Windows Server 2008 R2 TS. What have they done?

As you know Windows Server 2008 R2 has been around for some time now but as several of our customers are still on 2003 or 2008, I did not have a change to get deep into it.

Of course most of the new features (i.e. two-way audio, virtual IP addressing, etc) I had a chance to play a long time ago and even presented about 2008 R2 at BriForum.

Now as I am working on updating the guide I wrote (“Terminal Services A to Z”, available here), I had to go through all the stuff Microsoft blessed us with on 2008 R2: RDS Web Access, RDS Session Broker, RDS Gateway and so on. What did I find?

If I had to define in a single word, the experience of setting up a load balanced solution with a web interface and a gateway using only 2008 R2, that would be the word: frustration.

To understand the reason for that, you may need a little bit more information and history about me. Back in the days when Citrix was the only solution, with Provision Networks still in its infancy, I envisioned and designed a solution that was not only modular but dead simple to setup and use. This idea, or dream,  turned into real products that many here will remember: WTSPortal, WTSGateway Pro and so on. People all over the world used our solutions and everyone seemed to agree at the time that we did it in such a way that we had pretty much NO support calls whatsoever. It simply worked and worked in a way that even your grandma could set it up and manage it. The Library of Congress used our products. So did the Jet Propulsion Lab and NASA. Warner. Disney. Hilton and so on. All these people trusted a three men shop.

So years ago (2003/2004) we had all that sorted out: RDP over HTTPS, Published Applications, Resource Based Load Balancing and so on and no kidding, it would not take you more than 30 minutes to get all going.

Simple and elegant design. More than that, I would say, smart design.

Today after going through all the stuff required to get RDS Web Access, RDS Gateway and RDS Session Broker up and running I am simply baffled. Stunned. This is for sure the epitome of bad design. I am still banging my head in the wall just thinking about how the setup of all this makes no sense and more than that, what a steep learning curve this will be for anyone that is now on Windows Server 2003 TS.

In laymen terms, Microsoft simply made it difficult and hard. Add to that a bad design to start with and you have a solution that, even though it works at the end, is simply stupid. To put in perspective how bad it is, it makes Citrix and its 12,000 consoles look great.

What amazes me the most is Microsoft had YEARS to watch what others did and learn with their mistakes and then come up with something clean. Smart. Unfortunately that was not the case. Not even Jesus Christ can set this thing up without reading AND reading AND without banging his head somewhere. And trust me, at one point he will call his dad for help.

The weird part is I know most of the developers or the people involved with RDS in Redmond and they are indeed good, smart and hard working people. This creates a paradox in my mind. How such great resources could create such a piece of junk. Junkware.

Again, I am not debating if the solution at the end works. It does. I am discussing how easy it is to setup, how smart the design is and so on. And in that respect, they simply failed to deliver. I am telling you that based on 15+ years of experience doing nothing else other than TS/RDS/Citrix deployments and starting companies focused on TS/RDS development. I may look stupid indeed but I know some shit about these things.

Simplicity and clean design are key elements on any good piece of software, what someone in Redmond seems to disagree.

Light up a candle, hold hands and pray for changes in Windows Server 2010 RDS. They are needed.


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Platform Agnostic. Good or bad?

Today we can find several vendors that claim they are ‘platform agnostic’. One typical example in the SBC/VDI space is Quest’s vWorkspace that can deliver applications coming from terminal servers or hosted desktops regardless of the virtualization solution being used.

This means your hosted desktops can be running on any hypervisor, VMWare, Citrix, Microsoft and a bunch of other ones I am sure. On paper, this sounds great.

But when talking to some large enterprise customers I realized the fact you are now relying on multiple vendors to run your solution on, support may become a big problem.

For example if your XenServer environment is not performing as expected, where is the issue exactly? On your SAN from HP? On your trunking between you IBM Blade Chassis and your Cisco core switches? On XenServer itself? On some specific VM running under XenServer?

