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Poised for takeoff

Poised for takeoff

Virtualisation technology is moving from servers to applications. Darren Greenwood reports on the experiences of the early adopters, and what analysts think of the new virtual regime.

Different faces of consolidation

Gartner defines virtualisation as “the pooling of resources in a way that masks the physical nature and boundaries of those resources from the resource users”.

Gartner analyst Brian Gammage says while many PC offerings claim to be “virtualised” in some way, only two types of virtualisation are real.

First there is application virtualisation, which is viable now and should continue to be until at least 2010; and machine (operating system) OS virtualisation, which will become increasingly viable for deployments through 2009.

A standard PC installation consists of a stack of multiple layers, the most important three being hardware, the OS and applications. Because of the way these layers interact, the configuration of each is tightly coupled to the configuration of the layer below.

This is the root cause, Gammage says, of the management complexity of PCs since hardware changes regularly; and this has a geometric impact on everything above.

Virtualisation breaks these dependencies, so the installation of each layer is independent of the configuration of the layer below.

For the PC, virtualisation is a decoupling technology, and its impact is to make the configuration of either an OS or an application independent of changes in the layers below.

Virtualisation on the PC can occur at two levels: Between hardware and OS as machine virtualisation; and between OS and applications as application virtualisation.

Hosted PC virtualisation is the most common type of PC virtualisation. Products such as VMWare’s GSX Server and workstation products and Microsoft’s Virtual Server and PC Express enable legacy application support or hide IT management applications from the end user.

A host operating system is installed on the hardware as normal, and above this is a virtual machine manager that can run one or more guest OSs. These guests can be isolated from changes to the underlying hardware, reducing incompatibility issues. However, warns Gartner, most applications will suffer a performance penalty of 25 per cent as a result of running on a virtual machine.

Application virtualisation creates a container or “wrapper” around installed applications, so that application resources are not closely linked with those of the OS. Application objects, files and registry settings are handled within this container, which then provides the necessary link to the underlying resources of the OS. This allows the configuration of the application to be standardised (to the container) and only the virtualisation container needs to deal with the specific nature of calls on OS resources.

Application virtualisation can simplify the deployment and management of applications by effectively removing a dimension of complexity from the overall configuration equation.

Application virtualisation also combines well with streaming technology and is regarded by some users as synonymous with this. While the two technologies will eventually become inseparable, not all application virtualisation software provides both functions. Softricity’s SoftGrid does both, but Altiris’ Software Virtualisation Solution, released in the second quarter of 2006, provides only application virtualisation.

Gartner further points out, server-based computing (SBC) is not virtualisation because the application is never installed on the PC, so there is no “configuration layer” to be decoupled. Blade PCs don’t count either as blade PCs still depend on the configuration of the hardware and OS layers respectively.

Gammage says virtualisation will become mainstream for all PC users, with machine (PC) virtualisation viable from 2009. Its impact will be slowed as it needs new PCs and new software, but three-quarters of PCs should be using this technology by 2010.

Application virtualisation, however, is a viable technology now, says Gartner, with no immediate barriers on software licensing. More players are expected to enter the market and the function capabilities of application virtualisation software should increase.

Potential users, advises Gartner, should ask for product roadmaps as technology is changing. Other issues include the cost of the software, that other PC management tools might work better, and that eventually machine (PC) virtualisation might erode the benefits of application virtualisation.

“Investments in application virtualisation should thus be regarded medium-term, an ROI should be expected by 2010 at the latest,” concludes Gammage.

Key players

The main vendors are presently Softricity and Altiris, but other players include IBM through its purchase of Meiosys; Trigence and Synapse.

Microsoft is now a strong player in the virtualisation market following its May announcement to buy Softricity. “This deal serves as validation for the application virtualisation and streaming technology market. But it may pose positioning challenges for Microsoft, because customers may be unsure about how the acquired technology fits in with other Microsoft products,” says Gartner.

