It must have been around 2001 at about 3 AM on a Sunday when I was trying to desperately troubleshoot a server remotely from my house using a dialup connection that I developed deep interest in display protocols. After all, I had enough time because every time I interacted with the server the screen was rebuilt block by block at an excruciatingly slow rate...
Then and now...
Obviously the aforementioned example is an extreme one for back in 2001 with Windows 2000 Terminal Services the user experience with RDP was not that great (and that is putting it very un-Trump-like). In that day and age the only way out was to use Citrix Metaframe Presentation Server XenApp XenDesktop XenApp because the ICA HDX protocol was much more WAN friendly and just had a better experience overall. Over the years, though, a lot has changed as more and more vendors developed remote display protocols designed to deliver a great user experience, sparking a display protocol war. In the last ~1.5 years alone there have been some great new capabilities in the different display protocols, which begs the question: are the display protocols finally over? This question, by the way, is the number one "subquestion" of one of the most asked questions in our piece of the industry: do I still need Citrix [or can I do with other/out of the box stuff]? This article is just about the display protocols though. Let’s have a look at the major players and see where their display protocols stand:
Having been a part of the Microsoft MVP group for Remote Desktop Services I remember having a lot of vivid discussions with the product teams about how much the RDP user experience, quite frankly, sucked. That changed when we were shown the first versions of RDP8, which turned out to be a tremendous leap forward compared to the previous versions of RDP.
As with all vendors, the best user experience first is on Windows, obviously this went double for Microsoft. There has been improvement in this area though. In some ways you could say the RDS group was ahead of the pack in the transformation that Microsoft is undergoing. Over the last 2 years or so (with their acquisition of the iTap IP) Microsoft has released RDP clients for Mac, iOS and Android and has updated them quite frequently.
Today, one of the biggest missing pieces from RDP is the ability to handle more graphically intensive workloads. Sure RDP8 (‘RemoteFX’) has DirectX support but that is not very valuable for the typical graphically intensive workloads like engineering or designing. And yes, RDP today also has OpenGL support but it is so limited that it really doesn’t help a lot of customers. That’s about to change though. The major new capability in RDP in WIndows Server 2016 is heavily improved support for OpenGL (and OpenCL) applications.
To keep true to the metaphor of this article I think it is fair to say that (also) in the area of display protocols VMware is continuing their Blitzkrieg (albeit it in a counterattack fashion). The very first versions of VMware View were about as good as RDP because, well, they used RDP. But for a long time now VMware has had their own implementation of PCoIP. I explicitly say ‘own version’ because over time the VMware version of PCoIP has become very different from the PcoIP version from the company that created it, Teradici (Amazon Workspaces customers will know the difference). For example, over the last ~18 months (in the last 5 releases since Horizon View 6) VMware has been adding more and more capabilities to PCoIP like:
- A new kernel-mode webcam driver that provides better compatibility with browser-based video apps and other 3rd-party conferencing software.
- USB 3.0 support for client devices
- Scanner redirection
- USB Redirection of mass storage on RDS desktops and Hosted Apps
- Client Drive Redirection
- Serial Port Redirection
- Support for Linux Desktops
- 3D vDGA and GRID vGPU graphics solutions VDI desktops and RDS desktops and Hosted Apps.
I’m providing this listing of features to show that VMware really has come a long way. On one hand that's because, frankly, they had a long way to go–things like Serial Port redirection simply catch up to something that RDP has had for the longest time. On the other hand VMware really is at the front of the pack with their support for Linux Desktops or their HTML5 client capabilities. Case in point is that VMware is pumping out new capabilities at a very rapid pace, closing the gap with their competition very quickly, and in some case overtaking them.
If Citrix is the king of desktop virtualization, then HDX most certainly is their crown jewel. Many of their display protocol capabilities have been in the field for years and have been proven over and over and are used by millions of end users–over 120 million (!) if we believe Citrix, which is an impressive number. The fact that they have had the most complete feature set for the longest time does not mean they are resting on their laurels. Over the last year or so, since XenApp 7.6, Citrix has been adding capabilities that improve their display protocol even further especially over the most challenging networks with the technology from their Framehawk acquisition and the improvements in Thinwire Plus. These enhancements are really amazing and are unrivaled in the industry at the moment.
The Others (?)
What others? Realistically we’ve now covered the all key players. The only other party to briefly discuss is Dell / Wyse (full disclosure–I was in charge of vWorkspace for a long time). Dell Wyse vWorkspace has always extended the Microsoft RDP protocol where needed with vWorkspace EOP. As the need to extend the RDP protocol is decreasing, Dell Wyse can focus their efforts on adding value in other areas like ease of management and enterprise scalability–which I am sure is exactly according to plan.
War and Peace?
I think today Citrix with HDX hands-down still offers the best user experience if you take all factors and scenarios into account. The challenging fact about HDX (and Citrix in general I guess) though is that HDX already excels in the most unbelievable scenarios and I am not sure what is left for HDX to achieve that makes business sense.
If you don’t have a very broad set of use cases or extreme use cases however then the simple fact is that VMware’s PCoIP will serve you just fine. In addition, considering the rapid pace of innovation at VMware you can bet they will enable more and more scenarios in the (near) future.
Microsoft with RDP in Windows Server 2016 might be good enough for the majority of all scenarios, very much like Microsoft has been pitching it for the last 15 years. One big thing missing is clientless / HTML5 access (though Microsoft did just announce that it is in the roadmap for Azure RemoteApp). Cue companies like Dell (Wyse) vWorkspace and Ericom, who get a free ride on RDP in Windows Server 2016 which lets them address the clientless / HTML5 problem (at least until Microsoft gets around to it)
So are the display protocol wars over? Not completely, but I think that all the big battles have been fought and we’re witnessing the last skirmishes.
Michel Roth (https://twitter.com/michelroth) has over 15 years of experience in the End User Computing industry, most of it in Product Management roles ranging from startups (25 friends) to the largest tech companies in the world (115,000 friends - Dell). In his spare time he maintains the website Thincomputing.net. Michel Roth also is an author for other community websites such as: BrianMadden.com and DABCC.com.
Michel Roth is a 8-time Microsoft Valued Professional (MVP) for Remote Desktop Services. Michel Roth also has been awarded with the VMware vExpert status. Additionally Michel Roth also presents at related conferences and forums like BriForum, TechEd, VMworld and E2E.
Anything I write here are my personal opinions and not my employers.
Learn more about me on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/michelroth