Rollout: Thinstall Virtualization Suite (TVS) 3.0

Thinstall lets you take off-the-shelf products and internally developed applications and turn them into virtual apps with very little effort.

February 15, 2007

5 Min Read
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VMware and Virtual PC let administrators virtualize at the OS level. But a new trend is emerging for app deployment: virtualization at the application level. Thinstall Virtualization Suite (TVS) 3.0 takes your applications virtual, without client-side software or little if any additional server infrastructure.

TVS lets you virtualize the entire application. A program's files, registry settings and virtualization layer are built into a single .EXE file. If the program has more than one .EXE to be started by the end user, a small, shortcut executable file can be created.

By virtualizing software packages, the apps become easier to deploy and manage. A wrapper around the application, files and registry settings isolates it from the OS and other apps. Any changes to the file or registry can be stored temporarily in a sandbox (a user-writeable directory where file and registry changes can be stored) instead of being written back to the actual OS. Because each virtualized app is isolated from the others, it can't cause conflicts. The benefit is reduced integration testing time needed by IT before deploying an app.

Unlike its competitors, such as Microsoft SoftGrid, TVS needs no client on the workstation running the virtualized app. Nor does TVS require the creation of additional infrastructure components. SoftGrid needs a server running Active Directory, IIS Web Server and a Microsoft SQL database to function. A client-based solution provides better control over such issues as license compliance, but can be harder to administer when home users and outside contractors need to use just an app or two. In such cases, Thinstall's approach has the advantage.The Missing Pieces

This is the first time Thinstall has gone after the IT market. Earlier versions of Thinstall were designed with developers in mind. Since this is a new area for Thinstall, however, a few ease-of-use components are missing. There is no GUI for editing the settings for an application package, for example, or for making changes to the virtual registry. Instead, a text file must be edited to make those changes in either area. Thinstall says these GUI tools are in the works, and should be released in the first half of this year.

Virtualization FeaturesClick to enlarge in another window

TVS lacks a few other things that IT shops could use. Because SoftGrid needs a client to run the virtualized applications, SoftGrid can control software licensing before letting an app to launch. With Thinstall, the IT shop must find a separate way to track or limit application use. However, TVS does let you add Visual Basic scripting to a virtualized application. These scripts can be set to run before an app launches, so you can add your own licensing functionality to packaged applications.

Benefits Of Virtual ApplicationsLike SoftGrid, Thinstall's sandboxing helps eliminate problems that arise concerning version control, app conflicts, user privileges and other common glitches. When a TVS application is launched, it runs completely in user mode on the machine and has no interaction with other installed software. Even on a locked down workstation, if the application wants to write to files and registry settings that are read-only to the user, TVS's virtualization layer lets the application think it is writing to a protected area, when it's actually writing to the sandbox. When the application closes, the workstation OS remains untouched.

It's also easy to run multiple versions of a virtualized app--far easier in many cases than running several versions of the same app on one workstation. With a TVS virtualized app, for instance, a Web developer can test how well Web pages render on multiple versions of different Web browsers.

Other times, applications require a specific version of Java, .Net or ODBC connections to a database. With TVS, an application and those connections can be bundled into a single .EXE file. We virtualized our in-house budget application, which uses an Oracle ODBC connection, into a single .EXE that contained the application, Oracle drivers and ODBC settings. That new binary can run on any workstation, and as long as the users are on the local network or connected over the VPN, the app functions as if all the components were installed on the machine.

TVS is priced at $5,000 for the virtual application builder and $39 per user running the virtualized applications. Maintenance fees are 18 percent annually for the application builder. Microsoft offers SoftGrid as part of its Desktop Optimization Pack, which is $11 per node annually. However, the workstations must be covered under Software Assurance (maintenance), which adds $50 per year. Microsoft also requires server infrastructure--Active Directory, an IIS Web server and MS SQL--to function, whereas TVS has no such requirement.

James E. Drews is a network administrator for the CAE center of the University of Wisconsin-madison. Write to him at [email protected].0

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