Bake-off: Application Virtualization

VARs see high profits in SaaS with application virtualization

One of the hottest technologies on the market today is application virtualization, but the potential for profit is hard to calculate because the model hasn't quite caught on. Figuring that around 95 percent of all ISVs only sell applications that work through normal local operating system installations, solution providers can do the math. For instance, take the combined revenue generated from software licenses, which is in the billions, change the installation and price model, then add a service fee to stream and manage these software products, and the result is dreamy.

Application virtualization delivered in a SaaS model is perhaps the most lucrative business solution providers should expect to see for a long time to come. Channel partners servicing virtually every market sector can take advantage of this software delivery system.

While desktop virtualization can compete on some level with application virtualization, the technology is more corporate-centric. Desktop virtualization displays information in presentation mode. The caveat with displaying high-end productivity and professional software is obvious: Try providing 3-D animation or CAD programs in presentation mode, and users will immediately notice the limitations. Presentation mode is more useful when entering data into plain-vanilla corporate applications and simple productivity software.

That's not to say that desktop virtualization isn't useful. Desktop virtualization can solve some software compatibility issues in corporate environments by allowing different users to run multiple versions of the same application. However, virtualization is more of an added bonus and not a replacement for a SaaS-based, application-delivery model.

In order for an application to work in a SaaS deployment, it has to be Web-native. The pure application virtualization model (also referred to as application streaming) is by far the smartest choice for most solution providers servicing the SMB market. Streaming or passing applications through links avoids the headache of configuring applications locally and provides a full interactive and productive experience. What's more, it beats desktop virtualization hands-down because applications end up running locally.

Solution providers should look at SaaS-based application streaming as a business model rather than a software specification because the technology is valuable to businesses that might be interested in changing the old way of purchasing and maintaining applications. Solution providers can present a good business case by making applications available through the Web. They can certainly market this SaaS model by showing the strengths of virtualization or streaming applications without having to go through the Web.

Other approaches, such as sandboxing applications, are designed to work better in large corporate environments. For instance, Microsoft SoftGrid uses a sandbox architecture primarily to reduce and eliminate silos in a Citrix environment. SoftGrid allowed more applications to coexist without creating too much contention. Microsoft is pairing SoftGrid with Systems Management Server, so software can be delivered with it.

The sandboxing approach requires an agent to broker all communication between applications and external environments. This approach makes packaging, preparation and the interaction with applications more complicated to manage. Moreover, applications running in a sandbox can lose features and performance that users might expect if that application was normally installed.

Though rudimentary, downloading applications in a SaaS model also can compete at some capacity with a streaming model. By using some form of nonintrusive mode—in kernel or agentless mode—solution providers can deliver applications through secured Web sites. As long as the installation and configuration process is automated, users are only disturbed the first time they download the applications.

Next: Methodology

Application virtualization solutions on the market share technology with each other. What's more, to provide comprehensive end-to-end solutions that can manage virtual applications, software management vendors must be considered in order to evaluate technologies for the channel. Therefore, CRN Test Center engineers evaluated products from five vendors in three groups. AppStream's application streaming technology is available as a stand-alone product, but it's also included with Symantec's Altiris Software Virtualization Solution, which adds management features. Thinstall's Application Virtualization product also stands on its own, but is OEMed by Avocent's LANDesk unit and incorporated into its LANDesk Application Virtualization line. Engineers also tested Citrix Systems' Presentation Server, a complete application virtualization suite.

Engineers considered the way these technologies can be deployed in small data centers, looking at ease of installation from an end user's perspective, features, levels of configuration, ease of use and management needed to deploy these solutions for solution providers servicing the SMB market.

Thinstall Application Virtualization/LANDesk Application Virtualization
Whether solution providers choose the Thinstall Application Virtualization Suite or the LANDesk Application Virtualization product, they are getting the best application deployment solution for the SMB market. Since LANDesk embeds the Thinstall technology, at the core both products are identical.

Thinstall is the only agentless application virtualization solution on the market. Thinstall does not use kernels or agents to manage applications on remote desktops. Instead, it embeds a 400K file into an application and packages it for delivery. No additional agent or client management software is installed.

With the 400K file, Thinstall creates executables with all of the internal files, some parts of the operating system and the registries that applications need. When users run a Thinstall-prepared application, Windows loads the 400K runtime into memory initially. Because of its small size, Thinstall applications can be placed on any small file share and USB key and start up instantly. Solution providers servicing small verticals such as doctors' offices will find Thinstall ideal.

