At what point do we say that VMware has drawn even with Citrix?

In the last three years, VMware has steadily moved up the ladder to join Citrix atop the desktop virtualization world.

Yesterday’s announcement that VMware has collaborated with Microsoft to bring Skype for Business to VMware Horizon View got me thinking. First, I thought about how strange it is to see VMware collaborating with Microsoft while Microsoft and Citrix are also demonstrating how they are such great partners. Then I started wondering what remains on VMware’s list in order to rival Citrix.

It was three years ago this month that VMware broke free of their own self-imposed mold and starting treating EUC like a real business unit as opposed to a bolt on, just-because-we-can, a VM is a VM is a VM afterthought. That’s when they hired Sumit Dhawan, a seasoned veteran of Citrix that helped build them into the leading desktop virtualization platform in the world (The news didn’t break until January of 2014, but Sumit was at VMworld Barcelona in a brand new polo shirt in 2013). We joked at the time that VMware had the easiest product roadmap meeting ever: just tape a list of XenApp/XenDesktop features to the wall and start coding.

In the intervening years, Citrix, now threatened for the first time, endured a few missteps but managed to hold its ground. Still, each time VMware’s Horizon platform was updated, it managed to climb the ladder a bit more and gain some ground on Citrix. When VMware added session-hosted desktop support, the message became abundantly clear: VMware was bringing it strong.

With the latest introduction of the Blast 2.0, VMware claims to have built a modern desktop virtualization protocol from the ground-up that suits today’s networks and use cases. They claim it outperforms HDX, though I’ll reserve judgement on that until I see some independent data. In fact, no…I may reserve judgement altogether because there is little doubt that all the protocols out there are good enough for the vast majority of use cases, and that each excels at very specific things that only matter to a fraction of the remaining use cases. The protocol war is over. We all won.

And so it is, too, that the desktop virtualization platform war might be in its waning years. I spoke to someone at VMworld about what the key difference is between Horizon and XenDesktop, and the answer was Skype for Business. With that out of the way (or at least with a tech preview coming in early 2017), what’s left?

There’s no doubt that the Citrix platform has more features overall. Citrix has been doing desktop virtualization since before we called it that. They have a tightly integrated network platform that is all but required to use XenApp or XenDesktop. They also have lots of features that have been added over the years to support the many thousands of customers that dangled carrots on the ends of sticks. But these features (Siri integration or automated Citrix Receiver UI updating, anyone?) all belong in the “nice to have” bucket as opposed to the “required to be taken seriously as a platform” one. Seriously, look at Citrix’s own comparison chart and tell me which one of those is an absolute deal-breaker for you.

On one hand, it seems like a raw deal for Citrix. They basically had everything already, and VMware just followed along. VMware gets all the buzz while Citrix is left trying to break through some glass ceiling and somehow make new waves in desktop virtualization that outweigh those that VMware is making while catching up.

On the other hand, we as the admins and customers are actually in a pretty good spot. We have two major platforms that just work, and barring some features here and there that make one platform more appropriate than the other, we can rest easy knowing that whichever one we pick will not make or break us.

So what’s next? Will we see big things happening in desktop virtualization as a result of the stiff competition? Or are we going to see some trench warfare between the two, each scrapping as much as they can to get a tiny competitive advantage over the other with nobody really moving that far in either direction? How competitive can both companies be in the cloud, where volume and efficiency are the only things that can compensate for the razor-thin margins? Citrix and VMware each hold specific advantages over the other here, with Citrix's main advantage being that they can manage desktops that run in any cloud as well as on-premises while VMware has one of the most mature DaaS platforms on the market.

These are the things that I look forward to covering as we move into 2017. (Did I just say that? Man, does time fly!)

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Wow, one of Brian’s major predictions is coming true. In August 2015, he wrote Prediction: By end of 2016, VMware Horizon will be neck-and-neck with Citrix XenDesktop/XenApp.
I think the next step is to zoom out and look at the other EUC products: EMM, EFSS, and identity. I’ll save the detailed comparison for a full article, but I think one important issue in the Citrix versus VMware EUC battle is how Citrix’s relationship with Microsoft will pan out. Yes, VMware can support Skype now, but the XenMobile/Intune integration could be a big deal. We have to wait a few more months to find out more about how it will work and be sold, though.
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