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Iacobucci Presides Over Birth of an Industry
By Phil Wainewright

June 23, 2000

The founder of Citrix recounts the early genesis of server-based computing

On the day that Ed Iacobucci leaves Citrix, we republish this profile, which was first published September 1998.

The stocky, bearded figure of Ed Iacobucci (pronounced Yakkaboussey) is no lightweight, and his influence over the computer industry is growing fast. Beneath the calm, thoughtful exterior there’s a rock solid lodestone of inner certainty. For nearly a decade, it has kept him obstinately committed to his chosen path. Now, it seems, destiny is ready to reward his patience.

As September 1998 kicked off, Iacobucci presided over Thinergy, the first conference organised to bring together the resellers, partners and users of the company he founded in 1989, Citrix Systems. Billed as the birthplace of a new industry dedicated to ‘thin-client/server computing’, it drew almost 2,500 attendees to a hotel complex in Disneyworld, Florida.

Speakers were calling Thinergy a seminal, landmark event. Yet Iacobucci, who is chairman and CTO of Citrix, began his opening keynote speech with a characteristically self-effacing statement. “Thin client-server computing is not anything new in terms of system architecture,” he told delegates. To him, it’s something that has always been obvious right from the beginning. That its time has finally come simply fulfils the vision that he’s doggedly pursued for almost a decade.

For eleven years before he founded Citrix Systems, Iacobucci’s career had taken him on a journey through the inner cores first of enterprise computing, and then desktop computing. In the early eighties, he spent five years at IBM’s software research laboratories in North Carolina, developing early network management products that would later form the core of IBM’s Netview system management software. In his spare time, he developed software on contract for the PC division during its early days. “That was an education in PC software,” he recalled.

He then moved down to the PC facility at Boca Raton in Florida. As one of the most experienced software developers on the site, Iacobucci was put in charge of the joint Microsoft-IBM team set up to develop a multi-tasking PC operating system. That project ultimately became OS/2, and also laid much of the ground for what we now know as Windows.

“I was very fortunate to have been able to spend my career on two sides of the fence,” he said. First of all it introduced him to all of the keenest issues IT managers face at the enterprise level. Then it gave him the opportunity to learn all of the issues that arise running applications in the PC environment.

Information flaw

He quickly saw that there was a serious flaw in the “information at your fingertips” model of client-server computing in which every application ran at the desktop. “I had seen how hard it was to do serious client server applications inside the middle of IBM in the 1980s with probably the best qualified team of system administrators I could ever think of,” he said. He felt it was not realistic to put application code on every user’s desktop and expect the average enterprise to be able to manage it.

There were other shortcomings too. “Having had the mainframe experience as part of my background, I didn’t even think twice about things like being able to move from one workstation to another and continuing everything I was doing,” he said. “Those ideas were part of me going into the PC world, so I felt that they were missing.”

Of course, many in IBM at the time disparaged the PC, but unlike them, Iacobucci also appreciated the benefits of desktop computing. A born conciliator, he sought a compromise that could accommodate both sides. “The key to computing in the enterprise I thought was balance. There was a need for some users to have a more centrally managed option,” he explained.

Having decided that such a compromise solution could exist, Iacobucci founded Citrix in order to create it. There followed several frustrating years. The first Citrix product was a multiuser system for OS/2. But disaster struck just as it was ready to ship. “IBM and Microsoft went to war right as we were releasing the first product. We had to write off about eighteen months there,” he said.

Many would have given up there and then, but Iacobucci persisted. “Personally I really believed in the vision of the problems that the IT managers would have [with client-server]. It was obvious to me that there was going to be a strong desire for this from a market standpoint. Some people say I’m too hard-headed but in this particular case I think that there was some merit to it.”

A remote access product for Windows began to show market promise, and then in 1995 Citrix released Winframe, its multiuser version of Windows NT. Coinciding with the beginning of Oracle- and Sun-inspired hype about network computing, it was an instant, if minor, hit.

Microsoft challenge

It was still successful enough to arouse Microsoft’s interest. Early in 1997, the software giant announced it would produce future versions of multiuser Windows itself. Many believed that was the end for Citrix, but they had not reckoned with Iacobucci’s tenacity and experience.

“Microsoft was just learning about the marketplace, and we’d been in it for seven years,” said Iacobucci. “It’s a big difference. And the issues are different.” Citrix knew what was involved, and it knew what it wanted. Negotiations took almost three months, but the experience proved the company’s mettle. “We had our fastest growth, we signed our biggest customers, we had our lowest turnover rate in employees, all there in that same eleven weeks,” says Iacobucci. And the deal itself? “Actually it wasn’t a very bad deal at all – it was $175m for [Microsoft] to relicense its own product.”

Citrix is the first small developer to cross swords with Microsoft and fare so well. But Iacobucci benefitted from having worked alongside some of its top people a decade before on OS/2. “I don’t claim to be the world’s foremost expert on Microsoft. But I do know where they learnt about things like FUD [the practice of spreading ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’], because I think in those days, we – IBM – taught them,” he said. “I think I understand from interactions and from watching them in the industry pretty well how they tend to react to problems.”

Some observers were saying that Microsoft still wanted to undermine multiuser Windows, citing as evidence its insistence on charging per-seat licence fees. Typically, Iacobucci gave it the benefit of the doubt. “I do not think that it’s an intentional act on its part. I think it’s the ramifications of changing things like basic core licensing policies on the much bigger [traditional applications] business.”

While Microsoft’s licensing policy was a thorny issue among Thinergy delegates, the Citrix top brass were more concerned with setting its newly-formed industry on the right path. While the architecture may be nothing new, Iacobucci believes Citrix breaks new ground by making it possible to deploy applications beyond their native platform: “A freedom of choice architecture. And the notion that you really can do server-based computing for graphical applications.”

What is really winning the confidence of enterprise users, he added, is the way the Citrix architecture eases the deployment and management of applications. “It broadens the appeal of the applications, it creates the opportunity for new markets.” The largest opportunity, he believes, is in the information appliance market. “We think that with the new thinking that this fosters – it’s going to create a lot of natural opportunities – we don’t even know what they all are yet.”

As those opportunities take shape, the company will have the role of setting and enhancing standards. But Iacobucci disliked the suggestion Citrix could become the Microsoft of thin client computing. “Bad analogy,” he said. “We believe that we’re part of the industry, but not the industry itself.”

Citrix takes a consciously inclusive approach. “I think that people don’t like to be dictated to. They like a healthy level of participation,” he said. “But I think that there is an absolute need for leadership,” he went on. And the quiet assurance that he and Citrix are ready to fulfil that role is unmistakeable.

© Copyright Phil Wainewright, 1998

Phil Wainewright founded in 1998 and is the publisher of Loosely Coupled. He can be contacted at

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