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Application Virtualization Vote: Yea or Nay?

Help Greg settle an ongoing debate regarding app virtualization with Don Jones by "voting" in the comments!

Fellow Redmond magazine columnist Don Jones and I have this ongoing debate about application virtualization. Can you help?

First, some background. I'm a proponent. I've worked with app virtualization technologies since they first came to market. Back then, App-V was a Softricity product and Citrix application streaming was barely into its Project Tarpon days. VMware? It still focused on servers and memory overcommit.

I'm also a traditional software packager at heart. I got my first chance at auto­mating desktop management in the days of Microsoft SMS 1.2, and learned all things packaging from two since-lost coworkers, Mark Chisholm and Jason Wolitzky. It was a simpler time.

The Bad Old Times
Twentieth century packaging was a chore, to be kind. Software to be packaged came in all formats. MSI installations were a quaint idea, when they worked. Setup.exe files were common, but almost none were the convenient wrapper we see today around the nice-and-tidy MSI format.

The software itself was painful, too. Interconnecting and mutually exclusive software dependencies often created untenable requirements for installation automation. I once discovered the hard way that upgrading Rational ClearCase 4.2 to version 2003 required eight separate packages that had to run in a precise order. Testing each to perfection took more than a month of everyday effort and still saved the company time and money. Just a single manual upgrade could burn a half-day or more for the field tech drawing the short straw.

That was a third-party product, but Microsoft products weren't much better, either. Upgrading Internet Explorer 4 to 5 on Windows NT 4.0 required this radically novel concept called "the mid-install reboot." Its package required each computer to reboot in the middle of the upgrade -- twice! -- for all of the Internet Explorer components to install correctly. Accomplishing that feat required populating each machine's RunOnce key, found in HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion. Back then RunOnce was magic; today it's where malware lives.

A Vote for App Virtualization
In retrospect, software packaging was a mind-melting, caffeine-consuming, head-banging-on-table process for a lot of years. But it was also illuminating. Years of digging through the Windows registry taught me great appreciation for this proprietary database of barely organized chaos.

Packaging software in part made me the unabashed Windows expert I am today. There's simply no other activity that forces you to learn the innards of Windows like troubleshooting a failed package installation.

That's why I so devotedly adore app virtualization. A virtual app can be delivered entirely without altering the composition of its host computer. Zero configuration change means a dramatically reduced chance that today's package will cause tonight's domain-wide Blue Screen of Death.

Uninstalling a virtual app in most cases requires little more than deleting a few files. Installing that app is similarly a file copy. Most app virtualization solutions these days prioritize the bits inside that file copy, a process commonly called streaming. Prioritization and streaming mean file-copy-installed applications launch fast.

So, I'll admit it: I'm an optimist about app virtualization; perhaps irrationally so.

Don told me recently that he's learned on deep background that many app virtualization technologies are going entirely unused by today's IT pros. Indeed, plenty of licenses are being sold, but their actual use in the real world -- at least according to Don's argument -- isn't all that high.

I do see evidence of Don's position in some of the master-level training classes I've taught recently. Earlier app virtualization versions did introduce some key caveats. Many of these limitations have since been resolved.

So all this said, I ask: Are you app-virtualized? If not, why? Drop a comment at with your thoughts. My old and optimistic self still wonders if there's a quiet sea change happening: recognizing the limitations of old-style packaging, while slowly embracing an app-virtualized, modern-day world.

About the Author

Greg Shields is Author Evangelist with PluralSight, and is a globally-recognized expert on systems management, virtualization, and cloud technologies. A multiple-year recipient of the Microsoft MVP, VMware vExpert, and Citrix CTP awards, Greg is a contributing editor for Redmond Magazine and Virtualization Review Magazine, and is a frequent speaker at IT conferences worldwide. Reach him on Twitter at @concentratedgreg.


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