Is Terminal Server Microsoft's Secret Competitive Advantage in the Linux War?

At a Microsoft Top VAR conference last year, one of the seminar speakers used a sledgehammer to smash a PC running Linux.

At a Microsoft Top VAR conference last year, one of the seminar speakers used a sledgehammer to smash a PC running Linux. Microsoft has never been an organization to take a competitive threat lightly. All of their sixty thousand employees have the upstart operating system squarely in their sights. The company is also running full-page ads in magazines such as BusinessWeek along with banner advertisements on the Web emphasizing the lower cost-of-ownership advantages of a Windows server environment. One of Microsoft's best weapons, though, in the fight against Linux is one you don't often hear about, Terminal Services.

Ideological IT Wars

Arguments about IT paradigms have become as complex and impassioned as political debates. In fact, politics is becoming hopelessly intermingled in these arguments. The Israeli government recently announced that it is making Linux its preferred operating system. The Chinese government is going a step further by subsidizing developers in their efforts to build a superior Linux-based O/S, both for use within the country as well as for export to the rest of the world.

The politics of IT, whether on an international level or within an organization's IT department, often involves anti-Microsoft sentiment. Many people don't like the idea of one company being so dominant; they gravitate toward what they perceive to be the populist choice of open-source Linux.

Organizations today, though, and particularly U.S. corporations, cannot afford the luxury of selecting their IT strategies based upon the appeal of a rebellious ideology. Extreme pressures to meet lofty economic goals combined with the escalating requirements of government regulations require that businesses choose an IT architecture that provides superior performance, reliability, scalability, manageability, productivity, and interoperability. When used as an architecture for hosting applications, Terminal Services enables these capabilities.

When organizations consolidate their application processing environment back to the data center they realize the benefits long associated with the mainframe world – benefits such as standardization, improved security and a much lower cost structure. Yet they still provide the versatility and flexibility that PC users have come to demand. Organizations that migrate to a primary Terminal Services architecture inevitably realize a lower cost structure than Linux while enabling superior user productivity.

Terminal Services

Microsoft, while still not tending to position Terminal Services directly against Linux, is increasingly working closely with Citrix both in the U.S. and abroad. A large organization in Europe was reputedly planning to migrate thousands of desktop PCs to Linux because of the prohibitive cost of replacing them with more powerful units capable of running their desired applications. A Terminal Services/Citrix solution instead enabled them to run the latest Windows and Web-based applications without requiring any PC upgrades.

Maxspeed Corporation, a Palo Alto based manufacturer of Windows Terminals was originally a Linux shop. Maxspeed ran Linux on both PCs and servers, and used Linux applications for help desk and technical support functions. We put in a Terminal Services/Citrix pilot, and the IT staff was ecstatic with the results. Maxspeed decided to migrate the entire company from Linux and UNIX email to Microsoft products, including clustered Windows 2000 Advanced Server and clustered enterprise versions of both SQL Server and Exchange. Remote users in a development facility in China access all of their applications from the data center without requiring any local servers.

Linux also does not offer performance on a par with Terminal Services. The ubiquitous Microsoft RDP and Citrix ICA protocols have tremendous support. They are small, efficient and behave consistently in terms of their utilization of bandwidth. Linux lacks this efficiency.

Cost Advantages of Terminal Services

One of the factors helping to drive Linux sales is a widespread misperception that open source equates to lower acquisition costs. While it is true that the purchase price of Linux is lower than Microsoft products, software costs in total make up only a very small percentage of the typical IT budget. The combined costs of hardware, maintenance, training and development dwarf spending on software, yet the majority of IT dollars goes to staffing expenses. The key question that organizations should be asking themselves from a budgetary perspective is this: How will a Linux implementation affect the overall IT budget?

While Terminal Services should neutralize or beat any hardware-based cost benefits of Linux, its biggest advantage is that it reduces staffing expenses. The cost of software distribution is slashed because new applications can be loaded on central server farms and made available immediately to end users. Requirements for supporting remote office networks vanish along with the remote office servers. And training expenses are reduced by using the Citrix shadowing capabilities on top of Terminal Services to enable remote training sessions across the network.

