Microsoft moving desktop into virtualization fold

Microsoft's virtualization plans for the desktop are getting strong reviews, as users and analysts alike say that the benefits for IT should be reduced costs for deploying and managing devices and migrating between versions of software.

Microsoft's plan for the desktop is centered on its pending acquisition of Softricity, a 7-year-old company with more than 500 customers, including Merrill Lynch, Prudential Financial and Motorola. The vendor's SoftGrid software is used for application virtualization and the support of on-demand delivery of software, including patches and upgrades.

Microsoft will bring SoftGrid's capabilities under its Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI), which is a plan to create a management platform for Windows. The company has a three-tiered virtualization plan that covers servers, applications and system services. While the server strategy is nearly in full-flight, Microsoft has said nothing about application virtualization until last month and says it won't dive into system service virtualization, which is designed to help hosted platforms, until after 2007.

SoftGrid, which includes a server and a client agent, lets users package applications into "containers," store them on a server where they can be centrally managed and then stream those containers to desktops, devices, shared PCs while allowing users to open the application before the entire container is delivered. The applications are delivered as data files stored in a cache and are not converted to applications until the user clicks on an icon. The applications are not installed on the operating system but run in the container using the local PC resource. The container shields the application from conflicts with other installed applications and eliminates compatibility testing when rolling out new applications.

Softricity also plugs into the access controls and policy engine of Active Directory so IT can control access to applications and their individual features and store user preferences.

The approach makes possible a wide array of deployment, delivery and management savings, experts say, while taking advantage of local PC computing power and reducing individual desktop maintenance.

"Microsoft is the fat PC, fat application company, that is kind of its starting point," says Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with Illuminata. "SoftGrid allows Microsoft to keep that very effective rich application, all of its functionality, the standard development tools, but infuse the manageability of the thin client."

Thin client in favour

The thin client is again in favour fueled by Web services and the promise of centralized manageability. Technologies such as Asynchronous JavaScript + XML (AJAX) are starting to bring the look-and-feel of desktop applications to browser-based clients.

While Microsoft is taking advantage of that with its .Net class of development tools, Softricity doesn't require legacy applications to be rewritten, and the benefits on the management side are too great to ignore, experts say.

"Management wins are where the money is," Illuminata's Eunice says.

Users say they are calculating the savings.

"Over one year there was US$330,000 savings," says Andy Gerringer, senior network administrator for Alamance Regional Medical Center in Burlington, N.C., who used an ROI calculator to arrive at his numbers. "Over three years it was nearly $1.6 million savings. I can put my finger on such things as help desk calls, extra servers, extra clients here and there; it takes everything into account."

Alamance is in the first stages of a desktop rollout of SoftGrid after using the software to eliminate problems of running applications on the same server that were built using different versions of Java. The hospital uses Softricity to centrally manage the applications and stream them to terminal servers for access by thin clients.

"Softricity is very straightforward, and one of the easiest applications that I have ever implemented that made this big an impact this quickly," Gerringer says.

Gerringer is not alone. A calculation run by Northeastern University and Softricity using an ROI tool developed by Forrester Research showed the Softricity desktop will cut Northeastern's annual application-management costs from US$868,587 to US$126,795.

"This is the first [DSI initiative] about how to bring the cost down on the desktop without saying you have to throw away your current software, use Web applications or .Net applications," says Peter Pawlak, an analyst with independent research firm Directions on Microsoft. "This has the potential to dramatically lower maintenance costs as long as Microsoft packages it up right."

Pawlak also said it could be a launching pad for delivering software-as-a-service, an area Microsoft is investing in vigorously for the consumer market but is still trying to figure out on the corporate side.

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