To find where the issue is you may have to call 10 different vendors. On top of that once you find the problem that does not mean it is solved. One vendor may say the problem exists because the other vendor is not implementing the specification for a certain protocol/standard properly and blame them for the issue. The bottom line is you may have a support nightmare on your hands.

If you can have everything (or most things) under one roof, that means one single place to call and to blame. No more saying to your boss ‘it is vendor X fault according to vendor Y but vendor X says it is vendor Y fault’.

Reminds me of the early days of Citrix when Microsoft would blame Citrix and Citrix would blame Microsoft for an application not working as expected. Great times indeed.

Back to the topic, is this the reason that brought Cisco to the blade world with their Unified Computing initiative? At the end do single vendor solutions bring value to the table?

I guess there is no simple answer to this question. I can see the value of having all under one roof and not having to deal with multiple vendors. But not being tied to a single vendor also brings flexibility to the table and kind of avoids a monopoly.

As I am not flexible…


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Old news becoming new?

Not sure if I am in rant mode here or not. Plus note that I do respect Citrix and everything they have done over the years and I am the first one to say they have some great, kick ass things.

But since Harry Labana posted this on his blog the Twitter world and the blogsphere went crazy like if this was the greatest thing ever since OS X (yes I am a fanboy before you ask). Even Brian posted about it today.

I saw several comments/articles on how this is great, how it will now open so many doors at several customers and so on. And that is what pissed me off.

It may be a great thing IF you are a Citrix customer AND you need this for some reason. And for the simple fact that Citrix, now apparently starting to move again after milking the cow for years with MetaFrame/Presentation Server/XenApp/WhateverItIsToday. Awesome.

Non-Citrix customers had access to this several years ago. So what?

From a technology standpoint this is VERY old news. Back in 2004 we were playing with the idea of publishing XP desktops (and applications) within our WTSPortal (one of the products we had at Terminal-Services.NET, later acquired by 2X Software Ltd). We even got this working on a multi-user version of XP Professional. Later on Provision Networks brought that to the market. Again, years ago.

So here Citrix is not doing anything new. Why no one thought this was a big deal when everyone else released this years ago and now are all having goosebumps is beyond me. I want to read way more exciting and better things on the Citrix blogs. And on yours too Brian. 🙂

Catching up != Innovating.


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My take on VDI.

In the past year if I could get a penny everytime I heard the word VDI I would not be here writing this post anymore. In the Server Based Computing/Virtualization industry, Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is “the” topic and as mentioned, has been like that for a while.

Some people in the industry (mostly the Microsoft MVPs for RDS – the new name for Terminal Services) do know what I think but as not everyone is part of that group, here you have my take on this:

1. I am not sure why people like Brian and others do not compare VDI to real desktops. In a typical VDI scenario virtual machines running a desktop OS like Windows XP or Windows Vista are accessed by users using some sort of protocol (RDP, ICA, etc). For example Citrix XenDesktop uses ICA and Provision Networks/Quest uses RDP. But today, with client hypervisors (a local hypervisor installed on your PC) you can run all these virtual machines directly on your own PC and not on a remote server. So VDI in a way is evolving. In the future I do see users using their VMs over ICA/RDP when at work and when disconnected, using them locally through a local hypervisor. Get back to the office and all changes are replicated. Cool.

If we think about how many companies simply skipped the whole Server Based Computing thing, that never ran any application or desktop off a centralized TS/Citrix farm and how many companies are just now taking off the ground I do think it is simply natural their IT guys willing to compare how a VDI solution compares to a full blown desktop (real desktops/fat clients – whatever name you want) approach. Especially now that local hypervisors can be seen in the wild.

