The XenApp Product Lifecycle Conundrum (to 6.5 or not to 6.5 in the anticipation of Project Avalon)

Many who attended Synergy last year left highly anticipating the arrival of the much heralded Project Avalon bits in the form of the first phase, Project Excalibur, or XenApp/XenDesktop vNext. That project is now in tech preview and has a bit of momentum behind it already, both from Citrix and the community. It’s Citrix’s first platform that will support Windows Server 2012 (as well as WS2008R2) and brings forth the next generation of Citrix product design, characterized primarily from a structural standpoint by the retirement of IMA architecture and replacement with XenDesktop’s FMA architecture, agent-based server enrollment as opposed to installation of the traditional platform pieces, delivery of apps and desktops in the same infrastructure (Flexcast 2.0), unification of service consoles for applications and desktops, and integration of StoreFront and CloudGateway for delivery into the Desktop Studio management console. For more on the specifics, and the actual bits for the Tech Preview, check it out in MyCitrix: http://www.citrix.com/downloads/xendesktop/betas-and-tech-previews/desktop-and-apps-tech-preview.html

With XenApp 6.5 just getting out the door, and the shifts (extensions) in the XenApp 5.0 and 6.0 product lifecycles, I’ve heard from several customers and partners some hints of confusion about how this affects go-forward strategy, particularly for a couple of groups: 1) Those who are still on XenApp 5.0 and WS2008 (non-R2), and 2) Those who are on XenApp 6.0 or 6.5 and have a valid business driver to be an early adopter for WS2012 OR are looking to take advantage of the application and desktop convergence in Excalibur.

Let’s consider the first group. Many of these folks may still be running on 5.0 because they have underlying application or platform issues that prevent them from moving forward wholesale to WS2008R2. This is actually not as uncommon as you’d think, particularly for larger organizations with legacy applications that have significant .NET components that all have to be regression tested to move them to WS2008R2. WS2012’s imminent release complicates things and introduces strategic decisions to be made in terms of moving to 2008R2 (and thus XenApp 6.5 and/or Excalibur) or waiting on XenApp 5 through the product life cycle extension granted last October by Citrix and planning for an upgrade to Windows Server 2012. Some companies considering uplifting applications to Azure might find themselves in this situation. For others with Hyper-V curiosity, waiting for WS2012 can also present a prudent option. Whatever the reason, there’s been some interest by this group in looking at Excalibur to modernize their application and desktop delivery platform. In some cases, this could make a bit of sense. Although we’ve not seen the pricing for Excalibur yet, there’s the possibility also that “blended” desktop and application licensing options could be brought forth, making it easier and more cost-efficient than ever to build in a VDI option into your Citrix infrastructure with Flexcast 2.0, where it may have been too costly or complex before with separate products. The other consideration here that may actually push this group of folks into the second group of folks is the XenApp product life cycle itself. With the end of mainstream support, many companies with mission-critical or SLA-bound Citrix environments will have to consider extended support contracts, which are incredibly expensive. But if you’ve ever found yourself in need of a private hotfix, you already know that having Citrix support can be critical. That may be enough to get many in this group to simply weigh the cost of extended support vs. uplifting to XenApp 6.5 on 2008R2 and migrating the platform accordingly if they are not yet ready to jump to WS2012 and/or Excalibur.

That brings us to the second group, those who have the business and technical agility and capacity, and a valid business or technological driver to be an early adopter of Windows Server 2012 and/or the features in Project Avalon. Despite what we don’t yet know about the pricing and GA product levels (Enterprise, Platinum, etc.), there could be significant consolidation and convergence in the application and desktop delivery architecture with Project Avalon’s Excalibur and Merlin that would call for a platform migration even for those on XenApp 6.5. For those already on Windows Server 2008 R2 and XenApp 6.0, there is even a more compelling case. Since there isn’t a direct upgrade path to XenApp 6.5 from 6.0 (migration only), based on the time invested in the 6.0 platform, it may be a viable option for some in this scenario to migrate their Citrix infrastructure to Project Avalon and not to 6.5 and then to Avalon in another few years, particularly because of the break point in the OS’s.  I’d anticipate that the next version of Excalibur (incremental or major release) will be WS2012 ONLY, and the timing of that release could complicate the migration plans being whiteboarded by some organizations now. Those who have considered virtual desktops but who have not yet introduced them on large-scale or past a pilot may see Excalibur as a more “friendly” platform to do this as opposed to the more segregated XenApp/XenDesktop scenario that exists presently. For smaller organizations with no vested interest or dependency on Windows Server 2008 or 2008R2, Excalibur on WS2012 (or 2008R2, for that matter) could be a very easy decision.

Of course, there are a myriad of complex inputs and considerations that go into an organization’s decision to move or migrate or adopt any new infrastructure or server platform. There are internal and external influences, and of course probably the biggest one, risk. Citrix’s product release schedule has been aggressive and somewhat bumpy over the last few years. I’ve heard this mentioned many times in forums, user group meetings, and hallway conversations, and it’s something that I know Citrix hears also. For many customers and partners, it’s been somewhat frustrating to deal with abbreviated product life cycles, frequent major product releases, limiting upgrade paths, and significant differentiation and perceived lack of continuity in some product families from Citrix. To be fair to Citrix, customers are sometimes not as helpful either, sometimes demanding perpetual maintenance on severely outdated product platforms, and not keeping with the pace of current industry technologies and trends. Regardless, I think that some organizations may still be a bit wary (those who were early adopters of XenApp 6.0, for example) of jumping on the 1.x version of any new platform, and things like XenApp 6.0 (which is still fresh in the mind of many who got stuck in that essentially orphaned version) don’t necessarily help.  Given that many of us hope to see Citrix continue to sync product lifecycles with Microsoft Server OS’s, hopefully this brief time of quick-step releases and broken upgrade paths between products is soon coming to an end.  I think what we see from a strategic direction from Citrix in 2013 will give the customer confidence and dedication to a well-defined technology roadmap that will inspire migration to what I expect will be a revolutionary and exciting new platform for Citrix in Project Avalon’s Excalibur and Merlin and the products that follow.

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