An End to MetaFrame Dominance?

All right—it’s a little early to be saying this quite yet. But although I don’t expect Citrix’s MetaFrame to go away (nor do I want it to—it’s a good product), MetaFrame is no longer the only game in town when it comes to adding functionality to Microsoft’s Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition.

A little background: Microsoft came out with Terminal Server, the first multiuser version of NT 4.0, a little more than a year ago (July 1998). Citrix released MetaFrame 1.0, a companion product for Terminal Server, at about the same time. Terminal Server provided users with basic multiuser support, and MetaFrame added features that the base product didn't include. (If you’re curious about the specific details of how MetaFrame adds functionality to Terminal Server, flip to my article, "3 Ways to Be Thin," \[Article ID 5197\] in the May 1999 issue.) So, if you wanted the basics, you got Microsoft’s Terminal Server. If you wanted more than the basics, including support for a special type of Citrix's Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) known as Direct ICA that you use for making direct video connections to a MaxStation terminal, you got MetaFrame.

There was one problem with this neat dichotomy: MetaFrame represents a considerable cost increase over Terminal Server. Microsoft introduced a new licensing structure in February 1999 that reduced the cost of Terminal Server, but terminal server connectivity still isn’t free. Also, to use MetaFrame, you must have Terminal Server already installed. If you actually need all of MetaFrame’s extras, you can justify the additional cost. However, not everyone needs all those extras, and paying $4995 for a 15-user license to get features you don’t need hurts. You could wait for Windows 2000 (Win2K) and use its additional terminal services functionality, but even Win2K doesn’t have all of MetaFrame's features. In addition, the complexities and costs of upgrading to Win2K represent a high price to pay just to get more Terminal Server features.

This problem led to an obvious opportunity for other vendors. NCD has come out with two products for multiuser NT that, although not duplicates of MetaFrame, offer similar features. The company's free ThinPath Plus! software runs on top of Terminal Server and lets you use any locally accessible I/O device. NCD's other product, ThinPath Load Balancing, is not free, but it offers load-balancing services for Terminal Server without requiring MetaFrame to run Citrix’s Load Balancing Services. MaxSpeed is also working on a video driver to let Terminal Server users run MaxStations without needing MetaFrame's Direct ICA protocol. Note that these tools do not replace MetaFrame in all cases. However, users who only need part of the comprehensive MetaFrame package will appreciate the opportunity to get the features they need without paying for the features they don’t.

Other companies are also coming out with new products to support terminal services. By the time you read this, I’m betting that even more third-party support will be available to give multiuser NT the functionality it needs, while letting you pick and choose the components you want. I think this growth in the market is great. More choices are more confusing—knowing what to recommend when the only two choices are Terminal Server alone and Terminal Server with MetaFrame is simply easier. However, I’d rather have the option of selecting just the tools I need, rather than having to buy a whole package just to get one piece of it. Looks like the multiuser Windows market has matured enough to offer some choice in the tools we get to implement.

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