Decisions, Decisions

Windows Terminal Services comes bundled with Windows Server 2003. Citrix costs extra. Here’s why you might consider paying the piper.

Ever since Microsoft began bundling Terminal Services with Windows 2000 Server, users have asked, "Why should I pay for Citrix when Windows Terminal Services is free?"

"Sometimes you shouldn't," says Tim Reeser, chairman and CFO of Engineering Computer Consultants, a Citrix Platinum Reseller in Ft. Collins, Colo., and author of the recently published book Citrix MetaFrame for Windows Server 2003: The Official Guide. "When people ask, I tell them that for any deployment under 75 users, you can do reasonably well with just Terminal Services."

That's not the response you'd expect from a Citrix reseller. But with Terminal Services for Windows Server 2003, Microsoft announced a number of new features: Windows Server optimizations to support more users per server, Remote Desktop Client improvements like greater screen resolution and more colors, and support for connecting client devices into the remote session.

At first glance, Citrix's recently released MetaFrame Presentation Server v3.0 provides similar functionality as Terminal Services. Both let you remotely log on to a server remotely from a client anywhere on your network or the Internet, and both give you access to centralized applications using an easy-to-install client and low bandwidth client.

The challenge for Citrix is to convince customers they need Citrix when the common perception is that Terminal Services is free. Nabeel Youakim, a Citrix vice president responsible for the ongoing partnership between Microsoft and Citrix, says that perception is off base.

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"Terminal Services is not free," he says. "A Terminal Services Client Access License (TSCAL) costs about $149 per user at retail price and is non-concurrent, which means one TSCAL per user." Any time Terminal Services is used in Application Mode, a TSCAL is required for every connected client. A Citrix server license sells for around $200 to $250 per user and allows multiple users per license—there is no charge for any Citrix client software. Youakim estimates most customers average about four users per license, which makes the per-user cost between $50 and $75.

There is a catch, however: "You still have to purchase a TSCAL for every user any time you're using Citrix," he says.

So you have to buy TSCALs at about $150 per user no matter which option you choose, making that issue a wash. What it all comes down to, if Youakim's estimates are accurate, is you're really paying $50 to $75 per user more for Citrix as compared to Terminal Services.

That brings us back to the central question—do the added benefits of Citrix justify the extra expense? While some features are remarkably similar between the two products, the Citrix MetaFrame Access Suite does boast some interesting improvements.

The Client Makes the Difference
If you're familiar with how Terminal Services or Remote Desktop works, you're well on your way to understanding how Citrix operates. Citrix uses a proprietary protocol called Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) to push screen updates and mouse/keyboard commands between the client and server. It's similar to Remote Desktop, but with significant bandwidth optimizations. ICA works in tandem with Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), and both can be used simultaneously on the server.

The most immediate benefit Citrix has over RDP is support for more operating systems. Unlike RDP, where clients are limited to Microsoft operating systems, Citrix provides freely downloadable ICA clients for Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, Macintosh, OS/2 and others. Even DOS gets its own client.

Citrix's greatest advantage may be its "client-less" Java client, delivered as compile-on-demand Java code. You can couple the Java client with Citrix's no-host Web and security products to provide ICA access to any client, from any server, at any location that has Internet access.

"The Java client is being used more and more in our installations," Reeser says. "It's much easier for the end user." That's because the Java client is auto-downloaded and configured by the Citrix administrator, not the end user.

More importantly, the Java client isn't restricted to areas where you can actually install a client. Because of its "client-less" nature, you can—theoretically—use it in highly secure areas like airport and hotel kiosk computers, making it a boon for road warriors.

But Reeser notes there's a catch to that plan. "About 50 percent of hotel and airport kiosks are locked down so tight the Java client won't run," he says. But with Citrix claiming it has some 50 million users, he says kiosk owners are beginning to realize they have to allow users to employ the Citrix client.

Administration Considerations
Terminal Services can connect users to Terminal Servers through the Windows Remote Desktop Client. All users must configure their clients with the correct connection settings for the server. In small installations, training users on this process is easy, but in larger environments with dozens of servers and hundreds of clients, the process can get unwieldy.

Enter Citrix Web Interface. In a correctly configured Citrix Web Interface environment, the burden of maintaining server connection information is removed from the user. All users need to connect to a Citrix-enabled environment is the Web address of the Citrix Web Interface portal. At the portal, users log in once to access all the applications available within that environment. Each user's login information can be securely sent to the selected MetaFrame server hosting the application. This means you can achieve a single sign-on experience.

