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
All of which makes the logic behind Microsoft’s decision to acquire SoftGrid from its original developer, Softricity, all the more apparent. The Redmond giant has a history of obtaining half-baked products for the purpose of gaining access to a particular core technology -- in this case, the SoftGrid virtualization client and streaming engine. Microsoft needs these code nuggets in order to flesh out its grand scheme for a subscription-based computing model (see my blog post, "Microsoft's Virtualization Endgame," for details). And barely 12 months since the acquisition, the gutting has begun.
For example, Microsoft recently announced a new packaging tool for SoftGrid, one that allows customers to redistribute SoftGrid-encoded applications using Microsoft’s Windows Installer service. This makes it easier for customers to decouple the virtualization client layer from the streaming server layer, effectively making the SoftGrid OSD package format a viable stand-alone delivery platform, much as the company’s VHD (Virtual Hard Disk) format functions for virtual servers. It also helps SoftGrid applications play better with existing configuration management environments because the OSD is wrapped within the widely supported Windows Installer (MSI) package format.
MSI compatibility is only the first step. Microsoft will likely do an even more thorough strip job as time goes on, dumping much of the existing management UI, which is awkward at best, in favor of an even more seamless integration with MSCCM (Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager). The company doesn’t think much of SoftGrid as a separate product, as evidenced by its decision to release what was essentially the entire Softricity product catalog as a set of free tools (the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack for Software Assurance) for customers in the Microsoft Software Assurance program. Clearly, this is a product acquisition in which the sum of the parts is considered greater than the whole.
I tested SoftGrid 4.2 running under Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 (SP1). As with previous versions, the SoftGrid server components require a Microsoft Active Directory environment in order to function. There are a variety of additional requirements, including Microsoft Internet Information Services and Microsoft Management Console 3.0, the latter of which must be downloaded separately. The SoftGrid installer does a good job of flagging any missing pieces, but does not offer to install them from within the setup wizard -- an un-Microsoft behavior that will likely be fixed when the company further integrates SoftGrid with MSCCM.
During benchmark testing, SoftGrid streamed a virtualized Office 2003 package to the desktop with initial startup times of 13, 10, 9, and 12 seconds for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access respectively, all while consuming from 92Mbps to 110Mbps of network bandwidth. Subsequent streaming operations to support accessing additional functionality outside of the initial startup blocks triggered another 50Mbps to 80Mbps of network traffic. Caching the entire Office suite for offline use took just under two minutes while pushing peak bandwidth utilization to 124Mbps.
Overall, SoftGrid remains a solution with tremendous potential, but is marred by unresolved usability and compatibility issues. No doubt the compatibility issues will become moot as Microsoft narrows the product’s focus to its own delivery needs while the usability problems will be addressed when SoftGrid is eventually vivisected on the System Center chopping block.