is no less disappointing than hardware when it comes to development and meeting schedules.

And if you were expecting a commercial-grade, bare-metal hypervisor to be ready for delivery today at Synergy, you will be disappointed. But not entirely, because according to Wes Wasson, chief marketing officer at Citrix, the XenClient Express Test Kit will be available today, presumably for free as a download and as an open source product. This test version of XenClient Express is based on the first release candidate variant of the PC hypervisor, and it will include Receiver and Synchronizer software that will allow it to automatically be seen by XenDesktop VDI software.

XenClient, says Wasson, will be included in the "next major release" of XenDesktop and was developed not only in conjunction with Intel, but also PC makers Hewlett-Packard and Dell, which will be on hand to endorse XenClient at Synergy. Wasson said that Microsoft has given XenClient its "full endorsement" too.

How much, then?

Wasson would not divulge when the free-standing XenClient hypervisor would be available or what it might cost, or what the feature might cost when bundled into XenDesktop. The XenClient Express test kit is free, and presumably when it is generally available and suitable for production use, it will remain free with subscriptions for support. Wasson didn't say precisely when XenClient would be ready for primetime, but said it would be ready "in the next couple of months."

None of the feeds and speeds for the XenClient hypervisor were announced as El Reg went to press. The hypervisor is tied heavily to the VPro virtualization and security features of Intel's Core desktop and laptop processors, so forget about using it on machines using Advanced Micro Devices' x64 processors. The last three years' worth of laptops and desktops that have VPro technology in them will be able to run XenClient, however. You won't need to be at the latest release of iron to deploy the bare-metal hypervisor - or at least that was the plan a year and a half ago.

Citrix will also talk a little bit about the upcoming 5.6 release of its XenServer bare-metal virt for servers. Wasson said the update would provide better virtual machine density and scale than the current XenServer 5.5, which shipped a year ago. The freebie XenServer 5.6 Express hypervisor will sport faster network performance too.

For those who want to pony up some cash for Advanced, Enterprise, or Platinum Edition licenses to XenServer 5.6, Citrix is cooking up some memory optimizations to improve performance, adding better host power management, putting in role-based administration, adding in a self-service portal for "lab management" or what a lot of people call VM jukeboxing and tossing in the ability to snapshot VMs and revert to earlier ones when something goes bonkers.

In February 2009, ahead of rival VMware's launch of its vSphere 4.0 tools, most of which are embodied in the ESX Server 4.0 hypervisor, Citrix decided to stop charging for the base hypervisor in XenServer 5.1 and continued this with the XenServer 5.5 release. And in that time, XenServer has grown to over 45,000 installations (and is in use at just under half of the Fortune 500).

That is not including the hypervisors that are driving the 1.5 million seats of XenDesktop that are installed. XenDesktop allows for any hypervisor to be used, including VMware's ESX Server, but XenServer is picked to drive about half of the XenDesktop seats. At 125 users per server and 750,000 users, that works out to around 6,000 more XenServer licenses. The number is probably twice that because earlier XenServer hypervisors could not drive as many VDI seats. Call it another 10,000 or so, by El Reg's estimates.

A few more things are going to be announced by Citrix at the Synergy show. A project called HDX Nitro will seek to improve the high-definition end user experience for virtual desktops. Wasson says that the current generation of HDX technologies already consume 80 to 90 per cent less network bandwidth to stream and support virtual desktops than competitive projects, but Citrix wants to make the performance three times better on every aspect of HDX. The goal is not just to make streamed desktops as good as local ones, but to make it so people can't tell. So that means getting virt PCs to start up twice as fast and allowing high-speed printing from anywhere to any printer, just to name two enhancements.

Citrix is also working with security software provider McAfee to embed its antivirus software in the Xen hypervisor itself, both the desktop and client version, to make antivirus scanning more efficient than deploying it on 80 to 125 clients running in a VDI setup. As Wasson pointed out, imagine the degradation if McAfee fired up 100 antivirus scans all at the same time on VDI images? The server would crawl, and the end users at the end of the VDI wire would be gnashing their teeth. The way the McAfee antivirus is being embedded into Xen will be done through open APIs and open source code, allowing other security product vendors to embed their wares into the hypervisor where appropriate. ®

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