Product Reviews

SoftGrid Serves Up Applications

Deliver applications to your users safely, conveniently and without a lot of overhead.

The problem with applications is that they have to live somewhere—whether on desktops, standard servers or on a Terminal Services (TS) or Citrix Server, right? Along with applications come the usual problems like memory issues, disk space shortages, security loopholes and the so-called "DLL hell."

With SoftGrid Server's application virtualization technology, those troubles can be a thing of the past. Its unique approach greatly simplifies the way you provide applications to your users—whether those applications are office automation suites or something else. You'll appreciate how clever it is, and how easy it is to install and use.

SoftGrid lets you serve up applications without installing them on the users' desktops or on the TS or Citrix server (or any other application server for that matter). That's right, no installing application code anywhere, except for the SoftGrid Sequencer—more on that in a moment.

No INI files, no registry entries, no DLL exchanges. Instead, the SoftGrid application server and client both use application cache files prepared by the Sequencer. What's even more interesting is that the client doesn't consume the entire file. If your users never use the speech capabilities of Office 2003, for example, it won't load that part of the application file until the first time a user calls it up. Then it's downloaded from the SoftGrid Server and becomes a part of the user's application cache file.

There are three different components required to set up the SoftGrid virtual application environment (four if you have TS or Citrix):

  • SoftGrid Server
  • SoftGrid Sequencer
  • SoftGrid Client for Windows
  • SoftGrid Client for Terminal Services

The cache files that the SoftGrid Sequencer prepares are really the secret sauce. The Sequencer watches the installation of each application you want to serve up. If you've had any experience with Microsoft's Systems Management Server (SMS) Installer, then you'll have a rough idea of how the Sequencer works.

The Sequencer is installed on at least one computer—generally a reference machine that is similar to the systems in your production environment. After watching the application installation, the Sequencer prepares the files that SoftGrid Server will need to present the application to the user. Those files include application descriptors, icons, the actual application file itself and a project file.

Documentation 20%
Installation 20%
Feature Set 20%
Performance 10%
Management 30%
Overall Rating:

————————————————— MVP Award LogoReceiving a rating of 9.0 or above, this product earns the Redmond Most Valuable Product award.

1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent
5: Average, performs adequately
10: Exceptional

The Gotchas
There are very few gotchas during this process. If you've ever messed around with the SMS Installer, you'll find the Sequencer to be 10 times easier—and that's saying something. During application sequencing, you can add custom registry keys and other elements you might want to bundle with the application. After sequencing the application, you can also edit the application descriptor file with Notepad if you have to.

One issue I had was in using pre-sequenced test applications that had a different host name and default directory in them. I couldn't get a program to launch for awhile until it dawned on me that it was pointing at a different directory than the one in which the application was installed.

Rectifying that problem was simple. Softricity has a healthy error reporting capability that shows up on the client for quick problem-resolution, although it assigns an esoteric error code to each situation. If you're new to Softricity, you may have to look up the error codes on the Softricity Web site to figure out what it's trying to tell you.

You have to have at least one SoftGrid Server to host the cached applications. When you're installing SoftGrid Server, it gives you the choice of installing the associated SoftGrid database on Microsoft SQL Server or MSDE. In the lab, I chose MSDE and it worked just fine.

Once you're done running an application through the Sequencer, you just copy the file output to the Content directory of the SoftGrid Server. Then use the management console (see Figure 1) to import the new application.

Figure 1. The SoftGrid Server management console is delightfully simple to use.
Figure 1. The SoftGrid Server management console is delightfully simple to use. (Click image to view larger version.)

Sized Just Right
Whether you're going to provide virtual applications to your users with or without the benefit of a TS or Citrix box, you must have at least one SoftGrid Server computer. This box should be a beefy enterprise-class unit, and should not be used as a domain controller as well.

In the lab, I installed SoftGrid Server on an older Dell server with 512MB RAM running Windows Server 2003. SoftGrid ran just fine and served up applications very quickly. However, I only had a handful of clients connected to the machine. Size your deployment accordingly, as you can have more than one SoftGrid Server machine in your environment. I would recommend starting out with one server and monitor the performance your users get so that you know how to architect your deployment from that starting point.

The last part of the process is to install the SoftGrid for Windows client, noting how much disk space you'll need to allocate for cached application files (see Figure 2). The client component shows up in Control Panel and has several different adjustments you can make, including the ability to remove an application provided by SoftGrid Server and receive it again to reset.

Figure 2. Setting the default cache in the SoftGrid for Windows client.
Figure 2. Setting the default cache in the SoftGrid for Windows client. (Click image to view larger version.)

Once client installation is done, your users will instantly receive any applications that have been imported into the SoftGrid Server. You control who gets what applications through the use of Windows groups.

Virtual Serving
Setting up SoftGrid for TS or Citrix is just as simple (I tested the TS environment, and assume things would work largely the same way in Citrix). Using the Control Panel to Add/Remove programs on your TS box, add the SoftGrid client for Terminal Services. All your users will still have to have the Windows client installed. Using the Sequencer to prep and populate the cached application file into SoftGrid Server works the same as before.

When your TS clients connect to the TS box, the application is available for them to use (see Figure 3). Softricity came with some "test sequencings." For my TS test, I chose Firefox. You can see in Figure 3 that the choice to install the application on the desktop and the start menu worked just fine. There is also a choice to install to the Quick Launch bar.

Figure 2.  Firefox shows up as a Terminal Services client.
Figure 3. Firefox shows up as a Terminal Services client. (Click image to view larger version.)

That's it. The whole thing is really very simple. For laptop users, you can set the application cache file download so they receive the entire file and can run the application even when they're not connected to the network.

Softricity can provide training, but given how easy it is to use Softgrid Server and the Sequencer, it won't be necessary in most cases. I got into trouble a couple of times because I wasn't familiar with the application descriptor files and basic configuration elements, but it didn't take me long to get the system up and running.

If you're looking for a way to simplify application delivery and reduce risk in your environment, SoftGrid is an enormously useful tool. The only real miss is the complex error coding that will require you to check out the Web site or have a troubleshooting manual handy.

The upsides are considerable. SoftGrid is very easy to use and provides a significant ROI.

Your service levels and security will improve, and you can install the system in no time at all.

About the Author

Bill Heldman is an instructor at Warren Tech, a career and technical education high-school in Lakewood, Colorado. He is a contributor to Redmond, MCP Magazine and several other Windows magazines, plus several books for Sybex, including CompTIA IT Project+ Study Guide.


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