Published desktops versus virtual machines: Citrix’s hosted shared virtual desktop

Last week's tips for successfully hosting virtual desktops story mentioned an interesting alternative to VDI: Citrix's hosted shared virtual desktop technology, based on XenApp. The technology has some potential upsides as an alternative to hosting virtual desktops using VDI, but didn't get into the details. Here's what you need to know about the technology, why you might consider it, and what the tradeoffs are.

Citrix's hosted shared desktop technology delivers a hosted virtual desktop to end users, but the technology isn't based on virtual machine technology at all. Rather, it is an extension of what Citrix has been doing all along with XenApp (formerly Presentation Server), which runs on top of Microsoft's Windows Server as a Remote Desktop Services (formerly Terminal Services) session.

Technically, says Steve Kaplan, vice president of the data center virtualization practice at infrastructure services provider INX, this approach is not virtual desktop technology, since users are really running a shared Windows Server operating system, not a native Windows XP or 7 desktop operating system hosted within a virtual machine. Practically speaking, however, the end result looks similar, and it might be a good fit for some applications.

How it works

In the XenApp hosted shared virtual desktop approach, formerly known as server-based computing, RDS turns Windows Server into a multi-user operating system, with Windows desktop applications running on top of it within the confines of individual terminal sessions. Traditionally Citrix has "published" virtual applications in this way using Presentation Server (previously Metaframe), with users launching applications from a browser-based menu or desktop icon. With XenApp/XenDesktop it has extended the approach to deliver an entire virtual desktop.

The published virtual desktop executes on a Windows Server in the back-end Citrix server farm, and as with the VDI model, exchanges only mouse, keystroke and video data with the client using the Citrix Receiver client and its bandwidth-optimizing, proprietary Independent Computing Archtecture (ICA) protocol.

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