Microsoft has been very busy lately releasing the beta for their new desktop OS now known as Vista. They’ve also been fairly active on the server front as well, and details are beginning to emerge on the feature set for the next generation server OS (still known as “Longhorn” as of this writing). For those of us that deal with Terminal Services, the feature set information has been a little scattered but very welcome when it comes. It looks like Microsoft, with the “Longhorn” release, is finally going to start providing features that have long been the domain of Citrix or other add-on software. The information on these features is gathered primarily from the Channel 9 Terminal Server Product Group video and transcripts of Microsoft’s “Executive Chat – Terminal Services Revealed” live session that was held on September 21, 2005, which can be found on BrianMadden.com. Channel 9, if you aren’t aware, is the official MSDN video blog and can be found at http://channel9.msdn.com/. It’s actually a very interesting site, and there are some really good videos available for download that have nothing to do with what we’re talking about today.
So should we be excited by the feature list? Yes and no. One of the complaints long held by administrators is the additional cost of 3rd party software like Citrix and the large gap that remained between Terminal Services and Citrix Presentation Server. Given that an administrator was being forced to pay for 2 licenses (Terminal Services and Citrix), it’s understandable why some organizations would look to save on costs while sacrificing the feature set that Citrix can provide. With the Longhorn features list, Microsoft appears to be trying to make Terminal Services more inclusive and appeal to administrators of any organization size.
The most obvious change to the service will be in terms of management. Finally someone at Microsoft appears to have recognized how ridiculous it is to need multiple management interfaces to configure and manage Terminal Services. Longhorn provides a centralized configuration and management console for all facets of Terminal Services. It will also begin to accurately track the use of Per User Terminal Services CALs, which may or may not be good news to some of you! Enforcement of the licenses will not happen until they are sure the mechanism works, so you will have time to validate your counts and true up if required. Anyone who remembers the jumbled mess that Windows 2000 TS CALs introduced will be happy to hear that. Of course the next question is whether there will be a cost increase for TS CALs. We’ll all have to wait and see on that one.
Microsoft has improved seamless windows on Longhorn, and they will finally mimic what other providers give you in that regard. Seamless windows will now display correctly in the local system tray and have full integration with the shell. This is a key component if you run published applications and want a tight interface with the local desktop. They are also providing what they call “Remote Programs.” This is a repackaged Application Publishing, but with some twists. Creating a remote program will require you to work through a wizard, and the result will be a small .msi package. This package can be distributed to client machines, and when executed will create the connection details, shortcuts, and register the file-type associations. You will be responsible for distributing and executing the package however. This could easily be accomplished using SMS, Zen, and even a web page with links to the packages. But it’s definitely not a quick way to provide new applications to your users.
Most Citrix admins reading this last feature will say wait a minute… didn’t we do that about 8 years ago with Citrix? The answer is, for the most part, yes. Just like we used to (and in some cases still do) create those ICA connection files for published apps, Microsoft wants us to do it again. The hard truth is this form of “publishing” is hardly that, and there is certainly no central control over the process. If you run a fairly static environment then this method certainly works, but you become more dependent on other tools for distribution and often the user for execution. Control over application access would have to be handled via GPO. This might make some admins happy, but as someone who is used to the level of control Citrix provides over published apps it strikes me as a step backwards.
Improved Remote Access
Microsoft is leveraging their RPC over HTTPS technology to provide a Terminal Services Gateway. The Gateway will function much like the Citrix Secure Gateway does, and requires IIS6. It allows RDP packets to be encrypted with SSL, then transmitted with HTTPS to the web server. The web server then extracts the RDP traffic and communicates to the internal Terminal Services server. Details were scarce on how this is going to work exactly, and whether it will support their new Remote Applications or only full desktop sessions. Since Terminal Services doesn’t really function as a “farm” environment, there wouldn’t be any form of load balancing going on. At best guess, the gateway will function like a router, simply encrypting and decrypting the traffic between two specific hosts (the client and the server).
Microsoft also says that they are improving two key areas of user frustration: logon speed and user profiles. Unfortunately beyond saying they are improving them, details are nonexistent. Specifically they said that they are working to change the logon process, and a result should be faster logon speed. They also said that they are adapting profiles to work better when a user is logged in to multiple computers at the same time. Both are welcome changes, but some actual details on how this is going to happen would be nice. Ideally it would be great if they could make it easier to do managed roaming profiles. This is possible now, but only with some scripting experience and often a very detailed view into what an application is calling.
RDP 6 Client
All of these features are made possible with the introduction of the RDP 6 client. The new client will be able to handle the newer feature set, and still be able to downgrade the options when connecting to older Terminal Services servers. And like Citrix, Microsoft will now allow you to tune the virtual channel bandwidth for the RDP client to improve performance with specific portions of the application. You can limit the bandwidth available to the channels individually or as a whole. This is a handy feature for those of you with bandwidth-restricted users, and can prevent RDP from consuming all of the available resources.
There are other improvements mentioned in the presentations as well, but what are really striking are the areas that Microsoft is not going to improve on with Longhorn. As I previously mentioned, there is no real farm environment in Terminal Services and there won’t be in Longhorn. Microsoft has no plans to improve the clustering or management of clustered servers. They also are not planning any real changes to the client printer architecture, and there are no major architectural changes to the RDP client. They mostly just added features. There won’t be 2 way audio, session reliability enhancements, application siloing capabilities, or any changes to the licensing model besides the fact that they will actually start to use it correctly. All of these, plus the weaknesses already outlined, lead to the space that the Citrix and other vendors still have to play in and give you valuable services on to for Terminal Services. So while the Longhorn upgrades do extend the base functionality of Terminal Services itself, there are still some gaping holes that I wish they would consider filling.