When apps are virtualized

Application virtualization can help your infrastructure work harder and faster while reducing costs.

Two years ago, Paul Little, senior architect at Fidelity National Financial in San Diego, faced a crisis. Server hardware and operating system costs were growing out of control as Little struggled to provide the company's IT team with various client and server configurations. These were needed to support more than 30 customized versions of a large commercial lending application used by the firm's real estate and financial services customers.

"We had a silo environment, with each customer in its own little world," Little says.

When a new IT employee learned of the situation, he suggested application virtualization - in particular, application virtualization using Softricity's SoftGrid software. The staffer had worked with SoftGrid previously and felt it could provide the means of curbing server hardware and operating systems growth at Fidelity National.

Softricity is among a small number of vendors offering application virtualization products. Each vendor takes a different approach, but the general purpose of application virtualization is to separate application code from the restrictions of individual servers, operating systems and clients. This is much like storage virtualization, which uses an abstraction layer to separate stored information from individual drives.

Softricity's SoftGrid lets applications run on Windows computers without installation or alteration to their host operating systems. SoftGrid "sequences" Windows applications by capturing the installation process and creating customized application components that it then provides to clients via the Softricity Application Server.

Because the applications are never permanently loaded on the client - running only in the customized Softricity environment - license requirements apply only to the central server.

Using SoftGrid, applications from remote servers can run locally without changes to the local environment, and multiple versions of an application can run on the same client concurrently.

Easy decision

Despite initial skepticism about the application virtualization concept, Little heeded the new employee's advice and let Softricity conduct a proof-of-concept demonstration with Fidelity National applications. That was all the convincing Little needed. "That sold us, seeing multiple versions of our application running side by side on our client support systems," he says, noting that within six months developers were using SoftGrid for all support needs.

Fidelity National uses Citrix servers to distribute applications to local and remote clients. Developers in the U.K. and in India, and consultants at customer sites, receive access from the SoftGrid application servers running on Citrix. Salespeople can demonstrate commercial lending software managed by Softricity while sitting in a prospect's office.

Little counts some serious cost savings. "One application we sequenced through SoftGrid to leave as a single environment with multiple client instances saved us from spending $50,000 for a second server hardware license," he says.

Future plans include providing SoftGrid to the Fidelity National groups that serve as their customers' support departments; this would reduce the number of Citrix installations required. And disaster-recovery planners soon will integrate SoftGrid into their plans by serving all applications from at least two data center locations.

"Reducing management headaches of our environment was the biggest issue for our SoftGrid solution," Little says.

One, two, three

Saving money on server hardware and operating system licenses, better utilization of existing equipment and better management of enterprise applications are benefits touted by users of other application virtualization products as well.

DataSynapse's GridServer virtualization product has made a world of difference for the applications environment at Wachovia, says Robert Ortega, chief business architect at the Charlotte, N.C., financial services firm. "Our main benefits are that we can use what we have to its full capacity and we have more flexibility in acquiring hardware resources," he says, noting that he implemented GridServer three years ago for the firm's Corporate and Investment Bank (CIB) division.

With its GridServer (formerly named LiveCluster) software, DataSynapse applies grid computing to application virtualization - essentially fracturing applications and spreading the pieces across the data center. Applications can migrate, using pre-configured policies, to under-used servers in a supply-matches-demand process. Autonomic computing processes ensure support of applications needing resources by a pool of heterogeneous servers.

DataSynapse relies on Web services specifications and standards such as Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards' Web Services Resource Framework and the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Services Description Language (WSDL ) to expose computing resources as proxies to users and developers. Use of proxies eliminates the need for client-side binding, so no application installation files are loaded locally, and lets business logic be hosted separately from specific server resources. By creating a stateful connection through the abstraction layer, DataSynapse can deliver the benefits of a grid system while still providing the two-phase commit process demanded in transaction processing environments.

GridServer helps Wachovia handle big transaction volumes while meeting high-performance and availability requirements because it divides applications from the underlying system they're invoking, Ortega says. "The abstraction layer allows us to make changes to the underlying systems without impacting users. [We can] leverage existing resources with the grid-aware system, and the user never knows the difference," he adds.