While New Zealand and Australia users have yet to sufficiently progress to share their stories, other enterprises overseas, particularly in North America, have reported gains following their implementation of application virtualisation.

Softricity claims success with the Alamance Regonal Medical Centre in North Carolina with a pay-off in under six months. The University of Illinois Medical Centre, University of Utah Health Care, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield also expect major savings.

“SoftGrid transforms Windows applications from products that must be installed and managed locally into virtual services that are centrally managed and deployed on-demand?–?without any re-coding?–?to any desktop, server, or laptop. SoftGrid’s patented application virtualisation technology enables applications to run in a protected ‘sandbox’ environment without installation or alteration to the host operating system. This eliminates application conflicts and the need for time consuming regression testing, and enables just-in-time application updates,” says a media release from Softricity.

Sydney-based Softricity GM-Asia Pacific Craig Stockdale brands the Microsoft purchase as “the best testimonial” for application virtualisation technology.

“The market has been growing. A lot of that goes to VMware but this takeover has got to get people to sit up and take notice. The final frontier to virtualisation is the application. Making software available on demand,” says Stockdale.

Softricity opened its Melbourne office in January and has been establishing channel partners in the region, with Maclean Computing representing it in New Zealand.

“We have no customers yet,” he states, “but we have quite a number who have budgeted and specified the technology but are yet to deploy. It’s not a shrink wrapped product. It needs architecture but they will roll it out.”

Stockdale says the main benefits of using Softricity is by separating the operating system from the application and putting it into a canister or bubble, its own virtual environment. You get to the root of the problem of eliminating application conflict at the desktop. Thus, software can be installed or upgraded almost instantly.

IT departments are carrying out server virtualisation projects and now need to look at the application. But they are too busy now, when this product will actually save them time, he says.

Stockdale says IT managers need to identify software virtualisation as a project, maybe set up a proof of concept for evaluation and access the Forrester-endorsed return on virtualisation model on the Softricity website. This will help assess the tangible and intangible costs based on application and user numbers and how Softricity will work across company intranets.

Altiris, another US company, has reported installations at US-based Mercy Health Services and the California State University San Marcos. It says Air New Zealand is testing the system and Parliamentary Services is looking at implementing the technology, along with a North Island-based local body.

Altiris has a New Zealand account manager, Andy de Raat, based in Auckland. De Raat says while the market is aware of virtualisation’s benefits at the server level, they are not aware of things at the desktop or application level. “Server virtualisation is about maximising infrastructure expenditure, maximising infrastructure investment by consolidating multiple server machines on a single hardware platform. Application virtualisation is focused on the costs associated with managing your application environment in the desktops, the laptops, the clients. The benefits are speedily deployed applications in your environment and minimising the risk of application conflict, and reduce the costs associated with deploying applications and supporting them,” he explains.

While Credit Suisse Equity Research reported Altiris might be harmed by Softricity’s purchase by Microsoft, de Raat says there are many significant customers investigating the product, which he expects will be successful.

“This is the next step from server virtualisation. The next things on our product roadmap are application virtualisation at the service?–?providing desk support. Another thing would be virtualisation of patches. We hope to bring support for the Celeron desktop patching with the next release.”

De Raat says IT leaders need to consider the cost in supporting applications. The American Helpdesk Association reports 35 per cent of their calls are application-related, he says, and application virtualisation will reduce that significantly. “The call to arms is, ‘Do you have application conflicts in your organisation, do you limit yourself in decisions not to upgrade because of this? Then give us a call.’”

Darryl Grauman, who is also Axon’s technology strategist, agrees IT bosses need to determine the value of application virtualisation in their organisation, through the ability to deploy software much faster and reset applications on demand and instantly.

Grauman notes a number of local enterprises are interested in the technology. Axon is bringing over an Altiris software developer to New Zealand to discuss with ASB and other clients how it works at a developer level.

And he is confident the technology will take off in New Zealand, thanks to its ability to reduce application conflict. “That alone is going to save us hundreds of help desk calls and hundreds of hours.”

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