It's often the case that when there are two strong organisations, a third can get squeezed out - just ask the Liberal Democrats. So, Citrix with its XenServer product would have had good reason to fear the Microsoft's release of Hyper V earlier this summer. This release might have stirred up the virtualisation market and given added impetus to those who said that the technology was the way forward but the arrival of such a dominant player would have been an awesome prospect to contemplate.

While the other major player in the market, VMware would have felt secure thanks to its 80 percent share of the market, Citrix, who only acquired Xen a year before would have plenty of excuse for feeling decidedly edgy.

So far, however, there's little indication that the company is suffering from any form of inferiority complex. In September the company released its version V of the XenServer product and has claimed 100 new enhancements as it seeks to hold its own against the twin onslaughts of Microsoft and VMware. We hope to include a full review of the product shortly but, in the meantime, we've had a cursory glance at the specs and there's plenty there to appeal.

One of the most interesting aspects of the product is that the company has overhauled its product line to fit in with the XenServe philosophy. Consequently, the former Presentation Server has now become part of XenServer.

The over-riding approach is that the thinner, the better. So, XenServer uses the lean open source Xen hypervisor. Citrix claims that this will delivers faster and more efficient virtualisation computing. And the company emphasises that the open APIs allow customers to access functions from their existing server to enhance performance.

Whereas, the traditional Citrix approach would have necessitated running Citrix on top of Windows, the re-engineering has minimised the amount of software between the virtual machines and the physical hardware, speeding up performance considerably.

But it's not enough to improve performance. A survey by two years ago by consultancy C&C showed that many IT managers were slow to grasp the concept of virtualisation and that the main inhibitor preventing organisations moving to virtualisation was the inherent complexity of the complexity. Put simply, most IT managers could grasp the reasoning behind virtualisation but didn't have the skills to implement and manage it.

Citrix appears to have tackled this too. The company has introduced a new range of configuration wizards, coupled with point-and-click conversion of physical servers into virtual machines. The company claimed that it only takes 10 minutes to install and configure XenServer. The previous versions used the old command-line interface that wouldn't have fazed hard-core techies but would certainly have inhibited the take-up by a new generation of administrators.

XenServer also allows administrator to keep tabs on virtual machines as they proliferate across large datacentres. The company has also adopted Web 2.0 characteristics an offers the facility to use style tagging and searching capabilities to assign metadata and virtual tags to workloads; these can be either pre-defined or customised to each organisation's needs. The management console is included with XenServer however, unlike Microsoft's SystemCenter, which is supplied separately.

In addition, XenServer's dashboards make it easy for administrators to see both real-time and historical views of virtual machines and physical host performance over long periods of time with virtually no storage or performance overhead.
The company has also emphasised the failover capabilities of the latest version, vital if the product is set to take its place in mission-critical business applications. The company has made dealing with a failure much easier, for example, by easing the processing of rebooting virtual machines.

Any organisation looking to adopt virtualisation has three approximate approaches to follow. There's the thin hypervisor/thin OS/thin client approach as recommended by Citrix and VMware with its ESX product; there's the thin client/thin OS version with no hypervisor as practised by Parallels and there's the fatter version with thinner hypervisor as offered by Microsoft - one that offers more sluggish performance but with a more familiar look and feel but easier integration into an existing set-up.
Or perhaps, organisations could follow a combination of the approaches. Against the market dominance of VMware, Citrix and Microsoft could be formidable combination - thanks to the thinness of the Citrix offering complementing Microsoft's muscle very effectively.

Whether or not there's a formal partnership, Citrix has made enough enhancements to XenServer to ensure that it's a serious competitor in what is certain to be a keenly competitive market.

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