Citrix and cloud applications 

At a recent industry meeting about building applications on “cloud application platforms”, several attendees were quite confused by my presence on behalf of Citrix. Sure, they said, Citrix provides cloud infrastructure components with XenServer, OpenCloud, and the like, but those are not application development platforms per se. Besides, at my company Citrix is all old school infrastructure. Surely Citrix isn’t planning to be a vendor of cloud applications…right?

I fully understood the confusion. Consulting firms and companies with large IT departments were natural participants. Most ISV participants that day are purveyors of software that readily translates to cloud services. Financial applications, customer relationship management, mapping software, and everything in between was represented. As a vendor of IT infrastructure, Citrix seemed quite out of place.

So, why was Citrix a participant? The answer is actually quite straightforward. The key is to understand some of the realiities facing the industry as our architectures and practicies change over the coming decades.

In this post, I will explore the backdrop of cloud strategies commonly referred to as SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS, as well as how they can be applied. In part two of this topic, I will explain how the traditional Citrix virtualization business fits into each approach.

Cloud alphabet soup

At this conference, a common theme was “consumerization of IT”, or the need to support many types of devices and modes of access to enterprise data. Devices such as laptops, home comupters, smartphones and tablets are often not Windows-based. A growing percentage are not even owned by the enterprise. Still, supporting the use of those devices is becoming a requirement instead of a luxury.

Another common theme was “cloud economics.” The cost pressures facing many IT departments are mounting. Many attendees believe they can help themselves by outsourcing IT piece by piece over time, amortizing the cost of infrastructure and even entire applications across many consumers instead of assuming the entire burden themselves.

The three common approaches to cloud were all discussed, as were some of their limitations.

1. Software as a servce (SaaS)

This method outsources IT support for an entire function the business, eliminating software acquisition, installation, hosting and management. The infrastructure comes from the provider instead of IT. Consumer device access generally comes from an HTML front end or device-specific applications.

Many attendees find this solution works for corporate functions such as human resources and customer support. The problem comes when the data and business processes cross into strategic territory. In these cases, the data and business logic are an essential asset. The SaaS level of outsourcing doesn’t make sense for such strategic and often custom elements of the business.

2. Platform as a service (PaaS)

Cloud application platforms provide a set of application services on which to build new cloud applications. Whether supplied by Microsoft Azure, VMware vFabric, or other vendors, the most common goal is to write scalable applications with an HTML front end. The infrastructure and device access are solved the same way as SaaS while retaining more control over the data and processing. 

A major concern seemed to be the cost of porting all elements of an IT infrastructure to one or more PaaS platforms. Such an endeavor is seen as risky and a large cost in itself. Further, the desire to co-locate data and applications means that all related applications have to be ported before a move to the cloud can be made.

3. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

The minimalist approach to cloud takes some related parts of exisitng IT and moves it to someone else’s infrastructure. Amazon EC2 and Rackspace are two well known IaaS vendors. The hardware, scale, and reliability costs are largely borne by the cloud vendor. This approach meets the need to amortize infrastructure, but in itself it does little to meet the needs of consumerization and device access.

The drawbacks here revolved around issues of technology maturation. Most IT departments don’t feel comfortable giving up control of the infrastructure layer for strategic assets. They believe that they give up control over service levels and performance. Security is also a large concern, with critical software running in potentially unsecured data centers with multiple tenants. Neither of these concerns is unique to IaaS approaches, but rather they are inherent in the maturation of cloud.

Why Citrix?

So, given this backdrop, why is Citrix relevant? Why should Citrix bother to show up at a meeting about “cloud application platforms”? See Part 2 for my answers.