In addition to “hard” cost reductions in areas such as hardware and IT staffing, Terminal Services also drives “soft” cost savings, such as productivity improvements because employees experience less downtime while waiting for PC upgrades or help desk support. Microsoft recognizes that an important element in maintaining its dominant position against Linux is for customers not only to purchase its software, but also to use it. This is reflected by a recent change in the Microsoft sales rep commission plans, which now recognize and reward software deployment successes as well as purchases. With access infrastructure, organizations can quickly deploy Microsoft and other applications such as ERP and CRM without upgrading or even touching a single employee desktop.

IT Accountability

Microsoft says that, “Linux is free like a new puppy.” This is a fitting analogy for visualizing the additional labor and headaches required to support a Linux architecture. The problem Microsoft faces in getting its message across, though, is that most organizations running a distributed PC environment do not have a good handle on their IT staffing costs. Many of them do not even know the number of PCs and other computing devices they utilize. This lack of knowledge makes them far more susceptible to the siren call of Linux.

Moving to access infrastructure enables organizations to track their true IT costs ranging from training to storage. Citrix MetaFrame Access Suite, for instance, collects real-time statistics on every employee's computing usage, such as the time that each application is accessed and the server resources utilized. Costs that formerly were buried in budgets outside of IT, such as remote office consulting time, are now either made visible or are eliminated entirely.

Some organizations take a utility approach and use the Citrix billing capabilities to charge their users and departments for actual computing resources used. This practice is perhaps the ultimate step in driving accountability for IT resource usage throughout the organization. And the more a company understands the cost of its IT environment, the less likely it is to incur increased hardware and administration costs by implementing Linux.

The Downside of Open Source

The ideological appeal of Open Source is the lack of a single manufacturer controlling Linux. But the enormous tradeoff is a lack of standardization among the Linux manufacturers such as Red Hat, Sun, Novell, Oracle, IBM, etc. – all of which have their own variations on the software.

Lack of standardization can cause irritations for users trying to manage files, burn CDs, hook up printers or share files with Windows users. Much more significant, though, is the risk to corporations that increasingly are subject to new government regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, California Senate Bill 1386, Gramm-Leach-Bliley, and other emerging government regulations. These regulations are becoming powerful IT drivers. No one can be sure what the compliance and litigation impact will be, but it will undoubtedly be vast, particularly in regards to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Not only are organizations responsible for their own compliance, they're also responsible for the compliance of their suppliers.

Compliance is largely a function of process. Terminal Services offers organizations a huge advantage in this regard by enabling a centralized computing architecture and by promoting a standardized Microsoft platform. Microsoft has given a lot of thought to the issues around compliance. The company has even developed a Solution Accelerator specifically for Sarbanes-Oxley that integrates with Windows Server 2003, Windows SharePoint Services 2003, Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003 and SQL Server 2003. The Solution Accelerator enables organizations to better manage compliance issues related to sections 302 (quarterly reporting) and 404 (annual review of internal controls) of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Future compliance offerings will also integrate with other Microsoft products such as Microsoft Business Solutions and Microsoft Enterprise Storage products.

Organizations that implement Linux assume substantial risk of higher compliance costs and of potential litigation from failure to comply. No central body exists in the Linux world to ensure regulatory compliance, and individual vendor support is questionable. Organizations are left to their own devices to develop and prove compliance to their auditors as well as to their clients' auditors.

A Sarbanes-Oxley audit is a grueling ordeal. Using a Terminal Services-enabled Microsoft platform to ease the prospect is a very attractive concept to CIOs. While the open-source concept of Linux might sound appealing in theory, the reality is that organizations simply cannot afford the risk of using disparate operating systems and applications.