Once the user logs into the Citrix Web Interface server, new or updated client versions automatically deploy in the background. You can also download these client versions as an ActiveX control. That ensures all client configurations are handled by the administrator; users have no configuration capabilities. Users need only a username and password, and the applications for which they have permissions are presented.

Figure 1. The main Citrix management console.
Figure 1. The main Citrix management console is much more comprehensive than Terminal Services' (see Figure 2).

Firewall Challenges
Of course, if you're operating in a Web environment, Internet connectivity and security are paramount concerns. When running Terminal Services, all traffic between client and server is handled over TCP port 3389, which is not a port that is typically routed to the Internet, making client connections difficult through Internet firewalls.

To combat this problem and provide a secure method of transporting ICA over unsecured networks, in 2001 Citrix released Citrix Secure Gateway. Now in its second generation, Secure Gateway provides proxy and ticketing services to your MetaFrame deployment, allowing you to securely connect Citrix-enabled applications to the Internet while easing firewall traversal. The Secure Gateway authenticates users and employs a combination of SSL and network proxying to encrypt the ICA stream coming out of the MetaFrame server. It also re-encapsulates data into a TCP port 443 HTTPS connection, which is much easier to route over insecure networks. The gateway also masks the internal network information of your secured MetaFrame servers.

What this provides over Terminal Services is the ability to push applications over the Internet while providing users with an easy-to-use Web interface. Combining this with Citrix's Java-based client can create an environment that lets users access applications from kiosks or even airport computers.

Figure 2. The Terminal Services management console.
Figure 2. The Terminal Services management console is spare, uncluttered and functional.

To Stream or Not to Stream
Microsoft's RDP protocol has improved dramatically since the beginning. So much so, in fact, that the difference in total bandwidth used between RDP and Citrix's ICA protocol is negligible.

According to Citrix Technical Support Services, a good rule of thumb for either protocol is about 30Kbps per concurrent user. This means that at a typical load level, your network connection use will scale with the number of concurrent users that each connection is serving.

One important difference remains, however. RDP is considered a "streaming protocol," while ICA is not. As a streaming protocol, RDP will consume 30Kbps at all times during the session. ICA's bandwidth utilization, on the other hand, will decrease if the user's session becomes inactive. Data packets are only transferred between client and server when a mouse or key is clicked or something is updated on the screen.

The Bottom Line
Jones agrees with the suggestion that servicing more than 75 users may warrant making the jump to Citrix, but notes that many companies start small, then build their Citrix deployments over time. "Why do they eventually buy Citrix? For many reasons—management, client homogeneity and security," he says.

So, why should you pay for Citrix when Terminal Services is "free?" If your deployment is small and simple, Terminal Services is easy and inexpensive to deploy. If your environment requires multiple operating systems, your users demand simple interfaces, or you want secure environments outside your LAN, the added features of Citrix are worth the investment.

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Reader Comments:

Thu, Sep 30, 2010

Citrix is over priced and ended up costing my company a great deal for support on top of the software, we are in the process of switching to MS TS, because the IT firm we had was dead set on citrix, for less than 15 employees.

Thu, Sep 15, 2005 Brendon Australia

In Australia we have lots of customers <75 users that easily justify Citrix. The smallest company may still have a serious requirement for Citrix based on what they are trying to do at a business level.

I would be happy to reply to anyone's email explaining to them why Citrix is so much more than a direct MS TS comparison.

People have to stop thinking of Citrix as a single product company. About 5 years ago there was a debate about whether you should take TS or Citrix but these days you also need to think about:

- Application conferencing
- Bi-directional audio
- Multimedia applications
- Support for specific devices
- End point security
- Password management

If the smallest company has an interest in any of the above then they can't get by with just MS TS. I belive that Citrix gives a small company an easier way to manage their infrastructure especially when there might be only one IT employee.

(Citrix Platinum Integrator - Australia)

Thu, Sep 8, 2005 jose Spain

In PS 3 and 4 any rdp connection consumes a citrix license.

If you have 500 TS CAL licenses but only have 30 Citrix Licenses, ONLY 30 user can connect to your Presentation Server, using Citrix client or RDP.

In previous versions of Citrix (MF XP) rdp connectons do not consume citrix licenses.

If Presentation Server 4 does not change this feature (citrix license consumption by rdp session), we will not migrate to PS4.

Best Regards.

Fri, May 20, 2005 Pete Sydney

Great article just what I was looking for. I have a 50 user site that requires office, email and a stock ordering client.

