IT administrators can catch a break from the seemingly endless task of patching if they're willing to use virtualization software at the application level.
Several IT directors who recently deployed such software have found that their patching duties could be done faster and were easier to carry out.
Virtualization software runs like an application on a computer, separate from the operating system, and, by doing so, it avoids hardware and software incompatibility problems. Because the software runs separately from the OS, different versions of operating systems or other apps can run at the same time.
Vendors with virtualization products that work at the application layer include Altiris Inc., Citrix Systems Inc. and Softricity Inc., which was recently acquired by Microsoft.
At Alamance Regional Medical Center in Burlington, N.C., where Softricity's SoftGrid platform is used in virtualizing applications, the patching process has really improved, according to Andy Gerringer, the center's senior network administrator. The center has 2,200 users, including doctors, nurses and administrators as well as 75 different software applications.
Once the applications are virtualized, then one "install" that upgrades or patches does the same for all users of the application, saving an enormous amount of time and energy, he said.
"The immediate and obvious benefit for an IT department is time savings," Gerringer said. "Another benefit of time savings is regression testing. Testing applications for compatibility with other applications can be very time consuming."
By using SoftGrid, this regression testing is eliminated because the applications are not physically installed together, Gerringer said. "They live as completely separate entities and cannot interfere with one another. Patching or upgrading can be lumped into this category too." Only a single instance of the "installed" application is used, so only one instance needs be tested, he said.
Rick Mickool, executive director of information services for Northeastern University in Boston, said that he has also found that his department spends a lot less time on regression testing.
"It also means patching is centralized and becomes easier and faster," said Mickool, adding that this is a big help because his department rides herd on more than 5,000 desktops and servers -- with about 2,000 of them dispersed in various labs among four campuses in Massachusetts.
In an academic setting, professors use different versions of applications, and virtualization software makes it possible to accommodate all of them quickly, he said.
For Joseph Gimigliano, associate director of architecture and security at pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma LP in Stamford, Conn., virtualization software has meant his department can reduce the number of Citrix servers it has, which were dedicated to various applications. Fewer servers mean that less money is spent on maintenance, he said.
And with Microsoft's recent acquisition of Softricity, Gimigliano said he is anticipating price reductions because Microsoft is likely to integrate the technology and produce the software more efficiently.
Many companies are seeing the benefits of virtualization software because they can reduce their capital expenditures, said Stephen Elliot, an analyst with IDC in Framingham, Mass. Other benefits include the flexibility it provides to IT departments and the ability to see which applications are running on each machine, he said.
"Virtualization is the way to go," said Mickool about recommendations he makes to his peers at other institutions. "I highly recommend it, and I really think that in the next few years you'll see it more and more."