Thinstall removes barriers to application virtualization

Self-contained virtualization solution makes for clean, quick deployment

Have you heard? Thin is “in” again. From VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) to RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) to SVS (Software Virtualization Service), the ghosts of thin client computing are being resurrected like a scene out of “Field of Dreams.” Only this time they’re looking to ride the virtualization bandwagon and recapture some of their former glory.

But like specters of Ruth or DiMaggio, many of these solutions are stuck in the past, out of touch with the realities of today’s computing landscape. How fortuitous it is, then, that one of the pioneers of Windows application virtualization in the OEM space -- Thinstall -- decided to step up to the plate in the broader enterprise application deployment competition.

The timing couldn’t be better. With the market’s two major players (Altiris and Softricity) now acquired by venerable industry franchises (Symantec and Microsoft, respectively), there’s a real need for a small-town team with “everyman” appeal to shake up the league and keep the big guys innovating.

Playing clean

Thinstall Virtualization Suite 3.0 -- the first version to be targeted at the broader enterprise IT audience -- brings some fresh ideas to the Windows application virtualization game. For starters, Thinstall boasts one of the “cleanest” architectures around. No messy client agents or device drivers required: The entire Thinstall virtualization runtime is embedded directly into the repackaged application executables.

The resulting file image runs entirely in user mode, making it virtually impossible for a Thinstall packaged application to crash the system. By contrast, both SoftGrid and Altiris SVS require at least some kernel mode interaction, potentially exposing the OS underpinnings to errors or attacks.

Another benefit of executing in user mode is that Thinstall packaged applications can run under almost any security context, including “locked down” (i.e., nonadministrator) desktops. With Windows Vista and its UAC (User Account Control) mechanism now a reality, the capability to run “cleanly” in user mode is a real advantage.

One positive side effect of Thinstall’s all-in-one model is that the resulting packages are also portable across Windows versions. Thorny issues such as short file and path name resolution -- a common pitfall with many Microsoft products that gives competing solutions fits -- are resolved dynamically by Thinstall at runtime. You can also run Thinstall packaged applications directly from their compressed state, keeping file sizes low and improving network performance.

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Speaking of networking, Thinstall puts a twist on the concept of application streaming. By replacing the program loader functionality in the repackaged executable, Thinstall is able to directly manage the file image as the application loads. As a result, it can feed the required code blocks incrementally to the running application, effectively implementing a streaming model without requiring a client agent or corresponding stream server. This gives IT shops the freedom to deliver apps using more conventional methods, including SMB (Server Message Block)-compatible share points and even Web servers, while still reaping the bandwidth reduction advantages of a streaming model.

No curveballs here

I tested Thinstall Virtualization Suite 3.0 under Windows XP Professional and Windows Vista Ultimate. The installation process was compact (a single 7MB file) and straightforward. I then used the product’s capture utility to create a series of test packages, a simple procedure involving before and after installation snapshots of the system’s file structures and Registry database.

The utility outputted a pseudo image of the captured changes encapsulated in a series of disk folders and editable configuration files and provided a batch file to initiate the final build process.

This two-stage methodology -- capture changes then build the final executable -- gave me the opportunity to customize the image to address specific deployment scenarios. For example, when I created a virtual Office 2003 installation, I wanted to make the application objects available to an external, nonvirtualized test script (OfficeBench). By adding a few lines to the package INF file (one pointing to the test script executable and another to the package’s code base) I was able to launch the script within the context of the virtualized Office image and access the applications via OLE automation. This is an important capability, since there are myriad custom add-ons for Microsoft Office and nearly all of them use this mechanism for integration. That Thinstall was able to gracefully handle the OLE automation requirement is testament to the product’s overall maturity.

Even more impressive was how easily I could move my Thinstall packaged applications between environments. I did my initial testing and building from within a Virtual PC 2007 session running Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003. Later, I dragged and dropped the repackaged executable image set onto my local Windows Vista desktop and launched the applications. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2003 all appeared as expected and ran seamlessly alongside my locally installed Office 2007 applications.

Ready for “the show”?

The important thing to note here is that I did absolutely nothing to enable Thinstall under Vista; I simply dropped the .exe files onto my desktop and they ran. Everything Thinstall required -- its virtual file system mappings, virtual registry keys, the runtime engine -- was stored within the .exe file and loaded dynamically with the application. When I closed the program, these components disappeared just as seamlessly, leaving no trace on my Vista installation.

If Thinstall has a fault, it would have to be the lack of a GUI for prebuild customization tasks. While most applications are captured and repackaged correctly on the first try, the exceptions to this rule will require IT personnel to do some hand editing of the Thinstall prebuild image. That means usability takes a bit of a hit, but Thinstall is an otherwise well-conceived product. It could be just the ticket for enterprises seeking an application virtualization home run.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Setup (20.0%)
Scalability (25.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Manageability (25.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Thinstall Virtualization Suite 3.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 7.0 8.0

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.