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Windows Server 2008 R2 was officially released to manufacturing (RTM) late July 2009.  Several improvements to Terminal Services (now called Remote Desktop Services [RDS]) are included in this release.  With each new release of Terminal Services RDS, the natural question people ask is “do I still need Citrix?”  And, as with every Citrix question, the answer is “it depends”.  The goal of this article is to point out some of the main talking points as it relates to the CPA industry in order that you may make an educated decision.

Seamless Applications
Citrix introduced the concept of seamless applications over a decade ago.  Microsoft included seamless applications (called RemoteApp) in the first release of Windows Server 2008 Terminal Services.  Both Citrix’s seamless applications and Microsoft’s RemoteApp seamless applications look and feel the same to the end user for most applications. 
Note: Citrix does introduce some High Definition Extensions (HDX) for a better user experience in some use cases such as video and flash performance, but I am trying to stick with CPA related comparisons.

Application Publishing
Application publishing refers to granting users access to applications.  Citrix has always had a mechanism to specify which users get which application as well as which server can run the application.  Windows Server 2008 R1 has no such mechanism.  In Windows Server 2008 R1, once you published an application, the application was available to everyone.  Also, it was assumed the application was available on every server – which means you, the administrator, had to ensure every server had every application installed.

RDS does have some application publishing improvements, but these improvements are more like filters.  Every application is still available to every user, but you can use these filters to filter out what the end user sees.  This is not a security mechanism as users still have access to the hidden applications.
See http://blogs.msdn.com/rds/archive/2009/06/12/introducing-remoteapp-user-assignment.aspx for more information.

Multiple Monitors
Multiple monitors are commonplace in the CPA industry today.  Citrix has supported multiple monitors for some time.  Windows Server 2008 R1 “supports” multiple monitors in that applications will show up on multiple monitors, but all monitors were seen as one big monitor.  This means when you maximize an application, the application will fill up all available monitors.  There are some restrictions on monitor placement and size as well.  Windows Server 2008 R2 RDS supports true multiple monitors (up to 16 monitors).  There are no monitor placement or resolution restrictions in RDS.

Gotcha: Multiple monitor support requires the Remote Desktop Client (RDC) 7.0.  To date, only Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 support RDC 7.0.  This means no Windows XP or Vista support.  I have seen a hack to get RDC 7.0 working on Vista, but this isn’t supported by Microsoft.
See http://blogs.msdn.com/rds/archive/2009/07/01/using-multiple-monitors-in-remote-desktop-session.aspx for more information.

Web Access/Security
RDS does include a nice web portal (called TS Web Access) and SSL encryption (called TS Gateway).  These features are comparable to Citrix Web Interface and Secure Gateway.  Citrix does offer more advanced features like Smart Access and SSL VPN though.

Printing
Both Windows Server 2008 and Citrix support universal printing based on XML Paper Specification (XPS).

Scanners
Citrix has built in TWAIN support for scanning.  Unfortunately, RDS does not have this capability.  There are 3rd party solutions for this though.
Interesting fact: TWAIN stands for Technology Without An Interesting Name

Management/Infrastructure
There are a lot of infrastructure components and management tools to RDS.  To set up and maintain the even the most basic environments takes quite a bit of planning and infrastructure.  Microsoft claims RDS is aimed at low complexity environments.  But, RDS is actually pretty complex to set up and maintain.  Citrix still reigns supreme on management and Enterprise features.
See http://www.citrix.com/%2Fsite%2Fresources%2Fdynamic%2Fsalesdocs%2FCitrix-XenApp5-Terminal-Services-2003-2008-Feature-Analysis.pdf for a feature comparison matrix.

Hurdles
If you decide to give pure Windows Server 2008 Remote Desktop Services a shot in your environment, there are a few hurdles you need to know about:

  • Windows 2008 R2 is 64 bit only – that means:
    • Possible hardware upgrades or purchases
    • All applications will need to run in a 64 bit environment
  • A lot of features require Windows 7.
  • Possible hardware purchases to meet infrastructure needs.

Conclusion
A lot of the base Citrix XenApp functionality is built in to Windows Server 2008 R2 RDS.  Microsoft is focusing on the “low complexity” environments while Citrix is focused more on the Enterprise and VDI environments.  I think any environment can benefit from the Citrix feature set, but it is up to each organization to cost justify the expenditure.  So, can you get away with just RDS?  That is a question you will have to answer for yourself.

  • Bart
    August 5, 2009

    Interesting article only lacking the rdp vs ica subject.

  • wes
    August 28, 2009

    Hi Jason, enjoyed the article! And thanks again for the web interface/cookie assistance a while back!!!

    Regards,
    Wes

  • Heath
    October 23, 2009

    also no mention if RDS supports 2 factor authentication like citrix does. that’s a show stopper for me.

  • Pingback: Is Windows Remote Desktop Services ready to kill the need for Citrix XenApp? | ReneVester.com

  • Ola
    December 6, 2009

    This has been vaulable particularly the security of application publishing.

    thanks

  • Jhon
    December 15, 2009

    I enjoyed reading this blog. However the part about TWAIN was a bit disturbing…

    The word TWAIN is from Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West” – “…and never the twain shall meet…”, reflecting the difficulty, at the time, of connecting scanners and personal computers. It was up-cased to TWAIN to make it more distinctive. This led people to believe it was an acronym, and then to a contest to come up with an expansion. None were selected, but the entry “Technology Without An Interesting Name” continues to haunt the standard.
    -The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, Editor Denis Howe

  • Len Inkster
    January 27, 2010

    This is a very good article, but as already mentioned leaves out some important items, such as the ability to deliver the desktop to anything other than Windows PC (e.g. Mac, thin client or smartphone) Also the need for mutliple servers and services in the Microsoft Offering does nothing to enhance back-office security complexity, and the system all needs copious amounts of Microsoft Licenses to keep it legal. Citrix on the other hand offers the ability to offer access to Linux in a way that makes the deployment of open-source operating systems and back-office software easier to manage and maintain. I would say that implemented correctly Citrix Xen products and the reciever components could be a nail (albeit a very small nail) in Microsofts often over bloated coffin.

Xcentric

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