Trying out Citrix XenClient

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I was very excited when Citrix announced XenClient, their client hypervisor, in 2010. The idea is that it’s a Type 1 hypervisor (bare metal) as opposed to being run on top of Windows or another OS. It’s based on their Xen/XenServer architecture, and the idea was that you could run multiple operating systems on your laptop or desktop at once. It would be a significant improvement over our current two options: dual booting or Type 2 hypervisors (Virtual Box, VMware Workstation).

Unfortunately, their version 1.0 software was awful and didn’t support most devices. I have an older laptop that I inherited from another employee, and it’s over 5 years old now. I wasn’t on their hardware compatibility list (HCL), and so I couldn’t give it a spin. I have always wanted to be able to replace Cygwin with a real Linux environment on my desktop, but I find that VMware Workstation is simply too clunky and slow for what I want. Now, in 2013, I heard XenClient mentioned again and thought I’d give it another shot. Surely Citrix has made several improvements since their 1.0 days, right?

Citrix and the naming disaster

Citrix has a serious, institutional issue with product naming. They constantly rename and rebrand core products, incorporate different suffixes and affixes (see: Xen), and have different versions of a product bear the same name. As a Citrix partner, it has been very frustrating at times, because it becomes very difficult to search for documentation and communicate effectively when the product names are shifting constantly or don’t represent the actual product. Anyone who has tried to research the Citrix Access Gateway and its various incarnations will know exactly what I mean.

It wouldn’t be the Citrix we know and love if this pattern didn’t continue to their XenClient platform. The whole issue is exacerbated by superannuated references on their website that reference old names, incorrectly name new products, and when all of their links always end up at the same page. From all of my research, it looks like there are 3 different versions of XenClient, although the naming structure is almost identical.

XenClient Enterprise 4.5 (XCE)

  • Locked-down and restricted version of XenClient (no SSH or root access)

  • Highly compatible with many, many laptops (including mine)

  • Designed for use with a managed Synchronizer server, but not required

  • Free for individual use

  • Due to restrictions in place, no options for Mac OS X and poor Linux support

  • None of the hotkeys for XenClient seemed to work in XCE

XenClient XT 3.0

  • Security-focused version of XenClient

  • NOT the successor to XenClient 2.1

  • I didn’t actually try this one due to bad reviews

XenClient 2.1

  • This is the original evolution from the XenClient 1.0 platform

  • Poor support for older laptops and nVidia chipsets (both apply to my laptop)

  • Tons of features/options, including special flags for Mac OS X and Linux support

  • All of the cool hotkeys, SSH access, shell/root access

If you’re following along, there’s a 2.1 version, a 3.0 version, and a 4.5 version, all listed under XenClient, but that are all totally different products and unrelated to each other.

I ended up installing XCE 4.5, assuming that was the latest build of XenClient. Of course, this was the locked-down enterprise version that didn’t have any of the options I wanted. After some reading, I found that Citrix acquired Virtual Computer and merged it with XenClient to make XCE. The original XenClient was still stuck on version 2.1, which had been released over a year ago. I tried installing XenClient 2.1, but found that my laptop was still not compatible and I could only get it to run by disabling several features and turning off graphics acceleration. I actually couldn’t even install it via DVD (since my laptop’s optical drive is PATA not SATA), nor via USB thumb drive or USB CD-ROM (since it disables legacy USB support during install). I had to install the whole thing via HTTP using IIS from my Windows desktop!

It’s clear that XenClient Enterprise is where Citrix is taking XenClient in general, and it makes sense. Their customers want locked-down hypervisors where they can control the images that are deployed, and that’s what XCE brings to the table. The old XenClient, which let advanced users tinker with a Type 1 hypervisor on their laptop, was just a tech toy that has now evolved into a marketable product. Unless I buy a new laptop specifically with XenClient support, I’m out of luck. Even then, who knows if XenClient 2.1 will ever see another update? Maybe I’ll try again in 3 years and see if there have been any improvements.