By moving the “desktop” into the data center, Terminal Services takes over the application-hosting role formerly held by mainframes – consequently, it becomes prudent to standardize on other Microsoft products as well. SQL Server, for example, can be used to capture the resource data from Citrix MetaFrame Access Suite. Both Terminal Services and the Citrix products already have hooks into Microsoft Operations Manager to enable a consolidated network management platform. Microsoft SMS 2003 enables distribution of applications across the Terminal Services server farm. Microsoft ISA Server combined with the Citrix Secure Gateway enables both firewall and SSL protection for users who access the system through the Internet.

The ability of the combined solution of Terminal Services/MetaFrame Access Suite to easily and inexpensively deliver all of Microsoft's products drives productivity improvements among users. Windows SharePoint Services lets organizations establish a document management and file services system that integrates with Exchange and MS Office.

Technicians and administrators experienced in Microsoft technology are available around the globe. The more Microsoft products running in the data center, the more these administrators can leverage their knowledge and on-going training to effectively and efficiently manage their organization's IT environment. As the business benefits of access infrastructure push Microsoft deeper into the data center, organizations become reluctant to dilute their IT expertise with the introduction of Linux.

Inserting Linux into the data center also dilutes an organization's security strategy. Running a Microsoft platform enables the IT staff to leverage their knowledge of Windows Server security across all of Microsoft's products. Since Terminal Services promotes consolidated data processing, the IT staff can focus on the centralized infrastructure and perimeter security rather than be worried about PCs and servers distributed across the enterprise. For more in-depth information on how a Terminal Services architecture enhances security, see Steve Kaplan and Tim Reeser's article , Use Access Infrastructure to Architect Improved Security . You can find the article at .

In addition to the benefits described above, Terminal Services and Citrix combine to provide an enterprise business continuity solution not easily duplicated with Linux in the mix. The access infrastructure makes it both practical and economical to set up a geographically removed hot site. If the primary data center should go down, Citrix enables server farm failover to the hot site. If a remote office should become inaccessible due to flood or fire, employees simply can go home and access the primary data center through the Internet.

Citrix's Role in the Linux War

One of Microsoft's great strengths is a relentless improvement of its products. With its vast resources, the software giant could certainly attempt to incorporate product features to make Terminal Services look a lot more like Citrix. We don't, however, think that is a likely scenario. Citrix simply adds too much value by promoting Terminal Services technology more aggressively than any other organization – including Microsoft. With 7,000 partners across the globe and a substantial marketing budget, Citrix drives a tremendous amount of licenses for Terminal Services and other Microsoft software.

Moreover, we do not see clients clamoring for adding Citrix capabilities to native Terminal Services. This would, in fact, probably end up being confusing. Instead, we see demand for enhancing some of Terminal Services' basic capabilities as a platform, such as hibernate support for sessions, improving system resources usage, improving performance, getting more users per processor, supporting ActiveSync, including better support for USB, improving logon performance to TS and to centralized applications, enhancing the Windows spooler for multiple users, improving time to load and store profile information for TS users, and enabling seamless integration with two-factor authentication to support “follow me” session support. All these features make Terminal Services a better platform, and therefore expanding the combined solution of Citrix and Terminal Services to more scenarios and customer segments, making access infrastructure the best solution to reduce costs and improve time to market for all applications. The combined solution is already the best TCO, much better than Linux, these new features would lower TCO even more.

A slick feature that Microsoft could add to Terminal Services would be to be able to take an application package in Active Directory and/or SMS and decide with a policy under what conditions it will run on the server or on a client PC. It would be helpful to generally make a TS session more “aware” of how it is being accessed, either via a LAN (trusted), WAN or Internet (untrusted) and be able to modify the session behavior accordingly (like disable drive mappings and print redirection, and maybe shorten the session time-out period). We'd like to see the type of more granular control of Terminal Services server's resource usage in Data Center edition also available in the standard Windows 2003 edition.