Think I will stick with TS, open office and Novell Small Business Suite. (using Zenworks.. :-) )


Thu, Jan 27, 2005 Anonymous Anonymous

very informative article

Wed, Dec 22, 2004 Anonymous New York

Good article, but doesn't speak about the server management with TS or Citrix.
Alternative technologies such as VenturCom's BXP are less expensive and easier to manage in the long run.

Sat, Oct 23, 2004 Steve Ohio

Great article!
I know you only have so much space but here are some important factors.
1) Citrix can support application publishing whereas TS promarily supports whole desktop publishing.
2) TS licensing in win2000 is way different that TS licensing in win2003 servers.
a) win2000 TS client licensing is included with clients on XP-pro and win2000 workstations.
b) win2003 - you have to buy client TS
licenses for all clients.
c) TS licensing on win2003 allows you to assign the licenses to either a device or a user.
-Use device TS client licensing if multiple people logon from the same client device.
-Use user TS licensing if your users are loging in from multiple client devises.
3) Citrix can deploy an Enterprise solution because it is scalable with enterprise management.
4) Citrix security is included.
5) Use Citrix Secure Access Manager problem and you have the "Enterprise Authority" solution!

Regardless of our perspectives - Citrix continues to grow which means that MS gets revenues from all Citrix sales because Citrix is dependent on MS servers and TS licenses.
Yes I know Citrix sales Metaframe for Unix...but I don't know anyone using it.

Wed, Oct 20, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

Citrix is dead

Fri, Sep 17, 2004 John Chicago

Citrix Supports all the latest hotfixes and service packs from Microsoft. And active-x gets blocked on browser ie the TSClient may not function. Thats why Citrix is a great alternative. The Citrix universal print drivers rock!

Wed, Sep 15, 2004 Brian Madden Washington DC

This article is flawed. First of all, the description of a "streaming" protocol is completely wrong. RDP wil NOT consume all the bandwidth all the time. Second, there are free RDP clients for all platforms, not just Windows and Mac. Third, I don't agree that you can make the Citrix vs. TS decision based only on users. You have to look at business requirements. Do you need a web interface, published applications, seamless windows, application-level load balancing, or outside the firewall access? If so, it doesn't matter how small your environment is--you'd still need a third party tool to augment Terminal Server.

Sun, Sep 5, 2004 Mazen Ahmed Cairo, Egypt

Citrix Mertaframe Presentation Server 3.0 Provides many features that affect user interaction and make it better... Easy of deployment client software many client Operating Systems are supported many devices like Nokia 9210 it could be a CitrixClient... try it..

Fri, Sep 3, 2004 Nick Smith London

Microsoft supply an Apple OSX RDP client as a freebie; there are several RDP UNIX third-party freeware products out there. Don't understand the guy who says it has an MS bias - slightly the opposite IMO!

Fri, Sep 3, 2004 Rich DC

We use both, but citrix is a pain in the butt for smaller installations. If you try to keep up with security patches basically they won't support it. Citrix probably still recommends not installing sp4 for windows 2000! the only things citrix can do that terminal services may not be able to do is server farms and seamless windows for applications. if you just need a desktop TS2003 is just as good. also citrix isn't the only one with a zero install client, how about tsweb client, which is probably easier and works in mor eplaces since it is activex.

Fri, Sep 3, 2004 David Catto London UK

Great article. I thought that Citrix was dead, but more and more positions are requiring Citrix. The London Banks use it alot and I have missed out on some contracts as I dont have the expierence. Great Article, I learn't alot. Good ol Microsoft, they are not going to let up on some CAL revenue. David Catto MCSE, NZCE

Thu, Sep 2, 2004 Jason Indiana

Anonymous - You can get a copy of Citrix Presentation Server from Citrix for demo/testing purposes and it will run I believe 90 days or so before time-bombing. I use it all the time.

Thu, Sep 2, 2004 Jason Indiana

GT - one Citrix user license is a concurrent license which means as many people as you want can use it, just one at a time. The TSCAL is per user whether they are using it or not. Greg used an industry figure of four users to each Citrix license, versus the one to one relationship that TSCAL's have.

Thu, Sep 2, 2004 GT Anonymous

I don't get it. If you have to buy a TSCAL and a Citrix server license to run Citrix, doesn't that make the difference $200-$250 per user, not $50-$75?

Thu, Sep 2, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

Citrix would do well to offer 2 user limited versions of their product to IT professionals to promote IT pros exposure to their products a bit more.

Thu, Sep 2, 2004 Charles Allen Alabama

I think Citrix is a great product !!

Thu, Sep 2, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

balanced but with an ms bias

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