SoftGrid streams app manageability

SoftGrid's close Microsoft ties also carry over to the product's usability. I installed SoftGrid 4.0 in a VMware environment and found the user interface to be Spartan, yet functional. Softricity chose a straight Microsoft Management Console implementation, and though I've never been a fan of MMC, I was eventually able to figure out which nodes or objects hid the feature or function I was seeking. Note to Softricity: A Web-accessible version of the console would be a welcome addition.

UI issues aside, I was impressed by the overall seamlessness of the deployment model. Applications appeared when and where expected, following my test user account as I moved across both physical desktops and virtual machines.

The application sequencing process, although efficient, performed inconsistently in my testing. For example, sequencing two common applications -- Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Office 2003 -- went smoothly: I loaded the Sequencer application, answered a few default questions, and then allowed it to "record" the changes made to the system as I stepped through the setup process for each program. I then deployed the applications by publishing them through the SMC and then refreshing the application list at each client.

I ran into trouble, however, when I attempted to install a Windows service via SoftGrid, in this case the Tracker Agent from DMS Clarity Suite. The sequencing process ran without incident. But during the "test launch" phase I discovered a key limitation of the SoftGrid virtualization model: the need for a user "trigger" -- a desktop short cut or an entry in the user log-in script -- to initialize the virtualization environment and start the application.

As are many Windows services, Tracker is designed to load at system boot under the LocalSystem account. As such, it has no real UI -- just an external applet to start/stop its service process. In the end, I was able to work around this limitation by tying the initialization of the virtual environment to a Start menu shortcut for the applet; however, this arrangement still doesn't allow the service to run prior to user log-in. Lack of support for "headless" operation is a critical omission, one that makes SoftGrid unsuitable for deploying and maintaining most systems management agents on the market today.

I've highlighted the above experience because it represents a real limitation of the SoftGrid model and because this same scenario worked flawlessly under Altiris' SVS product. SVS allowed the Tracker service to start at boot time with no user trigger or log-in -- a key technical advantage of the company's "layered" virtualization model.

At press time, we learned of Microsoft's intent to purchase Softricity and to integrate its SoftGrid technology into future Microsoft virtualization solutions. This is good news for SoftGrid fans and virtually guarantees that the product's sequencing and streaming mechanisms will be around for some time.

Overall, Softricity SoftGrid 4.0 is an interesting solution with some rough edges and limitations that will probably be softened or eliminated as the underlying technology is absorbed into the larger Windows management framework.

Bottom line

SoftGrid's compatibility quirks mar an otherwise innovative solution to the Windows app management puzzle. The underlying sequencing and streaming technology shows promise, but a reliance on user actions to trigger the virtual environment makes it unsuitable for "headless" agents and services. IT shops considering SoftGrid should also evaluate Altiris' SVS. Finally, Microsoft's decision to acquire Softricity ensures that elements of SoftGrid's deployment model will eventually become an integral part of the larger Microsoft Server System.

Cost: $US200 per CAL (client access license); $125 for Terminal Server-only CAL; $100 for SMS-deployed CAL. Platforms: Requires Windows Server 2003; supports Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, and Terminal Server.

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