Again, these companies simply missed the SBC bandwagon. Like several companies I know that never deployed Windows 2000. Jumped straight from NT 4.0 Domains to Windows Server 2003 Active Directory. For them, whatever Microsoft introduced or did with Windows 2000 was completely irrelevant. The same applies here. These companies never cared about SBC/TS/Citrix. They are/were a full blown PC/Desktop shop. Now that virtualization is becoming widespread they simply want to know how a regular PC environment compares to a virtualized one. Dead simple. And I can totally see and understand their reasons.

2. So far, there is always some performance hit associated with VDI. The problem here is simple. If you are trying today to deploy a VDI solution for running Windows 2000 or XP, with a 4-7 years old application, chances are scalability will not be that bad (meaning you will be able to squeeze quite a lot of users in one big server, reducing the cost per user at the end). But if you are always trying to keep up with technology and if your company always goes for the latest and greatest, this means you may be going down the road with Windows 7 with Office 2009 sometime soon. And probably your applications will be written relying on the .NET Framework 4.0. Yes, I do know these are not out today. But keep in mind that with cheap hardware comes lazy programmers and huge frameworks. Long gone are the days when we had to squeeze as much performance as we could out of a DOS app because an extra 1MB of RAM on each PC would break the company.

I cannot see .NET ZZ getting leaner or faster; same for Office 20XX, Windows YY (replace X, Y and Z with any integer). They may look faster but that is the result of much faster hardware with much more memory. That is why I came up with the ‘Claudio’s Law’ like in the ‘Moore’s Law’ (that old dude from Intel): “The time it takes for Windows XXX to boot and load Office YYY on its current generation hardware is constant” and you can try that for yourself. Get an old PC (PII 266MHz with 64MB RAM) with Windows 98 and try loading Office 97. Now fast forward to today and get a typical machine running Windows Vista with Office 2007 and do the same. The time it takes to load is virtually the same!

Where do I want to go with all this? If you keep running the latest and greatest I cannot see VDI being a scalable solution. It is a solution for sure but if scalability is not there it means a much higher cost per user as you cannot run hundreds of VMs in a single box. Plus if you want to do it properly, you will not be hosting 100s of users on cheap hardware. You will go for the good stuff. And good stuff comes at a price. An 8-CPU box with 32 cores and 64GB RAM, RAID and fast hard disks does not come cheap. And now, in a recession, I am 100% sure costs will decide the fate of several IT initiatives out there. The bottom line in many places will be indeed this: money.

Unless Microsoft/Intel/God comes up with a new way of doing things that will allow us to run 100 VMs on the above hardware, all running the latest and greatest OS and apps, I cannot see this changing.

3. Local Hypervisor. Ok this adds quite a bit to the picture as now you can run the VM directly on your PC, without sharing resources with anyone else. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem here is there are several OS enhancements that are now dependant on the hardware. For example, Snow Leopard and Windows 7 are now offloading certain tasks to the GPU. Several other components on the OS rely on that low level direct access to the hardware. When a hypervisor layer is present, as of today, several of these enhancements are lost. This means a performance hit. Of course there are several benefits with that approach (i.e. your ‘master images’ become hardware independent, running pretty much anywhere, as long as the hypervisor is there) but in an age where users can go to Best Buy and get a decent, fast PC for under $600, are they willing to work on something that is slower (potentially much slower depending how OSs evolve) than what they have at home? If hardware manufacturers start implementing changes that will allow things like a virtual GPU and so on that will probably be minimized/eliminated and VDI may take off.

But then we may break the whole cycle of software/hardware Wintel upgrades and the industry behind that. Companies like Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc do rely on users and companies buying and replacing computers every couple years. So at the end, what impact such approach will have in the industry? I do know we, human beings, always adapt and I am sure these companies would have to adapt to survive the new way of doing things.

Well that is what I think. As you can see I do not think VDI is bad, ugly, beautiful or great. I do think it has its own merits, it is capable of solving problems other approaches may not work well and it is still in its infancy. But I cannot simply see how all its drawbacks/issues/costs will be addressed by 2010. Sorry Brian.


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