When thin-client computing leader Citrix Systems Inc. announced a major revamp of its flagship MetaFrame software last month, company officials boasted of the products new management features, improved scalability and restructured pricing. But if a coterie of challengers gets its way, the decision in the enterprise wont just be between Citrix or no Citrix anymore.
With a la carte offerings such as application streaming and Web-enabling legacy software, the upstarts are targeting key parts of Citrixs market. And unlike Citrixs offerings, the upstarts products dont have to rely on Microsoft Corp.s Windows Terminal Services, whose fate beyond Windows 2000 is uncertain.
One opportunity is application streaming, which is the concept of sending only a programs executable file over a network to a traditional computer, giving customers centralized management. Plus, they can use the client PCs resources to lessen the burden on a server, said Harry Ruda, founder and CEO of startup Softricity Inc., in Boston. Softricity will launch this week its Open Application Services Platform, which can stream directly from an application, bypassing Terminal Services, Ruda said. A beta version will ship in June, he said. Meanwhile, Softricity is in talks with Emergent Technologies Inc., one of the largest Citrix resellers, an Emergent representative said.
"There is this 10-ton behemoth called Citrix out there. The pressure for us is, do we have enough of a value-add to make you go outside?" asked Softricity Chief Technology Officer Stuart Schaefer.
The answer, Schaefer said, is that with Microsofts .Net platform, Citrix loyalty and a future need to deliver software to handheld devices, there will be a "mixed-mode" situation where Softricity can be the management and provisioning back end. Also, where a Citrix solution will need always-on connectivity to deliver hosted applications to a handheld device, an application streaming solution will be able to reconnect after service interruptions while the users go on with their work.
If application streaming doesnt suit the taste of enterprises seeking a Citrix alternative, another choice is Microsoft-endorsed Allegrix Corp., of Santa Clara, Calif. Allegrix specializes in Web-enabling legacy software. Currently, its offering is available as a hosted service, although management is considering selling it as a product, CEO Chris Clabaugh said. The decision will be made this spring, he said.
"Terminal Services is a steppingstone," Clabaugh said. "I wouldnt call it a long-term strategy for them [Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash.]. Putting Citrix on top of a complex [operating system] like Windows 2000 introduces management and scalability issues. Citrix does some things really well, like stereo sound and millions of colors. But those things arent necessary in the enterprise."
Potential customers, however, have mixed feelings. On one hand, they said, Citrix, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is an established company with a wide reseller and installed base. On the other hand, some said, its management and load balancing issues become exponentially worse as more applications are added.
With Web- and Java-based applications, said Eric Wedemeyer, an IT professional at Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust Co., in Baltimore, two big issues are load balancing and printer management. After looking at Citrix, Wedemeyer said, Mercantile found that "you just dont have that ability unless you add multiple third-party applications, and they dont normally work together." In addition, he said, for his 1,400 concurrent users, the Citrix client would use too much bandwidth.
Such sentiments were echoed by Brian Regan, co-founder of LOR Management Services LLC, in Pasadena, Calif. LOR provides hosted access to software from Great Plains Software Inc., of Fargo, N.D., as well as financial processes outsourcing. Such offerings mean heavy printing loads, Regan said. "We used Citrix but found it to be really inadequate for our needs. We could not configure [Citrix] properly in a multiple-client environment to meet all those needs."
LOR next looked to Tarentella Inc., but it was "woefully inadequate. ... It was a disaster from the get-go," Regan said. Finally, a year ago, LOR chose a Web-enabling product from Allegrix. "We couldnt do what we do if there wasnt a Web-enabling solution," he said.
Not everyone agrees that such benefits are worthwhile. "The disadvantage of that is that you lose the ability to run anywhere. That executable has to be compiled for my OS [operating system], or I have to have an interpreter to read it," said Dave McCrory, CTO of ProTier Corp., an application service provider enablement company in New Orleans. If an enterprise used Citrix combined with a product like Softricitys, McCrory said, "now I have to have multiple OSes within my environment, and my management costs go through the roof. I cant find a place that that makes sense."
Regardless of the technology usedwhether its Citrix, application streaming, Web-enabling or something yet to be inventedthere are problems that will be ubiquitous, such as latency and packet loss, Softricitys Schaefer said. Delay or lost packets in an audio or video file is one thing, but if theres a lost packet in software, it will crash, he said.
Carrie Lewis, an analyst at The Yankee Group Inc., in Boston, said: "There is the alternative of avoiding it altogether. ... One of the biggest alternatives is designing a Web-based application from the ground up, so it doesnt need to be retrofitted."