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Citrix previews bare-metal virt

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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.

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