Thinstall requires Microsoft Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP or Vista to run on top of its virtual applications. The technology is not like VMware, which can replace an operating system completely. Thinstall supports 32-bit and 64-bit platforms. The 400K runtime replaces various parts of Windows that have been passed from NT all the way to Vista. Because of this level of transparency, one package can run on multiple operating systems as long as the virtualized application supports those platforms. The packages are portable.

Because Thinstall is completely agentless, application communication works seamlessly. There are no preinstall requirements. In addition, solution providers do not need to perform additional user acceptance and interoperability testing of virtual application packages.

Capturing applications with the technology is extremely easy. Solution providers can start with a clean Windows XP installation and run the Thinstall software. On a second run, the target application is installed on XP and the Thinstall software captures the difference. Even if a key product is missing, such as .Net's framework, the Thinstall packaged application can work if the target operating system is running the version of .Net required to execute the package. In other words, Thinstall packaged applications have complete visibility into local operating systems.

The software works entirely in user mode, so it can run multiple versions of applications. For instance, Internet Explorer version 6 and version 7 can run on the same PC side by side. The high level of interoperability allows IT management to deploy browser-based applications without having to worry about breaking functionality.

Thinstall does not alter network behavior, so packaged applications can communicate with databases or any other application. Applications also have full access to local resources, so users won't be able to tell the difference between what's virtualized and what's installed locally.

The Thinstall Enterprise edition, which the company is releasing soon, comes with a Thinstall License Manager product that will complement management products from vendors such as BMC, LANDesk and Macrovision. With these management offerings, solution providers are able to manage all of the applications through a single interface.

The Enterprise edition will provide software packaging technology that will manage licenses and synchronization technology to automate software updates over the Web. Thinstall also can complement the AppStream delivery system. Both products can provide a powerful streaming solution.

LANDesk's manager for its Application Virtualization product adds software metering and usage, as well as tracking for the life cycle of these assets. Because LANDesk's solution requires agents at each end point, solution providers servicing the SMB market do not need a large infrastructure.

Next: AppStream/Symantec Altiris Software Virtualization Solution Professional

AppStream/Symantec Altiris Software Virtualization Solution Professional
Symantec's Altiris Software Virtualization Solution (SVS) Professional combines AppStream's software to add streaming capabilities to SVS. Together, the two technologies provide a powerful SaaS delivery system that offers granular control over applications. Both technologies complement each other but can also work separately. Under the hood, both technologies use the same framework so they are similar. Symantec, however, uses extra layers in its software to manage applications better.

As far as application behavior, performance, functionality and visibility from a user's point of view, there's no difference between conventionally installed applications from CDs and applications streamed by AppStream. It emphasizes what the end user is experiencing. According to AppStream, users shouldn't have to worry about opening files differently or having to slow down due to performance degradation.

Like Symantec, AppStream built a filter driver to work with Microsoft's filter driver framework. The AppStream driver intercepts calls into the operating system to interact with file system calls, just like real-time compression software does when it compresses files into drives. This is the same framework used by antivirus software vendors such as Symantec and McAfee.

By intercepting calls from applications, the AppStream filter driver monitors file blocks used during execution. As soon as an application gets to a state where it stops and waits for user inputs, the AppStream server saves that file block. Essentially, the server learns how much to deliver next time users execute the application. The server delivers the whole file chunk and starts the application.

The AppStream server delivers a 4K file block directly into memory when executing applications and subsequently saves it in the application file for future use. Therefore, every block only needs to be streamed once, and then it is cached in a system. The second time, users can start a program without streaming. Programs simply run. In fact, control is more granular. Application executions can be controlled in offline or online modes. In online mode, applications do not execute unless they are connected to a server. Streaming applications are more controlled in online mode.

Conversely, applications in offline mode do not need server-side access. When running applications in offline mode, the filter driver downloads all of the application files and allows the executable to function while disconnected from the server.

Because applications are fully controlled by the filter drivers, they can be uninstalled even if they're running in offline mode. Solution providers offering SaaS application streaming as a subscription or in a pay-per-use model can maintain full control over applications at all times.

AppStream does not limit users in what they can store on local machines. Users can also access data from any network share and port. AppStream doesn't affect Windows security directly either.

Streaming applications eliminates the need to convert existing desktop applications. For instance, Brodenbund, an AppStream customer, recently transferred some of its software into AppStream streaming server without changing any code. Brodenbund simply integrated its e-commerce site with the streaming server so it can deliver applications.

