Is Citrix the Real Challenge to VMware?

Monday Mar 2nd 2009 by Jeff Vance
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Amid a swirl of partnerships, including Microsoft and Red Hat, it appears that Citrix is positioned to gain ground against the current virtualization leader.

When it comes to the competition, VMware should be worried about Microsoft, right? That’s what common sense tells us – but common sense also tricked people for centuries into thinking the world is flat.

Sure, Hyper-V is an improvement over the downright awful Virtual Server, but it doesn’t match what VMware offers. In fact, Hyper-V’s most impressive trait is simply that it’s from Microsoft. Its feature set, though, is still lacking.

That said, Microsoft’s playbook is well known. Throw a product out there just to be in the space. Improve it until it can’t be entirely dismissed as inferior. Improve it some more until it is “good enough.” Then, divide and conquer.

Hyper-V isn’t generally regarded as “good enough” quite yet, but this time around, Microsoft’s playbook has a new wrinkle: partnerships. Last week, Citrix and Microsoft unveiled a new virtualization partnership. Citrix’ new virtualization management suite, Citrix Essentials, will support Microsoft’s Hyper-V.

Coming on the heels of a similar Microsoft deal with Red Hat, Redmond is clearly aiming to box in VMware, leveraging the one thing that VMware doesn’t have: an open ecosystem. The Xen community is strong, and through simple partnering agreements, Microsoft is taking advantage of an ecosystem it’s not even participating in.

Say what you want about Microsoft, but they know how to compete.

However, it may very well be Citrix, not Microsoft, which is best positioned to benefit from this strategy. “Citrix has a good story to tell with Hyper-V interoperability,” said Chris Wolf, senior analyst, Burton Group.

“There are a lot of shops that will never bet against Microsoft. Now, with [Citrix] XenServer they don’t have to. A virtual machine on XenServer will run on Hyper-V. If you want virtualization today and advanced features like Live Migration, you don’t have to wait for Hyper-V to evolve. Just roll out XenServer.”

Should Citrix worry about a Microsoft trap?

Microsoft and Citrix have a long-standing partnership in place, so extending it to virtualization is no great leap. “Microsoft’s strategy in my opinion is: ‘anyone but VMware,’” Wolf said. “That mainly benefits Citrix. If there’s something that Microsoft doesn’t have, they tell their customers to go to Citrix.”

A main part of the anti-VMware message is that VMware traps you in a closed system. With Microsoft, Citrix, Red Hat, and, well, anyone other than VMware, the message goes, you benefit from an open environment and the innovation an open environment encourages.

As Citrix CTO Simon Crosby put it, “Our goal is to get fast, free and compatible virtualization on every server. We’re opposed to VMware’s continued closed-source, proprietary vertical stack that excludes other vendors in the ecosystem.”

Kind of ironic coming from a Microsoft partner, isn’t it?

Crosby conceded the point, but as a long-term Microsoft partner, he doesn’t consider Microsoft to be a closed-source vendor. Sure, they’re stingy with their source code. Yes, they have a history of strong arming customers to lock out competitors, but they don’t exclude third-party vendors who add value to their offerings.

To make his point, he pointed to Windows. “Windows has always been an open platform in the sense that Microsoft has always recognized the role of ISVs in extending the platform and addressing customer needs,” Crosby said.

To put a more cynical spin on it, so long as you pay your proper fealty, Microsoft is perfectly happy to keep you around. Empires require alliances, after all.

Being more charitable, Microsoft has always embraced ecosystems around its software and platforms to a limited degree. Today, the nature and value of platform ecosystems has changed – as has the means for monetizing the solutions those ecosystems are built around. With virtualization, Microsoft is changing with the times and embracing an open, multi-vendor ecosystem.

At least that’s the story for today.

Is “free” a strategy?

Another factor to consider is that Citrix is now offering XenServer with an array of high-end features for free. VMware, on the other hand, currently limits its freebies to low-end, limited-use solutions.

Citrix believes that hypervisors are a commodity, virtualization itself is the easy part, and customers will pay for the hard part: management. This is savvy positioning. Getting a foot in the door by giving stuff away is a time-tested marketing strategy, and as other vendors follow suit and offer free or even low-cost virtualization solutions, Citrix has a head start on managing mixed Windows and Linux environments.

Next Page: Emerging virtualization markets

If VMware is worried about this, they’re not showing it. Their message these days is all about the emerging markets of desktop virtualization and cloud computing.

VMware also has more to worry about than just Citrix. Sun and Red Hat both have compelling virtualization stories. Virtual Iron is quietly dominating the SME space, and Cisco is entering the fray.

What about those emerging sectors, anyway?

While VMware still owns the server virtualization market, those emerging sectors have yet to be won. The cloud computing space is wide open – even conceptually, since vendors and analysts don’t even agree on what exactly a cloud is.

“It’s amazing how people use the term in such different ways,” said David Mitchell Smith, a VP and fellow at Gartner. “On one side you have purists who say there is no such thing as an internal cloud. On the other, you have people so into infrastructure and nothing else that to them ‘cloud’ equals ‘virtualization.’”

Smith believes that internal clouds will be the first to emerge, since IT has a lot more experience with enterprise infrastructure than anything remotely resembling public clouds.

Desktop virtualization is another story. While it, too, is a market in its infancy, it’s easy enough to define, and the demand is certainly there. IDC predicts the market could grow to $2 billion within the next couple of years.

In a down economy, that may be a stretch, but technologies that helps with cost cutting tend to weather recessions reasonably well. “It’s the high cost of managing desktops that’s driving adoption,” Wolf said. “The emergence of the desktop hypervisor will also deliver a number of benefits beyond cost. There are still technical issues to work out, but we’re only a couple of years away from this being a mainstream technology.”

With its acquisition of XenSource in 2007, Citrix vaulted itself ahead of other competitors as a desktop virtualization provider. According to the Burton Group, Citrix is doing well in the nascent VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) market, with deployments almost evenly divided between Citrix and VMware. Compare that to the server virtualization market, where IDC estimates VMware’s market share at 78% – although even that number has been eroding.

Citrix looked to have another edge in VDI race – a partnership with Intel – until VMware inked an almost identical deal earlier this month. The Intel deal is important in that it will help drive embedded hypervisor technology. Today’s VDI deployments are akin to the old thin-client model.

With embedded hypervisors, on the other hand, fully capable computers can be segmented to keep enterprise applications compartmentalized away from anything else a user may load onto the device. Wolf predicts that OEMs will start shipping computers with embedded hypervisors in 2010. The technology will mature in 2011 and reach the mainstream the following year.

Today, neither Citrix nor VMware is shipping a client hypervisor. The only company currently doing so today is a startup founded in 2006, Neocleus Neocleus.

Even so, when virtualization moves out of the data center and onto client devices, Citrix starts looking better and better. It’s been aggressively developing (and hyping) client-side hypervisors, it has XenSource under its roof, and there’s that partnership with Microsoft to consider.

ALSO SEE: Five Companies Shaping Cloud Computing: Who Wins?

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