Why is it that we become so polarized when it comes to Information Technology? “I’m a Mac guy!-I’m a PC guy! Linux is the only way! iPhone vs. Blackberry, you must be kidding! Win Server 2003 vs. Win Server2008! Web apps are the only way!” I know it’s good to have opposing views and diversity is the foundation of change, but polarizing to any extreme just doesn’t map with reality, does it?
Ten years ago the polarization around web based applications began. Adobe is probably the best example of how this technology has emerged. There was a day when loading someone’s client on your PC or laptop was seen as obtrusive and even a security risk. But now we are constantly reminded to upgrade our Flash player or we won’t be able to access the latest multimedia. To be sure, web app technology including Flash have come a long way and have enhanced our ability to get the information we need more rapidly. But when I sit down to put a spreadsheet together chances are I’m not going to launch IE or Firefox to get started. There is a job for every tool and a tool for most every job. That’s what my grandfather used to tell me and I think it applies to the world of IT as well. In that regard, if we postulate that Google Apps is going to take over the world of application delivery any time soon, I think time will tell a different story. But just to round out the playing field I’d like to examine some of the misnomers around a web app only world.
First and foremost there is the issue of what works best for the job. As I mentioned, like it or not, Microsoft Excel owns the lion’s share of the spreadsheet market by leaps and bounds. Even if there were another application with a more user friendly experience the typical consumer of this application would still adopt what he knows (learned behavior) over what is new. So if a “universal” web app emerged tomorrow it would take years to get mass market adoption. And even if that were to happen, we would still have to the issues of file storage and file sharing to contend with. The point is the information technology world we live and work in takes advantage of both O/S dependent applications and web/browser based applications.
But what if overnight, we all just decided enough is enough and we want to simplify the world of IT by only using web based applications? Are they universal enough that every application would run on every end point every time it was accessed? Let’s explore…
Leaving aside the problem of learned behavior for O/S dependant applications, web based apps have a myriad of obstacles to overcome. First are the physical machine and the physical network limitations. Have you ever tried to stream a high definition video on a 5 year old PC (or MAC) on a dial-up network? Even if you increased the bandwidth to Business Class DSL/Cable Modem you’d have to shut down every other web app just to get the clip running. So there is first the problem of embedded multi-media over low bandwidth/high latency networks. Surely everyone has access to 100 mbps Ethernet, don’t they? No, in fact they don’t. Most of the SMB world still lives off of a connection of 3-6 mbps with no specified SLA and that bandwidth is shared for the entire office.According to Kurt Moody, Senior Technical Marketing Manager at Citrix, “The development of web-based applications has been perceived as a fundamental competitor to traditional Windows desktop applications and therefore to some extent is considered the largest competitive threat to Citrix XenApp. The reality for many enterprises is that although the web based applications themselves present a form of Server-based computing from an application development perspective, from an application delivery perspective the critical potential point of failure is the web browser itself, which in many cases is a Windows desktop application that presents the same version and lifecycle maintenance challenges of other desktop applications. Many businesses have determined that using Citrix XenApp to deliver the required Web Browser and application presents a much more predictable environment to the broadest set of users and use cases with a lower TCO.” Not that XenApp solves all of the problems listed above, but it still provides the best case user experience even over low bandwidth, high latency networks.
How about the browser environment itself? According to David Wagner, Architect and Product Manager at Citrix, “While it is easy to make the argument that the complexity and headaches that exist across multiple browsers has diminished somewhat over that last few years, there are still plenty of pain points this creates for all of us. Challenges such as a browser version or needed plug-ins still occur particularly when using shared or common devices. Sure if it is your personal PC or your company’s laptop or desktop it is often easy enough to add what you need but what if you are using a hotel device? Or a public venue kiosk? Or some mobile device? Making any change or modification at all is just not going to happen.
From a developer’s point of view, wouldn’t it be nice to focus on one or two browsers? And maybe just a handful of configurations? It would be if you were sure all your users had access to that version and configuration setup. Otherwise you will be developing, testing and validating for every combination you can expect a user to leverage which usually means picking as many as you can manage to test and validate with each release and thus we have our published ‘supported list’. E.g. if you are trying to use this app and are experiencing issues and you are not using a configuration on the supported list we can’t help you.“
So what exactly do the Cloud initiatives of 2009 present to mitigate these web application issues? Nothing really. The Cloud is a mechanism for providing utility in the mass delivery of applications, not the end-all, be-all. Even when Cloud delivery infrastructure becomes a reality, we still have these fundamental issues to grapple with. That’s why Citrix is taking the more holistic approach to the entire eco system. From the creation of web based apps (Citrix Online products) to the virtualization of workloads in the datacenter (XenServer) to the delivery of both web and non-web applications (XenApp/XenDesktop) we provide the architecture to economically and efficiently provide services (applications) to the end points…. And we’ve been doing it for years.
Stay tuned for the next discussion on Managed Service Providers vs. Independent Software Vendors providing SaaS.