Virtualization's Next Step

Microsoft Application Virtualization 4.5 targets the enterprise and broadens SoftGrid's availability.

Application virtualization is a wonderful technology, perhaps as significant a development in the history of computing as the GUI. Its benefits may be less visible than the GUI, but it has the potential to make life markedly better for IT admins, application developers and end users.

Because we can virtualize an entire operating system, we can also virtualize individual apps. There are a couple of different ways of doing it. One is to encase the software into a cocoon, and let that cocoon communicate with outside hardware. Another is to virtualize the interfaces and let the application work as closely with the hardware as possible through those interfaces.

Unique Opportunity
Microsoft recently re-branded the application virtualization solution it acquired from SoftGrid. Now called Application Virtualization, it recently went into community beta for anyone to download and try. This is a unique opportunity for a broad audience to experiment with the technology.

At this point, it's not that easy to give it a spin. This is definitely not yet a shipping product. It's also a complex solution, relative to some of the virtualization products already out there. It's clearly intended for enterprise rather than personal use. You'll need to have the Microsoft Management Console 3.0 and System Center installed in order to get started.

Application Virtualization has several enhancements over previous versions of SoftGrid. It lets users work in localized environments with localized apps. Also, a feature called Dynamic Suite Composition lets you target specific users with admin-controlled virtual application combinations. This release also supports Windows Server 2008 32-bit Terminal Services (Microsoft Application Virtualization for Terminal Services only).

Applications on Demand
Once you have everything set up, Application Virtualization works reasonably well. On the server, you create an envelope and install an application into that envelope. It's then available through System Center, so you can provide that application to a user when required.

Application Virtualization creates a virtual Registry for each application. It also handles the input and output requests applications make to files in specific directories by redirecting the requests. Apps redirect those communication requests to other components and apps through services like COM/ DCOM or IPC methods like named pipes, just as they would if they were physically installed on the machine.

I've used similar technologies from Altiris and Thinstall/LANDesk, and the Microsoft approach has a very different usage case in mind. Altiris distributes a free personal version and targets personal use as a way to get into the enterprise. Microsoft, on the other hand, is strictly going after the enterprise IT operation and aims to ease application management.

From an admin's perspective, the concept may prove hard to resist. You provide each desktop and notebook PC with a lowest common denominator image. You don't install any user-specific applications. Instead, users will request specific apps. You'll then check on licenses and authorization before granting such requests.

Microsoft has also set up a way to stream apps "on demand," so your users can select a link on the desktop and have the app download and run. This only takes a few seconds longer than it would if it were installed locally. When the user is done with it, it goes away without a potentially messy un-install process.

To get the apps from the server to a desktop, laptop or terminal server, Microsoft uses a streaming protocol for just-in-time delivery. Depending on the application, it requires perhaps 5 percent to 40 percent of the download time in order to launch the application. It will then deliver additional components when the application requests them.

Microsoft Application Virtualization requires Windows XP or Windows Vista operating systems in at least their minimum configuration settings.

Microsoft has a winning technology here, despite the fact that it abstracts the application away from the underlying Windows OS. The ability to shield the OS from changes brought on by individual applications will go a long way toward getting rid of application errors and incompatibilities.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is a principal at Technology Strategy Research LLC, an industry analysis and consulting firm.


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