AppStream sells directly to SMB customers with small IT staff to better manage applications. The company also sells the streaming server as a SaaS delivery product to ISVs, MSPs and solution providers with expertise in distributing software. AppStream also provides a hosted solution for small companies and solution providers servicing the SMB market.

The AppStream server can even control application versions seamlessly. Different versions of the same application can be swapped automatically from the same link. The transfer is so smooth that it is completely undetected. This capability is invaluable to companies struggling to maintain a cohesive change management process.

AppStream's Application Manager shows how much of application files are delivered at any time. The manager displays by percentage how much of an application has passed to an end user. The streaming is extremely efficient at passing only what applications request.

Symantec's SVS takes AppStream up a notch by providing a zero footprint in the operating system when running applications. The SVS layers encapsulate applications in a Virtual Software Package that can be distributed through any method. With the release of SVS 2.1, however, Symantec offers the AppStream technology for its delivery mechanism.

Since Altiris' core expertise is in desktop configuration management, SVS provides a high degree of stability in its application delivery solution. SVS can also remove applications cleanly without disrupting any operating system files, including registry fields.

Citrix Presentation Server
Citrix Systems provides an end-to-end solution to application virtualization. The Citrix Presentation Server is the old boy on the block as far as providing application virtualization. For more than a decade, Presentation Server has been providing application access in presentation mode. The technology has been an extremely successful model for the company.

Now that the space is evolving and expanding to service disconnected users, Citrix added a kernel mode component to its Presentation Server. With Citrix's new Enterprise and Platinum application streaming editions, solution providers now have the ability to create virtualized applications and stream them through the Presentation Server or directly to client devices like laptops and desktops.

Vendors such as Macrovision also provide complementary products for the Citrix application virtualization solution. Macrovision's AdminStudio, for instance, can create Citrix profile packages for streaming applications through the Presentation Server.

The Citrix Profiler creates an image of everything that an MSI or executable-based installer does to a machine. The image is then stored on a file share, and the application is published. The streaming technology uses Citrix's proven application delivery system.

After users log into machines, they get icons on their desktops. By clicking on an icon, the Citrix application driver initiates a download of an application. The streaming technology only sends file chunks that are requested by the executable. Essentially, the Citrix streaming delivery mechanism works like AppStream's streaming solution.

Because of the new streaming capabilities, the Presentation Server licensing is sold with the ability to acquire additional licenses. The concurrent user license model needed improvement because of the new access capabilities.

Next: The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line
While all three application virtualization solutions provide numerous features, only the Thinstall/LANDesk technology was flexible enough to work in virtually any environment, making it the top performer.

Solution providers can rapidly adopt the Thinstall Application Virtualization technology to work through the Web or inside highly secured corporate networks. Thinstall works in user mode so little testing is required to run virtually any application. Since most of the technologies are complementary, engineers recommend looking at ways of combining AppStream and Thinstall.

Another good option is Altiris/AppStream. Both products provide a robust corporate-centric SaaS delivery solution. Still, the solution needs a client-side tool to manage applications. It also lost ground because the solution isn't entirely intuitive.

With Citrix, solution providers have all of the components needed to stream and manage virtualized applications in corporate environments. However, managing a Citrix application virtualization infrastructure requires running numerous server commands, including changing local settings on clients.

Overall, Thinstall's technology is the most versatile. Whether it's sourced from Thinstall or LANDesk, it's a solution provider's best choice for application virtualization.

Shopping The Ingredients
VENDOR: AppStream
Palo Alto, Calif.
(650) 251-2500

• PRODUCT: AppStream
Not disclosed.
35% margins.

15 to 20

VENDOR: Citrix Systems
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
(954) 267-3000

• PRODUCT: Citrix Presentation Server

Starts at $350 per concurrent user.

10% margins.

Not disclosed.

Silver: $995, Gold: $4,095, Platinum: free, by invitation only.
Ingram Micro, Alternative Technology, Avnet.

South Jordan, Utah.
(800) 982-2130

• PRODUCT: LANDesk Application Virtualization

Not disclosed.
18% to 22% margins.


CDW, CompuCom, Ingram Micro, Insightt

VENDOR: Symantec
Lindon, Utah.
(801) 226-8506

• PRODUCT: Altiris Software Virtualization Solution

$55 per node with discounts available.
6% to 25% margins.


$4,000 for training.
Ingram Micro

VENDOR: Thinstall
San Francisco
(415) 533-0464

• PRODUCT: Thinstall Virtualization Suite

Package for unlimited amount of apps: %5,000; $23 to $39 per device.
Up to 30% margins.