Microsoft’s collaboration story has been one of constant evolution.
And as a product manager, I enjoy tracing the origins of products — how they came to be, why they succeeded, what they became. Many lessons can be learned about the forces that shaped them. My first exposure to one of their Unified Communications (UC) products was OCS 2007R2. I needed to prepare a presentation for a big customer around UC and at that time Office Communicator was king. (I am sure some of you veterans have seen Live Communications Server — LCS — too.)
In the good ol’ days, it wasn’t uncommon to find customers relying solely on Exchange and SharePoint as their strategy for collaboration, and probably augmented by an instant messaging service.
As with any product family, we have seen LCS  evolve into OCS , which in turn evolved into Lync , which in turn transcended to Skype for Business .
Somewhere in the middle, the Citrix HDX product team started to work with Microsoft to optimize the delivery of their apps, and the Lync Optimization Pack 1.0 was born in 2012; RealTime Optimization Pack 2.0 was released in 2015.
Since Office 365 came into the mix (2011), we have seen a Cambrian explosion in the Microsoft platforms.
The latest shout in their portfolio is Microsoft Teams, and that is why I am writing this blog.
What is Microsoft Teams?
In a nutshell, it is a persistent chat-centric, cloud-native workspace architected around the Office 365 subscription productivity suite (included for free with any Enterprise plan).
In Teams, SharePoint Online is used to create a team site and a document library. Private chat files are stored in OneDrive for Business. For channel conversations, Exchange Online is used (message journaling in the group’s mailbox and calendars).
All these Microsoft technologies are woven together by Office 365 Groups, which leverage identities stored in Azure AD and all of its authentication and authorization capabilities, such as support for multi-factor authentication. All of these are readily available for use by Teams.
The heavy artillery in Teams is multimedia. It is built on top of the next generation of cloud-based infrastructure that is also used by Skype for Business Online. With native Azure-based cloud services for media processing and signaling (H.264, SILK/Opus codecs, ICE/STUN/TURN, transport relay, etc), it also offers network resiliency, telemetry, quality diagnostics and, yes, even recording capabilities thanks to Azure Media Services (with transcriptions).
Azure is the core platform that Teams is built on, taking advantage of its massive scale with global footprint and redundancy. In fact, Microsoft is so confident of Azure’s scaling capabilities that now they are offering a free Teams version for up to 300 users.
Teams Store allows you to integrate with other apps, bots, connectors and much more.
Teams has a long-term vision: to be an extensible Application Hub for teamwork in Microsoft O365.
Citrix and Microsoft in concert
After our successful collaboration with Microsoft around the RealTime Optimization Pack for Skype for Business (which, as of July 2018, has over 600,000 daily active users -25% of them on Skype for Business Online), we could not lower the bar when it came to an optimization strategy for Teams. As we announced shortly after Microsoft’s big news about Teams, we have continued our close and active partnership with Microsoft to make sure that Citrix customers with virtual apps and desktops can use Teams with a great user experience and comprehensive feature set, while optimizing server scalability to minimize cost.
Teams has a mobile app, a web-based version, and a native Desktop version (built using the Electron Framework plus some additional native code). More details are here.
The web-based version relies on WebRTC for multimedia (so it does not require browser plug-ins in Chrome/Edge), and Microsoft is aiming to provide a near full-native experience for the web-based version.
As you probably guessed, multimedia is where Citrix HDX technology plugs into this story. More specifically, it’s Browser Content Redirection (BCR), our feature of choice for redirecting an entire website to the endpoint for local rendering. In our Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops 1808, we are enhancing BCR so it can support WebRTC redirection: the new Citrix Workspace app will include an embedded browser that Citrix HDX will harness and leverage.
A good analogy for what this embedded browser is going to do for HDX is what Ion Propulsion will do for space exploration. HDX is investing heavily in WebRTC, and Citrix Workspace app will play a critical role — a clear sign that Citrix Workspace app is the gateway to the future for all XenApp and XenDesktop customers.
My colleague, Vipin Borkar, gives a full rundown of Citrix Workspace app, including recommendations on upgrading to Workspace app, timelines for the upgrade, and helpful tools in his latest blog post. The key thing to take away is that you need Citrix Workspace app 1809 and CVAD 1808 release to optimize web-based Teams performance within your XenApp and XenDesktop environment.
Now, let’s talk about how it all works. Browser Content Redirection will be our first optimized solution for Teams (as demoed at Synergy 2018). It will allow you to start piloting web-based Teams integration with your organization’s virtual apps and desktops, as well as to assess the coexistence mode between Skype for Business and Teams.
It’s important to mention that Browser Content Redirection for web-based Teams will not have all the features available as in the upcoming HDX optimized desktop-based Teams. The gap list is not yet finalized, but one representative example is sharing. If a user is chatting and wants to share a file located on his virtual desktop, he clicks on the ‘clip’ button, selects “Upload from my computer” and a file explorer window pops up.
But this window is now local, as Browser Content Redirection redirected the Teams website to Citrix Workspace App’s embedded browser running on the endpoint. Since we don’t have ‘reverse client drive mapping’ (yet), the local file explorer window cannot present the VDA drives. Fortunately, the solution for this scenario is simple: use Sharefile or OneDrive, two validated cloud storage solutions that integrate elegantly with Teams.
Getting to the TOP: Teams Optimization Pack
The desktop-based Teams will require a new set of technologies in the VDA and Citrix Workspace app. This development effort is continuing and our developers have a fluent weekly collaboration with Microsoft Teams engineers. Our plan is to have a Teams HDX optimization ready soon.
More accurate timelines will be provided as we progress with the coding. If you want to stay updated on an Early Access Release, make sure you talk to your Citrix Account Manager, and then sign our standard NDA agreement and get in touch with me (also fill this Microsoft form, and this one)
The solution won’t differ much from what we had with RTOP. A VDA-side HDX component will interface with the Teams hosted app and receive commands, then it will open a control virtual channel to a Citrix Workspace app-side media engine and let the multimedia be rendered locally by the endpoint. Reverse seamless will snap-in the local Citrix Workspace App window back into the hosted Teams app.
Authentication and signaling will happen natively on the Teams-hosted app, just like the other Teams services (e.g. chat or collaboration). They will not be affected by the audio/video redirection.
As always, client-fetch/client-render and server-fetch/client-render (in case your endpoints don’t have internet access, thanks to a media relay virtual channel) are going to be available. And of course, there will be support for HID Devices and any endpoint (Windows, Mac and Linux).
All the same tricks you are used to will apply 😉, even allowing both optimization packs to co-exist so you can evaluate and explore what’s best for your organization.
One new thing will be the media engine on Citrix Workspace app — we are making improvements to RTME and will likely make it part of Citrix Workspace app by default. Hopefully this will make your life easier!
What will happen to the RealTime Optimization Pack (RTOP) for Skype for Business?
It is not going away. But Citrix and Microsoft’s vision for bringing together Intelligent Communications and collaboration is focused on Teams, and that’s where Citrix is headed as well.
We plan to continue to support RTOP for many years, and are still actively developing new features (like AMD GPU Acceleration for Linux endpoints, which we released in June, and the upcoming RTME for Chromebooks). We also plan to support the new Skype for Business Server 2019 coming out in the fall in a future RTOP release.
In HDX, we know that unified communications are mission critical apps, and as such Citrix will be there to assist you with the migration to Teams. What should you do today? Start planning your upgrade to Citrix Workspace app and understand the capabilities of the web-based Teams. What should you watch for later this quarter? Stay tuned for a general availability announcement from Citrix on XenApp and XenDesktop 2018 Q3 release including Browser Content Redirection for web-based Teams.