With DataSynapse running on several hundred Solaris and Windows servers, Wachovia now handles four times more volume and up to 25 times more financial modeling simulations than it did without application virtualization. "One risk report that took 15 hours now can be prepared in about 15 minutes," Ortega says.

Bank users anywhere in the world have access to the DataSynapse applications running CIB operations, including programs in the credit, global risk, equity and mortgage-backed securities areas. Resources from any location can be pulled into the grid to provide processing power as needed. No client changes are required, although clients licensing the DataSynapse WSDL compiler benefit from extra scalability support, Ortega says.

Percolating

A third vendor, Trigence , takes yet another approach to application virtualization. In its product, called Trigence Application Environment, the company focuses on the service application layer as the point to separate an application from the underlying operating system. Trigence favors the term "application containerization" over "application virtualization" to describe the process it uses to separate an application and its operating system dependencies, such as libraries and device drivers, from the rest of an operating system. This decoupling of applications from operating systems differentiates Trigence's approach from VMware's popular server virtualization, which supports multiple operating systems and applications on one computer. For now, Trigence supports the Solaris 10 and Linux operating systems.

Five questions to ask when considering an application virtualization environment:

1

Which goal is primary: decreasing hardware, decreasing license count or consolidating management?
2Do you have a project far enough along that it can be used for proof of concept by an application virtualization vendor?
3Has your staff mastered storage virtualization, and is it ready for the next step?
4Can you amortize a new system over multiple functional areas, such as improving remote access, management upgrades and disaster recovery?
5Do you have an application that must run over multiple servers or multiple applications that must run on a single server?

Trigence says it "lifts and separates" applications for easy object-oriented management, including copying and archiving. For example, a developer could clone an application so that a second instance could be brought online to deal with heavy demand. Or developers could place applications in a repository for the purpose of regulatory compliance - after all, 10-year-old data isn't very helpful if the 10-year-old application is no longer around to interpret the data, Trigence says. With Application Environment, a company can set aside the application and data in exactly the form used in production.

Some early adopters also use Application Environment for years-old applications that they've been afraid to touch because they no longer know how to move, modify or reinstall them, Trigence says. With Application Environment, companies can gather the application and affected operating system components as a "unit of value" in the data center. Separating application-specific details from the underlying system makes it easier to support multiple applications, including those relying on multiple operating systems on one server with a single operating system license.

Containerized applications can move between versions of operating system but must stay within the same processor family. That means, for example, that a company cannot move an application for a Sparc chip to an Intel chip.

"Think of an envelope," says Anne MacFarland, director of enterprise architectures and infrastructures at The Clipper Group. "Trigence puts all the different pieces of paper into a single envelope."

MacFarland expects Trigence's idea of application containerization to be well received. "2005 will be the year of the container," she says. "Imagine how much better your testing could be if you took four versions of the same program, all with full production data, and tested each of them at the same time."

Virtualized destiny

No doubt, application virtualization does seem destined for use in new data center architectures, and enterprise IT managers will have their choice of approach.

Equally clear is that enterprise application vendors must do more to support new virtualization technologies, particularly when it comes to pricing and licensing issues. One major database vendor, for example, might have unwittingly pushed customers toward virtualization because each version of its software refuses to coexist on servers with other versions. Internal company developers have virtualized development platforms to support multiple software instances running on a single server platform. This provides flexibility and, technically, keeps them legal with a single server license.

The data center wish list includes the ability for any client in any location (virtual access) to connect to any application (application virtualization) running any type of processing (virtual processing) access any type of data (virtual storage). We aren't there yet, but application virtualization adds another critical building block to fulfill those wishes.

James E. Gaskin writes books (13 so far), articles, and jokes about technology and real life from his home office in the Dallas area. Gaskin has been helping small and medium sized businesses use technology intelligently since 1986. Write him at readers@gaskin.com.

Learn more about this topic

App virtualization software embraces Solaris

Network World Servers Newsletter, 12/09/04

Server virtualization is on the rise

Network World, 12/06/04

Wired over server virtualization

Network World, 06/21/04

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