Planning, Design and Managing a Citrix Farm Successfully

29 January 2015 | By Ralph Vugts

You will hear the phrase “it’s not rocket science” when it comes to building and running any sort of IT environment, let alone a Citrix environment. However, that statement can lead to unwarranted “cowboyish” configuration and set up of Citrix environments. In this article we will discuss at a very high-level my experiences on the initial approaches to planning, designing, building, and managing a Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop farm.

Citrix provides various products, but in this article we will focus on use of the traditional XenApp/XenDesktop farms to provide published applications and virtual desktops with Citrix NetScaler appliances used to provide secure remote/local connectivity.

Let’s start off with the planning and assessing phase. To initiate this phase, the business requirements and the strategic goals of the organisation will need to be prioritised and listed.

Experience has shown that many times, the business requirements do not line up with what has been designed and implemented. It is therefore essential that the business requirements gathering process is done adequately and with the appropriate stakeholders and parties involved. Key business drivers should be rated so that the work effort can be prioritised. There may also be a formal assessment of the current environment to identify problems and use cases for the upcoming project.

The planning phase is performed by the project manager, who will work with a solutions architect to understand how to deliver the project as required by the business within budget and on time. With this information, the direction of the deployment can be laid out.

The output the planning phase should be a detailed Project Plan. This will identify what the design and build phases may involve.Chances are you will be asking yourself the following questions:

  • How much hardware and storage am I going to need?
  • Who are my users and how do I segment them?
  • What is the architecture going to look like?
  • Which Flexcast model(s) will I use?
  • What steps do I need to build into my project plan?
  • Who do I need to include on the team?

Tip: Make use of the Citrix Project Accelerator, a fantastic tool which can help to design, build roadmaps, and manage the project with built in best practices from Citrix.

Tip: Citrix has provided a sample project plan.

The Design phase follows the planning/assessment phase. Citrix recommends using a top-down five-layer design model which comprises of the following:

  • User Layer – endpoint selection, receiver selection
  • Access Layer – authentication point – NetScaler / StoreFront
  • Resource Layer – personalisation, applications, desktop images
  • Control Layer – controllers for farm, Active Directory, database, etc.
  • Hardware Layer – hypervisor, storage, server hardware, etc.

Working with the above layers, a design document should be produced. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, this may entail a high-level design document followed by a detailed design document.

It is important that as these documents are delivered, they are reviewed and accepted by the business prior to moving onto the next phase.The most important factors in designing Citrix environments, in my view, are that Citrix best practices are considered and if not adhered to, a reason provided. Whilst best practices are just that, Citrix Consulting’s experiences, which form the basis for these practices, are valuable suggestions, and are likely to help with your project.

Tip: Make use of the virtual desktop handbook which is packed with valuable best practices.

Tip: make use of Citrix eDocs and Citrix Blogs to get further best practices, configuration details, and to understand the product that you will be designing for.

Following on from the design phase, the build phase would commence. At the end of a build phase it is important that any deviations from the design are captured, either back in the design documentation or in separate build docs.

Assuming now that your environment is built, we now move to the final phase, which is the managing of it. Unfortunately, experience has shown that typically when a user issue is encountered in the Citrix world, the fingers are quickly pointed towards the Citrix environment and the admins responsible for managing it, often incorrectly. The “guilty until proven innocent” analogy can be avoided or at least minimised by ensuring adequate monitoring tools are in-place.

Citrix has developed Citrix Director and HDX Insight to help with basic monitoring and alerting.It is however, as expected, limited to Citrix products only.

Citrix environments typically touch multiple layers of the infrastructure such as network, storage, server hardware, applications. Therefore, depending on the size and complexity of the environment, an enterprise-level monitoring tool may need to be invested in. Once monitoring is setup correctly and in-place, issues will be rectified proactively rather than reactively, consequently resulting in satisfied end users.

Tip: Citrix Director, Citrix HDX Insight and third party monitoring software such as Liquidware Labs or eG Innovations may be appropriate for your environment.

Beyond monitoring, operation processes, support structures, backup, DR, testing processes, and integration of the new platform into the existing support structure (if there is one) will also need to be investigated and documented. Technical resources may be required to attend training courses and/or achieve certifications to support the environment.Various tools and processes will need to be figured out, on how to shadow the users, how to log tickets, how to call scripts, how to capture what the state of the environment is, and also to capture lessons learnt into a knowledge base.

Tip: Refer to the following Citrix support article on best practice monitoring and alerting metrics.

Through the appropriate use of the planning, assessment, design, build, and management phases, the Citrix environment will be more likely to align with the business’ requirements, and the Citrix project deemed a success.

For more information or to discuss this further, feel free to contact the GlassHouse Technologies team.