To Citrix or Not to Citrix?

by Cláudio Rodrigues [Published on 5 April 2006 / Last Updated on 5 April 2006]

The main question most companies just starting to use SBC technology have is if Citrix is needed or not. This article is for everyone that is now looking at Terminal Services/Citrix as a new technology to be used in-house and are now at a crossroad, having to decide/justify if such an expensive add-on like Citrix is required or not.

Introduction

First of all, let me explain the reason for such article. Server Based Computing technologies have been increasing in popularity every single year and the main reason for that is the fact that it is now part of Microsoft Windows within most of its forms (from Windows XP Professional to Windows Server). At the corporate end, when people think about Terminal Services, the first name that comes to mind, after my own, is Citrix, since it was the company responsible for bringing SBC to the Windows world, becoming the de facto name on this field. That is why the main question most companies just starting to use such technology is if Citrix is needed or not. It has nothing to do with my love and/or hate relationship with Citrix at all.

And before you go ahead and rate this article, I must clarify this particular one is NOT targeted at the geeks/gurus that read the Thin.net list every single day and have been using such technologies for years; this article is for everyone else that is now looking at Terminal Services/Citrix as a new technology to be used in-house and are now at a crossroad, having to decide/justify if such an expensive add-on like Citrix is required or not. So rate it ACCORDINGLY to its target audience please. :-)

A Little Bit of History

As some of you may not be aware, Citrix is the company that started the Windows Server Based market, many years ago with its WinFrame product, which was based on Microsoft’s Windows NT 3.51. Before WinFrame, Citrix had an OS2 based product called WinView that was their first real attempt into the SBC market.

A couple years after WinFrame was released, Microsoft realized the potential for Server Based Computing and licensed the technology behind WinFrame from Citrix, to create a product that was released in 1998 called Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server Edition (TSE).

TSE was the first product to use a new protocol, RDP, at the time on version 4. This protocol was similar to Citrix ICA but lacked many important features in use by most corporate customers. At that time, to be able to use simple features like local printing to the client terminal, access to the local drives and so on, ICA was required and therefore Citrix had to be purchased and installed on every single machine running TSE.

Windows 2000: A new hope

With the release of Windows 2000, Microsoft made Terminal Services a core component, and not a stand alone product anymore like TSE was. This brought Terminal Services to the masses and with an improved RDP protocol (version 5.0 at the time), it was a huge success. Many features were still missing though. Intelligent load balancing, Seamless Windows, high color support, sound playback at the local client and many others were still exclusively found on Citrix.

But with the enhancements of RDP 5.0, many companies realized that most of the features available on Citrix could be developed for Terminal Services. And so they did it, and many third party applications came to the market, addressing every single feature Microsoft had left out of Terminal Services.

When Windows 2003 Server was released, it came with an enhanced RDP (RDP5.2), with pretty much all the features, at the protocol level, available on Citrix ICA.

The Big Question

With so many third party options today, is Citrix really needed?

Citrix is the de-facto standard for Server Based Computing. But today companies are trying to save as much money as possible on any IT related project and when they see the price tag associated with Citrix and the fact Windows 2003 Terminal Services is greatly improved, their first question is if it is possible to deploy a SBC environment without Citrix and its huge price tag.

For most companies the answer is yes. You can have a secure, reliable and easy to manage Terminal Services solution without Citrix and at a fraction of its cost. But as anything else, there are exceptions in this case. Depending on the number of servers, management and security requirements, client base and so on, Citrix may be required. This is the main reason why most Terminal Server Experts do recommend any company willing to deploy Terminal Services to be assisted by a consultant with strong Terminal Services experience. This may save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in case Citrix is not used.

Some of the most requested features in a terminal services environment can be easily addressed by using third party applications. These may include: resource based load balancing, enhanced secure access, printing management, profile management, application performance and access control. Note that some of the features mentioned here are not available out of the box even with Citrix.

Based on my personal experience in the Server Based Computing market (I have planned/deployed environments ranging from 10 to 10,000 concurrent users), 80% of all Terminal Services deployments could be done without Citrix, for small, medium and large customers. The key is to understand the requirements and to have a clear picture of the problems you may face with Terminal Services. Once the requirements are defined and the customer clearly understands the issues that may arise by using such technologies, Terminal Services without Citrix may be a real possibility. Just make sure your company understands the technology and its best strategies and pitfalls when going plain Terminal Services.

Some Misconceptions

Of course some people will say no matter what, Citrix is the best thing on earth after bread and butter. But there are some misconceptions out there, when talking about Citrix and its magic. The top two in my mind are:

  • ICA is way better than RDP. This was true in the past, when comparing ICA with RDP4. As of today, RDP5.2 offers pretty much all the features available on ICA at the protocol level. This includes support for local devices (drives, printers, serial devices) and virtual channels. Even in terms of bandwidth, RDP is better than ICA over low bandwidth links (28.8kbps for example). It is true that ICA is still better than RDP over high latency links (RDP performs well when latency is under 400ms, while ICA can go all the way up to 900-1000ms).
  • Features A, B and C are available only with Citrix. Depending on which features you are looking for, many third party vendors will offer them for Terminal Services. Some examples are published applications, seamless windows, access gateways, web based portals, intelligent load balancing and so on. Once found exclusively on Citrix, all the features mentioned above can be easily added to Terminal Services by using third party add-ons. Some will offer all these, while others will take a modular approach where you add only what you will use and need. And yes, all of them are a lot cheaper than Citrix.

My old buddy Brian Madden wrote about this same topic back in September, 2005 and has some other interesting comments. Ok he published it first, as this article has been sitting on my computer since 2004, and just now I decided to publish it. :-)

He also mentions about all the ‘Smart Access’/’Workspace Control’ thing that is now part of Presentation Server (as Citrix renames its product every year). Although I agree some of this stuff is cool and companies would probably like/want that, the small/medium shops would not go for something like it. Even today, VPN access for example, something ‘so-nineties’, has not been used in most of these places. SSL VPN? Sure….

The reality is these companies do not need all the extra features Citrix is constantly adding to Metaframe Presentation Server. Soon Presentation Server will become a web portal thing with SSL VPN capabilities, two-way biometric factor authentication, streaming applications, all this coming from a ½ U quad-core SSL applicance with no physical disks as these are actual vDisks vICADisks loaded using some Citrix bought from someone developed disk driver. Who needs/wants that??? :-)

Conclusion

The truth is many of the features in Citrix are not used by many of their customers and when compared to real tools that address the same issues (i.e., RMS versus Systrack, IMS versus Altiris, ThinPrint versus Citrix EMF engine, etc) it is clear they are less capable. The comparable separate third party tools usually offer a lot more than what is built-in on Citrix.

The same is valid for Terminal Services. Although a plain terminal server farm will lack most of the important requirements on any SBC deployment (resource based load balancing is one simple example), by using extremely simple and affordable add-ons for Terminal Services/RDP, you can easily achieve the same you thought was only possible with Citrix.

And more than that, all this at a fraction of the cost. Again, for WAY less (so you can save your company money and use part of that to come to BriForum).

My advice? Read. Learn. Do your research. You will be surprised how much you can do without Citrix.

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