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Citrix shifts gears; users wary

Citrix shifts gears; users wary

Citrix Systems customers are welcoming the most recent release of the company's software products, but generally not for the reasons Citrix executives would like.

Citrix Systems customers are welcoming the most recent release of the company's software products, but generally not for the reasons Citrix executives would like. The company has been working to create a new market for its flagship MetaFrame Presentation Server, a program that displays applications on an array of computing devices while the applications run on server farms under Windows Terminal Services. Presentation Server is now one part of a package of four separate products, called the MetaFrame Access Suite. The idea is to use the suite to create a set of client/server programs that let end users connect to their applications from any device, over any network. Citrix calls this an "access management infrastructure."

Last fall, Citrix launched a US$14 million advertising campaign to promote its new message. In April, it shipped the latest release, 3.0, of both its core Presentation Server and the Access Suite, which also includes applications for working collaboratively on documents and applications, a secure Web portal and a single sign-on capability.

The user view

But judging from some customers' comments, systems integrators and analysts, Citrix is going to have to spend a lot more to get that message to sink in. For these people, Release 3.0 is simply a way to improve traditional Citrix deployments.

"We're finalizing our testing on the new features in (Presentation Server) 3.0, and we're very excited by the performance improvements and other enhancements," says long-time Citrix customer J.B. Dunn, manager of desktop technology for Roadway Express Inc., a transportation services company in Akron, Ohio. Citing company policy, he requested anonymity.

Several enhancements promise to boost MetaFrame's performance with multimedia and Web content over wide-area links, a critical issue for this company that has more than 6,000 users, most on thin-client Wyse Windows terminals, in nearly 400 offices. The terminals access a suite of PC applications loaded on a MetaFrame-controlled server farm running Windows 2000 Server. "This is critically important to us," Dunn says. "We serve everything over the WAN. We have to have performance that can run our business."

The original reasons for this deployment are familiar: centralize desktop applications on servers to reduce support costs, and improve performance over the WAN when accessing Unix and mainframe line-of-business applications. These kinds of benefits have let Citrix build a $600-million-per-year business, counting among its client list most of the Fortune 500. These benefits are still the main drivers for many Citrix customers. The "access management infrastructure" for now is an idea whose time has not come.

"We want to understand more fully the evolution of the products they're bringing to market and understand how they fit into our plans for this computing model," Dunn says.

One-trick pony?

"Citrix desperately wants to move beyond being a 'one-trick pony,'" says Brian Madden, an independent technology analyst who's written three books on Citrix and server-based computing. His Web site, www.brianmadden.com, is a hive of Citrix news and rumors on Citrix and server-based computing.

"Their solution is that 'We supply the infrastructure for your users to access applications,'" Madden says. "This is not something customers were asking for."

Citrix integrators say they are incorporating the concept of access management into their traditional focus on lowering IT costs. "I think it's understandable and totally logical to have an access infrastructure story and strategy," says Marc Mangus, national director of technology, for Vector ESP, a leading Citrix integrator in Houston. "But there's a lot of (customer) education involved. And Citrix knows this."

Vector typically emphasizes the cost savings that Citrix can realize for big companies. One Vector customer is ABM Industries Inc., a $2.1 billion facilities management service. ABM replaced 70 percent of 4,000 PCs with thin clients, hosting its new J.D. Edwards' ERP software on a server farm running MetaFrame Presentation Server. ABM CTO Anthony Lackey has said his company saved at least $10 million in five years as a result, not counting so-called soft savings in higher employee productivity and reduced downtime.

"Today, we say to a CIO, 'We're going to show you how to drive costs out of IT using an access infrastructure," Mangus says. "It dovetails nicely with what Citrix is telling customers."

Wireless is the key

But the best example of Citrix's access message might be found in the issues related to deploying applications over the next-generation of high-performance cellular networks.

Mobile and remote users have to connect over various types of wireless networks. Somehow they have to have technical support for the different types of end-user devices, applications and operating systems they use. And immediate access to line-of-business applications and corporate data can pay huge dividends.

Cellular networks are expanding in breadth and bandwidth, with expansion of Code Division Multiple Access, CDMA 2000 1x-EVDO and GSM, says Paul Giobbi, president of Zumasys, a Citrix integrator in Lake Forest, Calif., that specializes in wireless applications for small and midsize businesses. Rates are about $80 per month for unlimited data, he says, and he expects that to drop in coming months to $50.

At the same time, Citrix is optimized for low-bandwidth connections, needing only 20K bit/sec for a good performance, the company says. In the new release, Citrix has added clever techniques to create a smooth, fast user interaction even when cellular signals are weak. An auto-reconnect feature lets a user keep working until a new connection is forged and the application can "catch up."

"To the user, the connection seems flawless. It's pretty compelling," Giobbi says.

One Zumasys user is Continental Lab Products (CLP), a San Diego supplier of lab equipment and supplies to life sciences companies. It deployed MetaFrame Presentation Server at headquarters and the Citrix client on laptops issued to its sales representatives, giving them for the first time direct, wireless access to CLP's ERP system, Microsoft Outlook and a centralized lead generation and contacts database, says Paul Cranford, a CLP vice president.

Data accuracy has improved, support calls are fewer because the laptops now have a single, and simpler, configuration. In March, also via MetaFrame, CLP began making order and shipment confirmations available to sales representatives, who can access the data from a customer site and show customers their order status. Eventually, CLP will set up Web-based access via the Citrix products.

"Our sales reps know they can get any customer information on demand," Cranford says. -- Network World (US)

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