IT Decision Making

If IT departments always made rational decisions based upon careful quantitative and risk adjusted analysis, Terminal Services and Citrix would already be the standard and the Linux threat would be muted. The reality is that corporate culture and politics both play important roles in the decision-making of most organizations. Add on top of that the reluctance of many organizations to adopt a new computing paradigm, and it seems likely that some time will pass before access infrastructure becomes the norm. Nevertheless, the overwhelming economic, productivity, security and compliance advantages ensure that Terminal Services will continue to proliferate as a key data center technology. And as it does, Linux proponents will have a still more difficult time making inroads.

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This message was originally posted by an anonymous visitor on March 23, 2004
Kinda interesting. After reading the articles and the "worthless anti-linux rant" comment below I then went back to the top and noticed the By-Line....

This showed me two things. 1- It seems that Brian is allowing other authoers on his site and 2- The guy who wrote the "Worthless anti-Linux rant" should leard to read the fine print (or at least the by-line).

Did anyone else but me notice that this was written by Steve Kaplan, a Citrix author that competes with Brian?

BTW, to the Worthless Anti-Linux Rant author: While I agree with some of your points, and beleive that TS is NOT some secret ace in the hole for MS (its still the *** step child in Redmond) I really think that Kaplan hits one solid point I have been pushing for a long time. linux is not ready for prime time on the desktop. The support, maintanence and up keep of linux workstations (right now) is cost prohibitive.
This message was originally posted by an anonymous visitor on March 22, 2004
Wow. A long article with all the "boo-words" connected to Linux and all the "yay-words" connected to Microsoft/Citrix. Combine this with a reference to the mythical, but still unnamed, Linux-to-Windows convert. I'm a longtime MS-user and specialist, but this piece leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Please, Brian, stick with the brilliant technological assessments and let the religous fanboys rant on other sites. We keep returning to this site for its pure technical value, not for the pro-Linux or pro-Microsoft "assessments". And this particular piece could have been posted on Microsofts own "Get the facts on Linux" site.
This message was originally posted by Steve Kaplan on March 25, 2004
Your comment motivated me to call our manufacturing client in order to get permission to use their name, which they gave me. It is Maxspeed Corporation (they make Windows Terminals). I am updating the article using their name.
This message was originally posted by Mark Dutton on June 4, 2004
This article is interesting, as are the commments following it. I work for a Microsoft and Linux support company and we primarily install and support terminal server systems as the alternative to desktop PCs. It does work well and it does make products that are not inherently multi-site, or low bandwidth work over the Internet for WAN applications. What strikes me as ludicrous is that Microsoft's own CRM 1.2 package is not supported on Terminal server. This makes me think that Microsoft does not really like terminal server. When nearly every Windows program from every vendor works perfectly on Terminal server and Windows own brand new software does not, one must question Microsoft's view on the future of Terminal server. I for one am worried.
This message was originally posted by an anonymous visitor on September 20, 2004
I think than the solution with the best TCO is Terminal Services with or without Citrix and PXES -, an open source solution with network boot and support of ICA and RDP client.
Does this mean CRM does not function through terminal server, or is just not supported?
Have a look at for the same purpose.

Much better hardware support.

I don't want at all to go into the eternal debate Microsoft/Linux -in fact I do believe that many points are correct : Ms products are more mature, more suited to mass-deployment (Let's see what Novell will do however with its new linux desktop and zenworks), one Linux distro is not another, and so on.
Still I'd like to mention that arguments mentioned here about Open source miss a key point : the fact that using proprietary systems means that you do not own your data.
After all, data is arguably the most important asset of a company. Isn't it ?
Now, if I'm using Sql server, what if Microsoft decides to stop the product ? Or to change versions ? What do I do with my data ?
The same with an Excel sheet... A Word document... Or Sap... or whatever. Not only Microsoft products, of course.
I don't know the internal format of my data. I don't know how they are processed. I don't know what can I do with them without the proprietary software. So, I don't own data, I own a series of bits and bytes that can quickly become meaningless if someone decides so.
Imho, this is the single biggest factor that one has to consider when considering open source vs proprietary. I'm not saying that everybody should choose open source; what I'm saying is that all arguments about cost of ownership etc miss the real point.
What do you think ?