Microsoft RDS vs. Citrix XenApp/ XenDesktop:

What's best for your business?

By Greg Shields on August 16, 2016

I was a Microsoft MVP in Terminal Services, a.k.a. Remote Desktop Services for a lot of years, right up nearly until the point when Microsoft stopped separating out RDS MVPs. And in my time with that group, I learned a lot about Microsoft’s inner thought processes as they relate to the RDS role in Windows Server.

Somewhat strangely, or perhaps unsurprisingly, my group of MVP peers nearly never had a conversation about some piece of Remote Desktop Services without the topic of Citrix and XenApp/XenDesktop eventually coming up. The two conversations operated in lockstep. They did then; they continue to today.

Microsoft Remote Desktop Services vs. Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop

Those conversations say a lot about the long-standing Remote Desktop Services versus Citrix debate that’s been voiced in IT organizations everywhere for (literally) decades. It’s at face value a kind of strange deliberation, because XenApp/XenDesktop kind of require Remote Desktop Services to function. Not as much as in the past, considering our industry’s recent embrace of hosted virtual desktops, but the requirement linkage for many use cases yet remains.

Microsoft Remote Desktop Services: pros & cons

Long and short of the story is that businesses seeking to offer a broad spectrum of options for delivering applications to users – those businesses today – nearly have the decision made for them. Remote Desktop Services offers a singular approach in delivering applications atop a Windows Server operating system. RDS is awesome for user density; with it, you can really squeeze together lots of user sessions onto a single server. More so, at least, then what you tend to get with virtual machines and VDI.

But, it’s “options in delivery” that are really the determining factor for most. Delivering the applications your users need in the way they need them often times requires more than just a simple Windows Server and RDS install. Some applications don’t work on server OSs; others don’t play nicely when users collocate on a single machine. Others are even driven by non-technical requirements that mandate logical separation among user instances.

Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop: pros & cons

For those and other reasons, the Citrix and XenApp/XenDesktop approach is often the right approach for today’s business IT. Yes, it is more expensive, and yes, XenDesktop can be notoriously difficult to get installed correctly. And, yes, Citrix’s gazillion moving parts are sometimes unreasonably complex to troubleshoot when things go awry.

But all of these are the price for those options in delivery. A fully-realized XenDesktop infrastructure literally offers more possibilities for how an application gets hosted and how it gets consumed by its user. As the old saying goes, complexity is the enemy of, well, everything. However, complexity is what will enable your organization to create and interrelate desktop and server machine catalogs with all manner of delivery groups that contain the apps your users demand.

Back in those old Microsoft MVP conversations, the topics of RDS and Citrix never got far apart because the technologies never got far apart. You might say there never really was a debate between RDS and Citrix. Similar to the strong and long-lasting partnership between the two companies, I think a lot of us generally considered each to be a reflection of the other.

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Greg Shields

is an author/evangelist with PluralSight, and is a globally-recognized expert on systems management, virtualization, and cloud technologies. A multiple-year recipient of the Microsoft MVP, VMware vExpert, and Citrix CTP awards, Greg is a contributing editor for Redmond Magazine and Virtualization Review Magazine, and is a frequent speaker at IT conferences worldwide. Reach him on Twitter at