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RDS or Citrix: Which Do You Need?

While the products are somewhat similar, using a combination of both may be the answer for most shops.

The question has been asked for decades: "When is Microsoft Remote Desktop Services (RDS) enough, and when do I need Citrix?"

I posed this question last month to a group that should have all the answers, the Citrix Technology Professionals (CTPs). Similar in concept to the Microsoft MVP program, Citrix bestows its CTP award on "individuals who have invested a tremendous amount of time, resources, and expertise in Citrix products and solutions."

See if the CTP answers can help with your decision.

You need secure non-Windows client support. "Citrix XenApp on top of RDS becomes essential when multi-platform, ubiquitous client support is required," offers Steve Greenberg of Thin Client Computing. "Citrix has the broadest client support across platforms, all of which can be secured through [Citrix] NetScaler Gateway."

Environments that leverage mobile devices can benefit from Citrix's wider client support. "Citrix has gone a lot further in its mobility SDK than what's capable in RDS," says Shawn Bass, owner of IT consultancy "If usability on mobile is important, then XenApp makes more sense."

You seek a strategic rather than point solution. RDS can connect users to remote desktops and applications, but the scope of the Microsoft solution generally stops there. Independent solutions architect, MVP and CTP Aaron Parker from suggests Citrix to IT organizations seeking a more comprehensive approach. "[You must look] at RDS versus XenApp/XenDesktop in the context of your wider application and desktop deployment, as well as your device management strategy," Parker says. "By mixing XenApp/XenDesktop with XenMobile and ShareFile, I can create a unified strategy for apps, desktops, mobile devices and data."

You demand more control over the UX. Each RDS release has exposed new options for customizing users' interaction with applications and desktops; however, the granularity of those options can be insufficient for complex use cases. Wilco van Bragt of VanBragt.Net Consultancy advocates four situations where Citrix's added configuration control becomes necessary: When you need to manage bandwidth used within the protocol -- such as individual virtual channels -- and the amount of bandwidth used on a per-user basis; advanced environment management and delegation of control; granular load balancing; and Citrix's added features for multimedia and graphical apps.

Your applications have heavy graphics requirements. Microsoft and Citrix have both invested heavily in network protocols that connect users to applications and desktops. Today's RDP and ICA/HDX protocols now offer a richer experience over lower-bandwidth and higher-latency connections than in the past. However, these two protocols aren't equal. Benny Tritsch of offers a notable exception: "If you need OpenGL, you'll want to use ICA/HDX. [Microsoft] RDP/RemoteFX only supports OpenGL up to version 1.1," he says.

Your IT service levels mandate administrative automation. Remote application servers are unlike most servers in the datacenter in that regular users are given direct access. For this reason, remote application servers require extra administrative attention if they're to successfully deliver desktops and applications. Such attention warrants automation, particularly as size and complexity increases.

The added automation Citrix provides can be a key differentiator, according to Andrew Wood of Atlantis Computing. "Citrix XenApp Platinum edition further adds Provisioning Services, and in both Enterprise and Platinum are options for power and capacity management, automated health monitoring and load testing," Wood says. "The latest XenApp editions also have options to improve the UX, such as Session Prelaunch, Session Linger and Fast Reconnect, to allow applications to be accessed with a more `locally installed' feel."

You need flexibility in application hosting and delivery. No two applications are created equal. Some work better when hosted on servers in the datacenter, and others on virtual desktops. Others function best when delivered locally. Complex use cases require flexibility in where applications can be hosted and how they're delivered. Greenberg believes Citrix FlexCast fulfills that need. "You can host applications on servers and get greater density and lower cost," he says. "You do VDI if you really need it. You can stream to VMs or even physical desktops with Provisioning Services. The customer buys one license and it's all in there."

For information on the Citrix CTP program and to learn more about its experts, check out

About the Author

Greg Shields is Author Evangelist with PluralSight, and is a globally-recognized expert on systems management, virtualization, and cloud technologies. A multiple-year recipient of the Microsoft MVP, VMware vExpert, and Citrix CTP awards, Greg is a contributing editor for Redmond Magazine and Virtualization Review Magazine, and is a frequent speaker at IT conferences worldwide. Reach him on Twitter at @concentratedgreg.


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