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Getting started with application streaming and virtualization

To ensure success, administrators need to consider several factors, like cost and ROI, when selecting an application streaming and virtualization product for their environment.

There is a robust technology ecosystem for application streaming and virtualization products. Before committing to a product, administrators should conduct a needs analysis of their business, research what each product offers and determine cost and ROI of deployments.

Application streaming delivers software to an endpoint -- like a PC, MAC or terminal device -- on demand and is often combined with application virtualization, which eliminates (or significantly reduces) the need to install applications on an endpoint.

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 Combining application streaming with application virtualization has many benefits, including reducing the management needs of endpoints and simplifying the deployment of new endpoints, since endpoints only need enough functionality to access the streamed application. Other advantages include centralized application management, faster application deployments, improved application performance and enhanced security.

The downsides of this technology are the challenges with the initial setup and processing the hardware needed. For application streaming and application virtualization to work properly, administrators need to configure servers with enough resources to run the virtualized applications. Furthermore, as user count increases, so do hardware requirements.

Application virtualization architectures
Currently, there are two primary approaches to application virtualization: server-side and client-side.

With server-side application virtualization, applications are installed, maintained and secured in a data center, while only screen displays, keyboard entry and mouse movements traverse the network.

On the other hand, with client-side application virtualization, Windows applications are packaged and streamed to the local desktop, and as a result, these applications can use local desktop CPU resources, local peripherals and can be accessed offline by mobile workers.

Both technologies are fundamentally different. While server-side runs applications in the data center and requires an active connective between the endpoint and the host, client-side solutions push a virtualized version of the application down to the desktop, where it runs in an isolated virtual environment and can be cached to run in an unconnected fashion.

Who's who in application virtualization
Citrix (XenApp), VMWare (ThinApp), Symantec (AppStream) and Microsoft with its upcoming Application Virtualization V4.5 product are the major players in application virtualization. While these vendors deliver virtualized applications to the desktop differently, they share many of the same basic concepts as well as the same overall goal.

  • Citrix, under the XenApp banner, offers both server-side and client-side for application streaming and virtualization. Presentation virtualization, the server-side technology, is favored by administrators who want complete control of applications and want to run everything in the data center. The client-side technology, application virtualization, allows administrators to deliver applications quickly to desktops that may not have persistent connections to the data center.
  • VMWare ThinApp, an agent-less technology that delivers virtualized applications down to Windows' desktops, is more focused on client-side virtualization. ThinApp's claim to fame is its ability to virtualize and deliver isolated applications on demand to different types of clients. VMware ThinApp does not require any distribution, streaming or activation servers or agents. Since it works with AD, ESD enforcement tools, and open protocols, no additional hardware is necessary. Furthermore, applications run from a compressed state, eliminating the need to cache to the hard disk, achieving better performance and data security.
  • Symantec EndPoint Virtualization Suite has a hybrid approach, combining the elements of streaming, virtualization, server-side and client-side technologies. Symantec's approach is designed to ease deployment and management of applications for Windows users. The product's strengths lie with the ability to deliver virtual applications, which are executed locally, easily repaired and managed.
  • Microsoft Application Virtualization 4.5 (App-V) is a direct competitor to Citrix. App-V offers both server-side and client-side capabilities, but in a single product suite. App-V should prove to be ideal for server consolidation, while offering faster application deployment. App-V will be tightly integrated into the Microsoft ecosystem. The product is currently in the final stages of beta testing and is expected to arrive on the market shortly.

Beyond the big industry names, there are a few niche players administrators may want to consider. Vendors Endeavors Technologies, Xenocode , AppZero and Novell all offer application streaming and virtualization technologies with different approaches to the market and should not be counted out when choosing a product.

Determining application streaming and virtualization cost and ROI
Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks for administrators considering application streaming and virtualization is determining cost and ROI.

Citrix, Microsoft and Symantec use complex licensing and pricing schemes, making it difficult to determine a general per seat cost. The prices are greatly affected by the target environment and options chosen.

Other vendors offer simpler pricing models, like Xenocode, which starts at $40 per seat. VMWare ThinApp runs about $6,000 for a suite that supports 50 users. That price includes a year's worth of support and updates. Novell also goes the simple route and prices ZENworks Application Virtualization at $39 per seat. Other companies here do not publish their prices publically and rely on their channel partners to price out their technology.

Frank Ohlhorst is an IT journalist who has also served as a network administrator and applications programmer before forming his own computer consulting firm.

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