MetaFrame: Enterprise-Class Remote Administration

If Windows 2000 doesn't scale well enough for your enterprise, consider solutions from the company that originated multi-user Windows technology.

When designing a remote server administration strategy, it’s often not enough to simply manage print queues, network connections, file shares and so forth. Most of the daily grind in our profession involves supporting applications inconveniently scattered on desktops where they’re out of reach of standard remote administration tools. One solution to this problem is to run the applications directly on a terminal server. However, if you’ve ever tried to support more than a couple of dozen users on a terminal server, you quickly find that the native management tools and load balancing features in Windows 2000 don’t scale well. If you need more than one terminal server, you need a third-party management solution. The most widely known provider of such a solution is the company that first developed multi-user Windows technology, Citrix Systems. Its latest product, Citrix MetaFrame XP, helps you build an enterprise application publishing environment that has no equal.

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MetaFrame uses Citrix’s Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) protocol to provide a rich client experience with 24-bit color, component redirection and per-connection bandwidth management. ICA clients are available for just about any operating system, permitting Mac and Linux and Solaris users to access Windows applications seamlessly. In addition, nearly every thin-client terminal includes an ICA client. This means you can buy a unit no bigger than a paperback and costing less than $500 and use it to access an entire suite of applications published from a fault-tolerant, load-balanced server farm. MetaFrame XP contains many features designed to improve client performance. Per-server and per-processor load balancing in the server farm ensure that each user gets the necessary CPU cycles to run their applications. Mouse and keyboard events are buffered at the client so users don’t get unresponsive screens when a terminal server gets busy. Bandwidth is managed on a per-connection basis to improve dial-up performance. As a former IS director of a call center where terminal servers were used extensively, I can attest that these features dramatically improve the user experience.

The ICA client also provides access to local drives and peripherals on the user’s PC from within the terminal server session. The user’s local time is preserved inside the session, as well. Published applications are made available on an intranet via a Web-based menu system called NFuse. Best of all, a new universal printer driver eliminates most of the printer hassles that plague terminal server administrators.

Most terminal server administrators would agree, though, that where MetaFrame really shines is in server farm operation. The base product, MetaFrame XPs, permits publishing individual applications and load balances the application between servers so that one server can be taken down for maintenance and the application will still be available. MetaFrame XPa includes automated application delivery to selected servers in the farm. This permits you to deploy new applications or upgrades quickly once you finish testing them.

The enhanced MetaFrame version, Xpe, has SNMP MIBs for integrating a server farm into management consoles such as HP OpenView and CA Unicenter.

You do pay a price for all this functionality. The first fee goes to Microsoft. If you use something other than Windows 2000 or XP to connect to a Win2K terminal server, you must purchase a Terminal Server Client Access License, or TSCAL. Depending on volume, a TSCAL can cost upwards of $125 per desktop. Notice I say per desktop, because a TSCAL is assigned to each machine that makes connection to a terminal server. Retiring a desktop requires a call to Microsoft to transfer the TSCAL to another desktop.

The MetaFrame server product itself has no cost. You pay only for connection licenses. If you build a farm with 10 servers and only one user connects to it, you need pay for only one client license. MetaFrame client licenses aren’t exorbitant but they aren’t cheap, either. The price escalates based on the MetaFrame XP version.

ShopThin, an on-line Citrix reseller, quotes $230 per license for MetaFrame XPs. For $30/license more, you get a one-year service agreement during which all upgrades and feature releases are free. An XPa license with service agreement is $320 and an XPe license with service agreement is $370. There are substantial volume discounts, but even so, a request to use MetaFrame XPe to publish a suite of applications to 30,000 users is bound to get some budget scrutiny.

The real savings come from simplification of support. For example, Peter Kieren from Baytex Energy in Calgary uses a nine-server MetaFrame farm to publish applications to hundreds of workers in offices and oil platforms all over Canada. Kieren and his colleagues can quickly respond to a user problem without traveling to Alberta or Newfoundland in the middle of winter. He’s a big fan of terminal-based computing and of Citrix.

If you want to do like Kieren and centralize application deployment for hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of users, look at Citrix MetaFrame,

About the Author

Contributing Editor Bill Boswell, MCSE, is the principal of Bill Boswell Consulting, Inc. He's the author of Inside Windows Server 2003 and Learning Exchange Server 2003 both from Addison Wesley. Bill is also Redmond magazine's "Windows Insider" columnist and a speaker at MCP Magazine's TechMentor Conferences.


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