A valuable education in app delivery

Microsoft software saving Northeastern University both time and bandwidth


Not so long ago, it took Northeastern University some four to five weeks to roll out a new application to one of the more than 1,000 workstations in its various campus laboratories. Today, it takes almost no time – any user with proper authorization can merely request the application and almost immediately begin using it.

Not so long ago, it took Northeastern University some four to five weeks to roll out a new application to one of the more than 1,000 workstations in its various campus laboratories. Today, it takes almost no time – any user with proper authorization can merely request the application and almost immediately begin using it.

The difference is virtualization software that completely changes the software installation process, and indeed the very meaning of the term “installation.” Virtualization also brings savings of 50% to 60% in people, time and network bandwidth, according to Navid Atoofi, director of system production services at Northeastern, who presented a case study on his experiences with Microsoft SoftGrid Application Virtualization at the recent Network World IT Roadmap Conference & Expo in Boston, where the school is based. The implementation was so successful that the university is now poised to use SoftGrid for all application deployments to its 25,000-plus students, faculty and staff.

Navid Atoofi

Defining the problem and solution

Before Northeastern implemented SoftGrid in September 2005, installing a new application on a lab machine meant going through a painstaking regression testing process, to ensure the new program would play nice with all the existing applications on the machine. That could take two to three weeks, “and we were always wrong, because there are hundreds and hundreds of applications,” Atoofi said in a follow-up interview.

It could take another couple of weeks to package the application and send it to the user, sometimes by creating a new desktop image for the user or using a software distribution program such as Microsoft Systems Management Server. “It wasn’t always as clean as it should be,” he says. If a user had an application installed locally that IT didn’t know about, the new application may override it, for example. “We were not able to deploy applications fast enough,” he says.

Video: Northeastern speeds app delivery with SoftGrid

When Atoofi encountered SoftGrid (which Microsoft acquired along with Softricity in July, 2006), he saw it as a potential solution. SoftGrid requires only a small footprint on the client machine, a “container” in which applications are cached after being streamed on demand from a central server. Sitting in its own virtual container, the application is never actually installed on the desktop in the traditional sense, meaning writing to registry files and the like. Because of that, it can’t interfere with other applications; each is in its own virtual container. That alone eliminates the two to three weeks of regression testing that Northeastern used to conduct.

Now, if a user is already authorized to use a particular application, he can download it at will. If he needs authorization, that requires only a simple update in Northeastern’s Active Directory infrastructure, which Atoofi says typically takes two or three days at most.

Implementing SoftGrid was fairly straightforward as well, he says, although it does take time at first. Each application must be “sequenced” to prepare it for streaming from the SoftGrid server. Using a sequencer that comes with the product, the process is fairly simple for applications built in a modular fashion, Atoofi says, but can take longer for larger, more monolithic applications.

Once the sequencing is done, Northeastern uses Active Directory and Group Policy to make applications available to various groups. They can see what applications are available to them on their menus, just as with traditional desktops.

An array of benefits

When a user clicks on an application for the first time, it begins downloading to the SoftGrid cache on his desktop. “Because most applications are modular these days, when you want to run an application you don’t have to download the whole thing. You just take or cache the amount that you need,” Atoofi says. “During the time you are using it, the other part will get downloaded and cached.” So, users may see a small delay the first time they use an application, but none after.

That feature helps conserve bandwidth, Atoofi says, requiring 50% or less than distributing an entire application at once. Also, when you stream an application, the load is distributed among different servers at different times, depending upon user requests. The traditional method of updating a user desktop requires creating a new software image and distributing it to all users at once, producing far more load on the server and the network.

SoftGrid also saves Northeastern the time it takes IT staff to test applications and prepare them for distribution. Additionally, the virtual desktop approach has reduced the load on the help desk, because users don’t change the applications; everyone is using the application exactly as it appears on the central SoftGrid server. “Not only does it reduce the help desk calls, we can help people more effectively because we see exactly what they see,” Atoofi says.

Software licensing provided more big savings, since SoftGrid makes it easy to see exactly who is using what applications – and for how long. In one case, Northeastern bought 1,000 licenses for an application and found it actually needed fewer than 10. IT can also dictate usage, say enabling a user to employ an application only during certain hours.

Determining an exact ROI is a bit tricky for an educational institution, Atoofi notes. “But I can easily say it has saved us over 50% in everything – resource allocation, software costs and deployment.”

Parting advice

Using a tool like SoftGrid doesn’t mean that you can ditch all of your other software distribution tools, Atoofi warns. “Not every application is sequenceable, so you have to have a different means to deploy some applications,” he says, noting Northeastern had five or six applications that it was not able to sequence – out of more than 120. “So we had to have a good infrastructure not only for deploying the other applications that were not sequenceable, but also to support SoftGrid.”

A good Active Directory infrastructure with well-defined Group Policy Objects is likewise a must, he says, since that dictates who gets access to what applications.

And the organization also has to buy in to the concept that users don’t “own” the software on their desktops anymore. “You have to know your organization to be able to do that,” he says.

Desmond is events editor for Network World and president of PDEdit, an IT publishing company in Southborough, Mass. He can be reached paul@pdedit.com.

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