Citrix reloaded: The old mainframe model morphs on

With more aplomb than any sequel-producing movie studio, Citrix Systems has been tremendously successful at repurposing its singular wares as the market has changed over the past decade.

More impressive is the fact that the underlying technology model is strictly reminiscent of the mainframe terminal environment of the 1970s. A look at where it’s been can provide some useful perspective on how fundamentally good concepts can have very long lifespans.

For those not familiar with Citrix, a bit of background: the company’s MetaFrame server software, in conjunction with client-side software for a variety of operating systems, lets network managers turn a Windows or Unix server into the equivalent of a mainframe that supports terminal devices. Programs are installed and run on the server with just the graphical user interface portion of the operation showing up on the client side.

Where some products have trouble being successful even in their initial instantiations, Citrix is already into at least its third such “reinvention”.

In the beginning, Citrix founders used the first real mainframe-like system for Windows OS/2 to launch the terminal server concept. Back then, the “great divide” was between high-end, graphics-capable 386 machines and older machines (low-end 386s and down). Unfortunately, the machines were also expensive and thus might only become widely deployed over the course of several years. Enter Citrix.

Citrix turned the “have nots” into “haves” by letting users run state-of-the-art Windows-based applications on machines that didn’t have enough memory or a fast enough CPU to run the programs natively.

So the initial offering was pure-play conservation of capital. Users could extend the useful life of their existing PCs by using the Citrix software to let many users run applications on a single high-end machine. The user PCs became terminals to the server/mainframe.

It wasn’t long before Moore’s Law destroyed this rationale, and it was time for Citrix to start over. With powerful PCs everywhere, and more sophisticated data crunching apps, file and database access programs became all the rage. And everything was fine so long as you were on the same LAN as your server.

Programs were still based (as many are today) on the open-the-whole-file model. To read one record of an indexed file, a program might have to read the entire file, record by record across the network. When this network was a “high-speed” 28.8Kbit/sec dial-up connection, response time became glacial, if the program worked at all.

Enter Citrix, again. By using its server-based approach, the actual data files never had to be accessed across the network (that was all taking place locally on the server) and voila..., you once again had a usable environment.

These days, broadband access is everywhere. And, the prospect of moving 50Mbytes of data from home office to main office is not at all daunting. Does this spell the end for Citrix? Not at all.

Now it’s all about management. Why license software you don’t need or use? Why install programs over and over on individual machines, and so forth. Once again, it is the mainframe model morphed.

With the times, the value proposition has changed but a good idea can have a long life.

Kevin Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company

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