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A valuable education in app delivery

Microsoft software saving Northeastern University both time and bandwidth

By Paul Desmond, Network World
April 10, 2007 11:29 AM ET

Network World - 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.

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.

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