Spoon Stirs up Application Virtualization
Package makes it easy to run Windows applications from anywhere.
In addition to the usual categories of virtualization, such as hypervisors and storage virtualization, a new category promises to bypass the OS and virtualize applications by running Windows applications without the need to install them.
Spoon Server and Spoon Studio are a package designed to make it simple and straightforward to run a Windows application from anywhere, without downloading software or installing the application on the local system. This enables legacy applications that might require older versions of Windows to run on Windows 7, including older versions of Internet Explorer, games and custom applications.
Applications are selected through an application portal. Once the small Spoon plug-in is installed and the application is started, it seems to run on the local system, providing the same user experience as the application would if installed in the normal manner but without a lengthy download or installation process.
Spoon Server corresponds to an application server such as Tomcat, running a Java application that emulates the actual application and the essential features of the OS necessary to run it. There's no need for the application to access the local host OS to create registry entries or install device drivers, and it doesn't require administrative privileges to load or run applications. Spoon Server runs on Windows 2003, Windows 2008, Windows 2008 R2, Windows Vista and Windows 7, and supports either x86 or x64 versions.
Spoon Studio is the engine that processes Windows applications, preparing them for access via the Spoon Server. The studio uses templates that can be downloaded from the Spoon Web site to create virtual versions of standard applications; custom applications can also be packaged manually.
The process of virtualizing an application manually can be complex. Fortunately, many application templates that automate the process are available from Spoon. If there's no template available, the process involves capturing the OS state before and after an application is installed. The Spoon Studio tracks what DLLs are installed, where application files are stored, what runtime environments (such as the Microsoft .NET Framework or Java) are installed, what changes are made to the registry and more. All of these changes are stored in a sandbox, which simulates those on the client system without actually requiring that changes be made to the local filesystem or registry.
Easy App Access
Applications can be easily accessed through a Web portal without the need for local installs, or they can be installed locally to make them available offline. Because each application runs in a sandbox that provides the necessary OS components and device drivers, it's entirely possible to run applications from older versions of Windows (Windows XP or Windows 2000, but not Windows 95 or Windows 98) on Windows Vista or Windows 7, ensuring a smooth migration path without having to buy new versions of applications and convert files. Spoon Studio can virtualize applications created to run on Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista, Windows 2008 or Windows 7.
Applications can also be installed on a USB or flash drive, and run on any Windows system, enabling road warriors to access standard corporate applications. Applications can be set to expire, enabling the administrator to give a contractor access to a necessary application and then terminate it once a job is completed.
Virtual applications can be run from standard browsers, including IE, Firefox, Chrome and Safari. There's a Spoon plug-in that's required to access the virtualized applications, but it's small and loads quickly (there was no measurable impact on system performance in my tests). Virtualized applications run as fast -- and in some cases, faster -- than standard applications installed locally.
When an application is virtualized, the normal installation process runs, including registration and entering the software key (if applicable). Applications that look for multiple users sharing a single key may not work correctly; this includes many Microsoft apps. You may need to switch to a site license in these cases.
During the installation of Spoon Server, two HTTP ports are specified: one for the application portal and one for the administration portal. By default, port 80 is specified for the app portal and port 81 is specified for the admin portal. The admin portal doesn't use HTTPS by default and doesn't require a log-in. This is because the recommended procedure in the Spoon manuals to secure the portals is to enable a Windows firewall on the system hosting the server and then grant exceptions to users for one of the portals. It would be nice to see integration with Active Directory and standard Windows security.
The admin portal provides the features you'd expect, allowing for the creation of applications, the installation of additional portal servers, reporting tools and user administration. Reports depict application usage by application or user, and allow access to logs and alerts for basic troubleshooting.
Spoon recommends creating a virtualized application on a freshly installed copy of Windows in order to ensure that unnecessary DLLs or software modules aren't inadvertently picked up along with the necessary ones. This can be done in a virtual machine environment so that reverting to a clean image is simplified. It also recommends optimizing the application by removing unnecessary features before taking the second snapshot. This will speed up loading and execution of the application, though it may also make some features unavailable. Spoon recommends installing on the earliest version of Windows you expect to use in order to support the application; some apps may require multiple snapshots for different OSes.
Spoon introduces a process it calls pipelining, which uses three separate OS installs -- one each on Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 -- with the application installed on each OS, to capture a single snapshot that will have maximum compatibility. This is most useful when the applications use OS features that aren't available in all OS versions, as the final merged, virtualized app will combine the features available from all three OS versions in one application.
Apps requiring frequent software updates from the manufacturer will be more difficult to virtualize because each update requires a new snapshot that captures the difference between the basic application and the application after the update. Because this must be done manually after each update, applications that update frequently will introduce a lot more work for the administrator. If OS updates affect application functionality (such as a major change to the .NET runtime framework), the administrator will need to create a fresh snapshot, as well.
Spoon Server and Spoon Studio are priced separately. Spoon Studio costs $2,395 and $495 per year for maintenance. Spoon Server 2010 Standard Edition with 10 end-user licenses is $1,595. The Spoon Server 2010 Standard Edition End User License 5-Pack is $395. The Spoon Server 2010 Standard Edition End User License 20-Pack is $1,425.
Spoon Server and Spoon Studio combine to present applications to end-users in a simple, easy-to-use way that bypasses the usual installation considerations. Many organizations will find the price of $2,395 plus $495-per-year maintenance to be much less than the savings they will realize. However, a lack of integration with standard Windows security and a cumbersome process for updating applications once virtualized may put some admins off. Those willing to make the investment in working through these issues will find a system that can enable a seamless transition from Windows XP or Windows Vista to Windows 7, as well as other unique advantages for admins supporting traveling workers or contractors.
Logan Harbaugh is a freelance reviewer and IT consultant located in Redding, Calif. He has been working in IT for almost 20 years and has written two books on networking, as well as articles for many computer publications.