On the road to the virtual desktop

Windows application virtualization and streaming solutions from Microsoft, Symantec, and Thinstall are laying the groundwork for a subscription-based, click 'n' run future. Imagining the possibilities, we put them through a simple SaaS performance test

Every time I review a version of Thinstall I can’t help but remember a joke I heard about something being “a riddle wrapped in an enigma and surrounded by mystery.” Thinstall is the riddle. Or is it the enigma? One thing’s for sure: The platform’s underlying architecture continues to be a mystery to even savvy IT experts. Does it really work without a client agent and without loading anything into kernel mode? What about streaming? What does the company mean by “it delivers the benefits of streaming without the server?”

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The answers to the first two questions are yes and yes, while the third is a solid “maybe.” It’s true that Thinstall requires no client agent or server-side components; everything a Windows PC needs to create the virtual runtime and enable the application loads dynamically from the packaged executable image. (See my February 2007 review, "Thinstall removes barriers to application virtualization.") Furthermore, the company claims that, since Thinstall controls the application’s loading sequence, by supplanting the usual program header logic with its own virtual environment bootstrap code, it can directly modulate which bits are passed over the wire to service a particular startup request.

For example, in the case of our Office 2003 test bed, Thinstall’s setup capture utility transformed our default installation into a single, large (more than 300MB), compressed file, with multiple shortcut-type redirector files taking the place of the normal Office executables. In practice, launching one of these pseudo-executable shortcuts prompted Thinstall to access the larger code image file and extract only those bits necessary to assemble the virtualized runtime image, a fact evidenced by our test results: When launching Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access, Thinstall generated peak network utilization on par with SoftGrid (92Mbps to 106Mbps). It also blew the doors off both SoftGrid and SVS Pro when it came to initial application load times. Whereas the two “streaming” solutions took at least 9 seconds (SoftGrid) and 105 seconds (SVS Pro) to load an application for the first time, Thinstall did it in 2 to 5 seconds, depending on which application was being requested.

Of course, no matter how efficient the download, you don’t want your users hammering on the server every time they decide to load a Word document. The lack of client-side caching of code images has been one of the persistent knocks against Thinstall. And though you can work around the issue externally -- for example, under Windows by enabling caching on the share point -- it’s still something Thinstall’s designers need to address directly.

Another issue they need to address is Thinstall’s reliance on SMB-based (Server Message Block) sharing as its only network distribution mechanism. Both SoftGrid and SVS Pro, though not yet fully optimized for Web-based delivery, are at least closer to that goal in that they provide a non-SMB delivery vehicle (streaming), one that should be more palatable to security-conscious administrators.

Thinstall executives claim to be working on a persistent caching mechanism for Thinstall and say they’ll address the SMB sharing limitation in the near future. In the meantime, the company has begun talking up its new License Manager product which will hopefully address another of the product’s shortcomings: the inability to enable, disable, and monitor access (including license compliance) to Thinstall packaged applications.

Thinstall License Manager will be released as open source, allowing IT shops to customize the PHP-based (PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor) server components to meet their specific requirements. Until then, potential Thinstall customers will need to weigh the advantages (raw speed plus no client agent or streaming servers required) against the disadvantages (reliance on SMB shares and the absence of an integrated caching mechanism) and hope that the company comes through on its promises to flesh out the Thinstall architecture.

Picking a winner

Neither Thinstall nor SVS Pro nor SoftGrid is fully baked. But while all of them have quirks and limitations, only one of them delivers an experience that’s within striking distance of our stated target of a true click ‘n' run solution: Symantec SVS Pro 2.1. Despite the awkward integration of the native virtualization component and the OEM delivery mechanism, Symantec’s choice of AppStream as its streaming partner yields additional dividends, such as the ability to stream both virtualized and non-virtualized applications from the same platform. SVS Pro is the most complete of the three platforms, and an initial one time delay of a minute or so -- which will disappear after the application is cached -- is a minor nit against an otherwise impressive solution.

SoftGrid, by contrast, is a product in transition. The old bits are getting stale, but that’s to be expected for a code base that is in the process of being strip mined. Expect to see pieces of SoftGrid technology popping up all over Microsoft’s product line with the end game of delivering an on-demand platform from which the company can distribute most of its wares. In the meantime, the product that was Softricity’s crown jewel is now available as a freebie for Microsoft’s most loyal customers. These shops will want to take advantage of the opportunity to kick SoftGrid’s tires and to prepare for what will doubtless be a major push by Microsoft to seed its version of application virtualization throughout the enterprise computing landscape.

The odd man out in the trio is Thinstall. Thinstall's integrated Virtual Operating System is still a technical marvel. Where else can you find so much muscle crammed into a 300K file header? However, the company’s lack of progress in building out the management and delivery mechanisms has left Thinstall looking more and more like a one-trick pony. Those lingering deployment issues -- no caching, SMB-only streaming -- need to be addressed immediately, while the more visionary elements of the Thinstall executive team must start painting a bigger picture before enterprise customers lose interest. Perhaps the best case would be if Thinstall were acquired by a larger player (IBM and HP come to mind) who can help them weave their innovative virtualization tool into a cohesive delivery and management framework to counter those of Microsoft and Symantec.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Scalability (25.0%)
Usability (20.0%)
Management (25.0%)
Setup (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Symantec SVS Pro 2.1 8.0 7.0 8.0 7.0 7.0 7.5
Microsoft SoftGrid 4.2 8.0 6.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 7.4
Thinstall Virtualization Suite 3.2 7.0 8.0 7.0 7.0 6.0 7.1
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