The application delivery market gets a boost

* Altiris and Citrix enter the application delivery game

How would you react if you discovered that "DLL Hell" had become a thing of the past? It's not just a theoretical question, because the desktop application virtualization market, first devised by Softricity, has recently been joined by two other players with their own stake in the concept. Together, this group is introducing approaches to application delivery that could very well revolutionize desktop software management.

In late November, Altiris will release Version 2.0 of its Software Virtualization Solution (SVS) product. At its recent iForum Global event, Citrix unveiled the proof-of-concept of its "Project Tarpon," which introduces a similar approach to application delivery in what Citrix calls "application streaming." These products join the Softricity Desktop, which originally established the category using Softricity's technology for desktop application delivery on demand.

Maintaining and patching Windows-based desktops is a major factor contributing to the total cost of Windows ownership. Despite the availability of products for imaging and deploying the desktop itself, the ongoing maintenance of the desktop's applications remains a significant burden. Testing new application installations for potential conflicts with existing ones and fixing broken applications keeps Windows administrators busy - and maintenance costs high.

In contrast, these emerging techniques take a "just in time" approach to desktop application deployment. When needed, application components are delivered from a central source in managed units, such as what Altiris calls Virtual Software Packages (VSP). Taking streaming a step further, Softricity delivers units as finely grained as individual function calls. The virtualization aspect of this approach to delivery embraces the ability to isolate these deployments from other applications as well as from the underlying desktop itself, which helps to avoid conflicts and minimizes the impact of what is actually installed. Instead of being installed to the Windows hierarchy, Altiris VSPs are installed in virtual layers that sit above the desktop, while Softricity's SystemGuard delivers an isolation environment. Project Tarpon (as currently implemented and demonstrated in the iForum product lab) leverages file and registry redirection and application isolation similar to that introduced in Citrix Presentation Server 4.0.

From the user perspective, these techniques deliver a normal-looking desktop with applications that work as expected. From the application perspective, system files and registry keys appear to be in the correct location, and services start and run essentially as they would normally. New software installations are limited from interfering with existing ones, and in some cases, multiple versions of the same software can coexist on the same desktop. This greatly eases the burden of troublesome application interaction and version conflicts.

Some open questions about the technology remain, of course, such as: What about user data and individualized content? Will one's own .PST files eventually stream with a copy of Outlook? One also wonders what role Microsoft itself may choose to play in what is essentially a Windows TCO issue, while non-Windows and (as Softricity already recognizes) server environments could be equally amenable to the approach.

Obviously, the implications of this virtual provisioning technology are huge. Although Softricity established the category and leads it still, Altiris is uniquely positioned to release a product of this type because of its maturity in the desktop provisioning space, while Citrix has an established user base that will be eagerly awaiting the Tarpon functionality as a complement to Citrix remote presentation. Look for these products to go head to head with each other, as organizations line up to streamline desktop management with these innovative approaches.

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