Application virtualization: a conversation with Symantec/Altiris

Application virtualization is one of those technologies that has been around for a little while now, but it just doesn't seem to get the same attention as its older sibling -- server virtualization. There are a number of application virtualization products on the market, and yet, it took the acquisition of one of them -- Thinstall -- by VMware to really make people take notice of the technology. What is it about

Application virtualization is one of those technologies that has been around for a little while now, but it just doesn't seem to get the same attention as its older sibling -- server virtualization.

There are a number of application virtualization products on the market, and yet, it took the acquisition of one of them -- Thinstall -- by VMware to really make people take notice of the technology. What is it about this application virtualization technology that made VMware reach into its IPO pockets to pull out money in order to acquire someone like Thinstall?

To find out more about the technology, the market, and what life is like after a virtualization giant like VMware enters your domain, I spoke with someone who is very familiar with all three scenarios -- Scott Jones, product manager at Symantec.

Q: With VMware's acquisition in the application virtualization market, people who haven't heard of this technology are finally taking notice. Can you give us a little background on Symantec/Altiris SVS? What is it and what does it offer?

A: Virtualization for the sake of virtualization introduces additional complexity and does not provide true value to the business. Symantec is focused on helping business better secure and manage the endpoint. The introduction of Altiris Software Virtualization Solution two years ago introduced a fundamental shift in how IT manages and users consume software.

Our customers are now doing things they never thought were possible by virtualizing applications using SVS. But it is important to keep in mind that the wow factor is secondary to being able to help customers resolve application conflicts, streamline software break / fix, and deliver software on demand all while maintaining the typical end user application experience.

Q: How do you guys define application virtualization?

A: We've just tweaked the Wikipedia definition of virtualization to fit application-level virtualization. It is, "The process of presenting a logical grouping of application resources so that they can be accessed in ways that give benefits over the original configuration."

Q: What impact do you see application virtualization having on the market?

A: Application virtualization is the future of software management and consumption. The old model was and is fundamentally broken. We feel that the majority of software applications should be virtualized and have made significant inroads with the power user and IT communities. The next frontier is to get ISVs to start packaging and selling their software as virtualized.

Whether it is the home power user, the IT admin, application packager, or the software vendor, the benefit is similar. SVS offers a significantly improved software experience that reduces support costs, eliminates many of the headaches inherent to software, and maintains a pristine computing environment.

Q: How easy is it to use SVS and package an application? Is there a huge learning curve involved?

A: To put SVS usability into perspective, we offer it free for personal use and to date it has been downloaded more than 225,000 times. Relatively non-technical users are downloading SVS in mass because it is so powerful yet easy to use. Packaging an application with SVS takes only a few steps and is very similar to installing a conventional application.

The real learning curve is getting your head around the fact that these things are now possible and that what is happening is not some kind of black magic. For the enterprise IT application packager and software developer, we have built SVS integration into our Wise Package Studio and Wise Installation Studio products making the output of a virtualized application just as simple as a traditional MSI package. It is also important to note that Altiris SVS uses an open architecture and standards and can be managed via a systems management tool of choice, a CLI, WMI or a C API that is freely available.

Q: VMware recently acquired application virtualization technology with the purchase of Thinstall. What does that say about the application virtualization market? Do you think this will finally give application virtualization the respect that it deserves? And how does this acquisition affect SVS?

A: Application virtualization is here to stay. The benefits of this technology are too significant to dismiss. Our customers, IT administrators, have been giving application virtualization the respect it deserves for quite some time. The test now is for customers to find the right application of this technology within their specific IT environments and for vendors to make the technology easily consumable.

At Symantec, we've done an excellent job of providing all the benefits of application virtualization minus the overhead of an oppressive back-end infrastructure, without introducing additional complexity, and in a way that works seamlessly with existing systems management architectures.

Q: Thinstall seems to offer as a claim to fame that their technology is agentless. And that's one way the company differentiates itself from the pack. Isn't that a good thing?

A: Their definition of agentless is debatable, but for the sake of argument, let's let them have the agentless claim. For the consumer market, agentless is typically a good thing. For enterprise IT, an agent is the best way to maintain control and avoid unmanageable sprawl. I have a lot to say about this topic and I think I cover it pretty well in this post on the Juice.

Q: What about Symantec/Altiris -- how do you guys differentiate yourself from other application virtualization vendors?

A: We are focused on turning chaos into order all while not introducing more chaos. We like to call it 'containment that's clear' or 'smart stability'.

For starters, SVS maintains a normal end-user experience, with the benefits of application virtualization available underneath the covers. SVS also does not alter the performance or behavior of applications. This goes back to one of our core tenets, do no harm. Our customers want to continue to be able to continue to use their antivirus and systems management tools for both traditional and virtualized applications. Also, it is not acceptable to sacrifice application functionality for virtualization.

In addition, SVS embraces and extends the native Windows architecture. Our technology uses the Microsoft filter driver framework, which works with NTFS and/or FAT file systems. It also supports the MSI packaging format while Windows APIs, services, COM / DCOM, user profiles, permissions and group policies all function normally.

Next, SVS supports an open architecture and open standards. SVS can be managed via a CLI, WMI or a C API that is freely available. The Virtual Software Archive (.vsa) format is a standard ZIP file. SVS streaming uses HTTP, making it Internet and MSP / SaaS ready.

Finally, the general-purpose design of SVS allows the virtualization or streaming of any software, including applications, data and eventually patches.

Q: One of the interesting features I remember SVS adding into their Pro version was the ability to stream applications. I find that the streaming aspect gives application virtualization an added bonus with additional use case scenarios. Can you talk about that a little?

A: With the addition of streaming, we feel like the dream of on-demand computing is a reality. We have numerous customers who face constant IT change and need to frequently and rapidly reconfigure PCs. Others are looking for maximum speed and reliability of software delivery, with minimum cost. For example, the health care and financial services industries both have use cases with these requirements.

Application virtualization plus streaming allows our customers to deliver a sleek computing environment on the fly. This changes the traditional model of PC image and package maintenance. Single-image management is now possible by separating the OS from the applications so that both are optimally managed. With the introduction of streaming, the new image would include the operating system, endpoint security applications like antivirus and a firewall, and finally the application virtualization agent.

This would provide an excellent opportunity to manage and optimize software license costs. Compliance could be guaranteed, unneeded applications can be eliminated, and unused licenses can be automatically harvested for redeployment.

The promise of reduced IT resource requirements seems to really get our customers' attention. Application virtualization and streaming offers rule-based, set-and-forget desktop management and user self service. No traditional application installations and guaranteed version and access control are a dream come true for many IT shops.

I'd like to thank Scott Jones from Symantec for taking time out to speak with me about application virtualization and the Altiris SVS product.

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