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Unclear definition undermines app virtualization

IT managers are interested in exploring application virtualization but aren't sure if it can conquer DLL errors and ease Vista migration and incompatibility issues.

Experts can't seem to agree on what application virtualization is, but they do agree on what it should do -- isolate applications to minimize incompatibility.

The phrase application virtualization came out of Microsoft's acquisition of Softricity, now called SoftGrid. But currently it is associated with everything from server-based computing and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to application streaming and even application performance and monitoring technology.

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The idea is that applications have a lot of moving parts and dependencies, said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H.-based consulting firm.

"While there are a lot of different technologies that can accomplish this, what application virtualization does is put a wrapper around an application so it can be delivered, transported and backed up in such a way that the application doesn't have to rely on other parts of the system to work," Haff said.

Yale University is considering one approach using SoftGrid application streaming technology to speed up new application deployment times, cut down on DLL errors and create a more secure and reliable least-user-privilege working environment, according to Vincent Balbarin, system programmer at the university's academic media and technology information services department.

At the university, it normally takes two weeks to turn around an application, which many professors think is too long a time frame. Balbarin said he believes SoftGrid would cut this lead time down considerably while still giving his team the ability to do compatibility testing.

By being able to deploy applications or application bits on demand, the university can also get around deploying monolithic disk images as it does now using Symantec's hard disk cloning software Ghost.

"We don't have [Microsoft's Systems Management Server] and can't easily provision software in that way. But we can get around that if we can make disk images very minimal, with anything else that students and professors ask for being sequenced and deployed on demand," Balbarin said. "That will really help with control and metering access through group membering and access control lists."

Balbarin said SoftGrid may also help ease migration to Vista when the New Haven, Conn.-based university is ready to upgrade.

Vista migration without virtualization

Many users, however, are opting to stick to traditional migration techniques through server downloads rather than through virtualization. One such user is Los Angeles-based Virgin Entertainment Group Inc., which is migrating to Vista and Office 2007.

"I know what virtualization means from a hardware and server point of view, but I'm not sure what it means from an application standpoint," said Robert Fort, director of information technology at Virgin Entertainment. "Is [application virtualization] on my plate right now? Not at all."

Fort said the potential of the technology to address application incompatibility is not a big selling point for him either because Virgin Entertainment's technology does not change very quickly, nor does it have a lot of custom or Web-based applications that could be incompatible with its set of standard set of desktop images.

Although SoftGrid may appeal to Windows shops, companies such as Citrix Systems Inc. tout its application virtualization technology for all platforms. Citrix has long offered server-based computing and more recently VDI technology.

Later this year, Citrix's Desktop Server -- code-named project Trinity -- will increase Citrix's presence in application virtualization, said Brian Madden, an independent analyst in Washington, D.C.

Citrix said the technology promises to deliver Windows desktops from the data center as an on-demand service and support operating system installations via virtual machines, blade PCs and Windows Terminal Services. Citrix may very well be the market leader in application virtualization -- or rather, application deployment, as Madden calls it.

"This is Citrix's game to lose," Madden said. "They have server-based computing, the streaming and VDI components, Desktop Server -- when it comes out -- and one unified management framework," he said. Its vision is right on, but Madden questions whether it will it be able to actually execute and deliver on its vision.

What will hold back application virtualization

The integration of different technologies like application streaming and VDI , as well as the inability to manage virtualization from a central point, will hold IT shops back from adopting corporate-wide application virtualization strategies, Madden said. But confusion and these still-emerging technologies are two of the biggest factors today that cause IT shops to proceed with caution.

Not everyone believes that Citrix will lead the pack. SoftGrid will become the primary way Windows shops run applications, said Peter Pawlak, analyst at Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft.

For one thing, new versions of SoftGrid will alleviate sequencing problems by pre-sequencing applications to work on SoftGrid -- something that the IT shop has to do itself at this point, Pawlak said. Also, the technology will integrate with future versions of SMS, he said.

"Application conflicts are a big piece of what IT shops have to deal with," Pawlak said. "If there is no interaction between applications, such technology would eliminate the need for IT to have to resolve that, and that's what SoftGrid will do," he said.

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