Application Virtualization Takes Hold

Some users are cutting costs by extending the 'v' word to top-layer apps

July 3, 2007

4 Min Read
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Lots of organizations see virtualization as a way to free an operating system from the constraints of underlying hardware. But for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), it's also about freeing applications from the operating system.

The agency is one of a growing number of shops that have turned to application virtualization to simplify app installation and maintenance -- and to streamline data backup and recovery.

"We needed a way to deploy our applications that was really, well, a non-deployment," said Harvey Gilbert, DOD system architect, in a prepared statement. He meant that since DOD apps are customized and end-user computers securely "locked down," users weren't able to download applications without disrupting security. The DOD IT staff was spending too much time testing and installing software -- even as up to 20 percent of installations failed owing to DLL conflicts.

Enter Thinstall, one of several products on the market that isolate a Windows application from the computer's operating system, enabling it to be run in its own encapsulated .exe file without any device drivers or contact with the user's file system.

Now, about 15,000 DOD employees can use a range of customized apps without additional configuration tweaking. The DOD claims it eliminated installation failures and cut regression testing by 70 percent. Security and data changes are maintained at the host as always, and apps run on a user's desktop or laptop without touching anything else, including real files, registries, and LAN-linked devices.Application virtualization solutions are on the upswing, though their relatively low cost makes the market small. (Thinstall's package, for instance, costs $5,000 per server, plus about $40 per user after that.) "We see the market moving from $7 million in 2006 to $250 million in 2011," says analyst Michael Rose of IDC.

Not a huge segment, but nonetheless a compelling one. Some vendors, for example, cite application virtualization as a key enabler to data migration. "We see a tremendous amount of interest in our products being driven by Vista and Office migration," says Tim Graf, senior product marketing manager at Citrix. "It's such a daunting task. Tools like application streaming make it a whole lot easier."

Instead of configuring multiple machines to run Vista apps, Graf says, a single configuration of an app at the server can be set up and used until all machines have been ported over.

Use of app virtualization and streaming can be a boon to storage as well, since only the data at a central location needs to be backed up, not entire configurations of remote desktops and laptops.

Besides Thinstall, other suppliers offering application "isolation" (from the OS) include Altiris, the Symantec subsidiary; Citrix, with the latest release of its Presentation Server, Platinum Edition; Endeavors Technologies; and Microsoft, via its SoftGrid product, acquired when Redmond purchased Softricity in May 2006. (See Microsoft Makes Virtualization Play.)Besides offering isolation of apps from the underlying OS, Thinstall, Altiris, Citrix, and Microsoft also pack application streaming, whereby part of an application runs on a desktop without the whole app being installed. Only what the user actually needs to use is ported to his or her machine.

Sometimes the streaming comes from another source. Appstream, for instance, specializes in data streaming and the tracking and controlled delivery of software license use. It partners with others to complete a solution that virtualizes an OS or an application, then applies streaming for further resource savings and license control. Appstream's latest alliance is with Altiris, and it has projects underway with Citrix and VMware. (See Symantec Adds Vista Virtualization.)

Some vendors think app streaming is best left separate from application virtualization. "However a customer wants to manage or move their applications, we work with those techniques," says David Roth, CEO of Trigence. In his view, it's more important to cast a wider net than lock a customer in.

The field remains a work in progress. While most suppliers work with VMware virtual machines, for instance, they are limited in terms of other "vehicles" the virtualization apps can use. Others don't have streaming. Most don't support license tracking. And none yet offers the ability to stream data as well as applications, in order to achieve even more efficiencies.

Despite the unevenness of products right now, it's clear that app virtualization has a lot to offer, and it will be exciting to see what materializes as demand builds.Mary Jander, Site Editor, Byte and Switch

  • Altiris Inc. (Nasdaq: ATRS)

  • Citrix Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CTXS)

  • IDC

  • Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)

  • Trigence Corp.

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