Hardly Terminal: Citrix Gives Web Apps a Boost

By By Dennis Barker, GRIDtoday

May 26, 2008

If someone called you right now from the early 1990s and offered you a chance to invest in a little company with this novel idea — delivering OS/2 and DOS text-based applications to multiple users over the network — you’d probably think, “Dumb terminals, how quaint.” You’d then wonder what ever happened to that little company. (And how did that guy manage to call me from the early 1990s?)

But here’s the thing: that little company managed to stick around. Citrix Systems became almost synonymous with thin-client computing, and today its technology helps a couple hundred thousand companies deliver serious applications over the wire. With its newly announced NetScaler MPX, Citrix says it’s providing technology that will help datacenters significantly improve their delivery of content over the Web.

NetScaler MPX is Citrix’s latest Web application controller, a souped-up model designed around a massively parallel multicore processor architecture. The appliance is installed in front of Web servers to not just improve application delivery but also to provide intelligent load balancing and better security, company officials say.

“Datacenters will be able to deliver up to two-and-a-half times more Web applications by using NetScaler MPX,” says Greg Smith, director of product marketing for the Applications Networking Solutions group at Citrix. “This is the first appliance to support real-world application performance faster than 10 gigabits per second [Gbps], and will actually support up to 15 gigabits, while also providing compression, acceleration and security. We do see many customers pushing multigigabits of traffic, and we’ll let them handle it.”

NetScaler optimizes all Web-based enterprise applications (e.g., Oracle, SAP, etc.), as well as Internet-facing applications, Smith says. MPX is ideal for two sets of customers: Enterprises running off-the-shelf applications that support an e-commerce system, and “Internet-centric accounts of all sizes running customized applications,” particularly those pushing the performance envelope with social networking, software as a service and compute power as a service.
 
Citrix uses its application compression scheme to yield “3x to 5x” better performance for the end user, Smith says. NetScaler compresses the content before sending it to the user, whose standard browser handles the decompression. The system wrings out more speed by caching frequently used content; serving it up out of the appliance also takes a bit of work off the Web server. “With application compression and caching, we’ve seen some cases where we get up to a 10x performance boost,” Smith says.

NetScaler handles some low-level operations, like managing TCP/IP connections and SSL encryption, so the Web server can be focused on transmitting content. “Some customers have been able to remove servers as a result of the NetScaler appliance taking care of these tasks,” Smith says. “We’ve seen 25 percent to 50 percent in reduction of server resources needed to serve applications. You can now support twice as many application users with the same server infrastructure with NetScaler in the environment. No new servers required to deliver more apps. This is a result of offloading those responsibilities to the appliance.”

Citrix says that NetScaler also brings a layer of security by integrating a Web application firewall. Research shows that 75 percent of hacker attacks take place at the application layer, Smith says, so the firewall understands how a user should interact with that app, and knows to block requests or alert the administrator. “This is particularly important today with regulations requiring more security for online applications,” such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) slated to go into effect in June.

The new device can include up to eight CPU cores, 32GB of memory, and four 10 GbE fiber ports. (Price is $180,000 a pair.)

Responding to Demand

Datacenter managers want to shift resources dynamically to meet workload demands. Citrix says NetScaler MPX has virtualization technology that can sense a change in application demand and can automatically fire up the required application and server resources. “NetScaler, on a real-time basis, will monitor the load on each application,” Smith says. “If it detects a surge in traffic that needs more resources, it can essentially talk to the rest of the system and automatically provision a bare metal server and put it into the pool, then redirect traffic. When demand subsides, that server can go back into the spare capacity pool.”

Unneeded, that server can be powered down. Furthermore, the new NetScaler appliance provides a 50 percent reduction in power consumption compared to earlier versions, “driving lower energy usage for the same volume of application traffic,” Smith says. Considering the cost of electricity to the bottom line of every datacenter, this is no mean thing.

“Newer datacenters need both high performance and a high degree of functional integration. MPX provides the scalability to handle very high volumes of end-user requests for the most complex applications,” Smith says. “At the same time, infrastructure costs, IT administrator resources, and power must be reduced. MPX does both by decreasing the number of servers required to deliver any given Web application.”

Heavy Traffic

Yuan Wang is director of infrastructure for Technicolor Electronic Distribution Services (a division of Thomson), which runs massive systems for delivering digital material — from films to games to music — over the Web. It’s not your average ISP stuff. “We are basically a very, very large content delivery network,” Wang says. “Our customers are mostly involved in presenting video or other rich media on demand. They set up their portals, then redirect to our backend. So we need something that’s high-performance and that’s highly scalable.”

Technicolor currently uses NetScalers for load balancing public Web services, and Wang says they have been working with Citrix to incorporate the new MPX into their delivery systems. “From our design perspective, it should provide what we’re looking for in terms of scalability and speed. Higher throughput, more resiliency, flexibility of design — those are all additional benefits I anticipate. And intelligent traffic redirecting. MPX would be invaluable because of its load balancing. It can see traffic coming in and going out and can redirect to other datacenters if necessary to meet demand. If there’s an outage, it can redirect customers to different sites.”

Delivering a Datacenter

NetScaler MPX is just one element Citrix provides for what it promotes as the ideal scalable datacenter. Under a new brand umbrella it calls Citrix Delivery Center, the company offers a bunch of products aimed at simplifying application deployment. (Several of these products come from Citrix’s acquisition last year of XenSource.) There are many products under that umbrella, but Smith explains how some of them work with NetScaler to serve as the foundation for the “dynamic datacenter,” and why that’s a good thing.

“In part, ‘dynamic’ refers to workflow virtualization,” he says. “Changes in application demand are monitored, and the necessary application and server resources to meet the new workloads are automatically provisioned. NetScaler MPX supports this virtualization technique in combination with Citrix’s XenServer and Workflow Studio solutions. NetScaler obtains server status while XenServer allocates virtual server resources over the actual physical servers present. Workflow Studio acts as the interface between NetScaler and XenServer, and instructs XenServer to automatically expand or contract actual hardware support as needed. The result is hardware, administration expenses, and power utilization are all reduced.”

Anyone who was around IT in the early ’90s might recall that the tech pundits and their so-called “smart money” was not on Citrix to survive, despite great engineering and brilliant products that filled a real need. In its early days, the company seemed always to maneuver in the ring with Microsoft. Citrix needed the operating system, after all, or it had no products — products that came to be viewed as competitors. The company took a few hits, but has managed to find opportunities as computing platforms shift.

Well, tech pundits typically rival political pundits in the accuracy of their forecasts. Last year, Citrix reported $1.7 billion in revenue, and today says it has about 4,900 employees. Its range of products serves everyone from the guy trying to remotely access his home PC to some of the world’s busiest Web sites.

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