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How virtualization is changing IT

Virtualization software is winning new fans in IT because it simplifies the process of deploying new applications. And the savings on maintenance and other costs are welcome incentives as well.

Paul Theisen lost control of his applications when Microsoft released Windows 95, and he's been trying to find a way to regain the upper hand ever since.

Now, with software that virtualizes applications by running everything on a central server, he thinks he has finally succeeded. In the process, this type of software is changing the way his IT shop services the company's 550 PCs.

Theisen, who is IT director for the Tech Group Inc., a Scottsdale, Ariz., company that makes injection molding for the health care and consumer goods industries, is two years

Advice from a veteran of virtualization

Paul Theisen, IT director for the Tech Group, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based manufacturer, insists that virtualization has forever changed the way his department manages the enterprise. "We now see ourselves as a professional services organization providing services to our internal customers," he said.

He tells IT administrators considering a virtualization strategy to plan a two- or three-year strategy. "People want to know how and why it's changing," he said.

To be competitive, you have to streamline the data center and have reliable service levels and quicker provisioning. There are new considerations as well, including security implications, whether you need dedicated servers and who gets access to what applications. There will be capital expenditures upfront but those will be quickly offset, he said.

Theisen said it will take a different type of technical employee to support virtualization -- one who possesses business and technical skills. "It's complex," he said. "You're not just slinging OSes and loading up hardware."

He also said the ability to provision cheaply and keep it all online will be how the business side judges you. "The blue collar of support is going away and becoming the white collar of the professional services department."

into a project that lets him run applications on a central management console and on the desktop, virtually.

He uses technology from Boston-based Softricity Inc. that packages a registry with every application that it sequences. From its SoftGrid platform, the package is what gets pushed down to the desktop, along with the application. "The application used that registry in the box and it does not conflict with the host registry," Theisen said.

Stuart Schaefer, chief technology officer at Softricity, said the core of many IT administrators' problems involve dealing with the many permutations of applications on individual desktops. "When software is loaded on a PC, it changes that PC and that's what people in IT spend their entire day trying to manage," he said.

"We try to provide a different way to manage change and we do that by making change virtual," Schaefer said. "No change is made to the client."

Less maintenance, simple rollback

Some analysts are becoming big believers in application virtualization.

"Apart from less maintenance on the PC, the actual process of deploying new applications is simpler," said Mark Ehr, research director at Enterprise Management Associates Inc., a Boulder, Colo., consulting firm. "And if there is a problem with the new version, the rollback process is also simple."

At Tech Group, most of what is being virtualized is productivity applications, such as Microsoft Office. In the days before Windows 95, most of today's Windows shops ran Novell's NetWare servers. Users accessed applications, though they were not nearly as rich or robust as what exists today, from these servers.

It was easier to manage the applications and the application licenses under those conditions, Theisen said. Windows 95 closely tied the application to the OS, which then made it necessary for IT shops to have teams of what Thiesen calls "PC slingers" into the field to support each desktop.

Theisen said he could imagine the value that came from disassociating the OS from the application. "I saw my chance to rein it all in, pack 'em up and put 'em on a server, control my licensing, reduce administrative resources and the corresponding support, and get rid of the variability that comes with installing applications all over the place," he said.

Government agency expects savings

Of course, making improvements to desktop management can lead to savings as well. Theisen hasn't completed a cost analysis of his virtualization project. But Vito Palmeri, project manager for the Regional Municipality of York in Ontario, said his application virtualization program, coupled with a move to thin clients, is expected to save his government agency between $5 million and $6 million during the next four years.

The agency is testing Citrix [Systems Inc.] terminal services and started using Softricity to run three of its applications that wouldn't operate in a plain terminal services environment. The three applications -- PeopleSoft Financials, QuarkXpress and a proprietary application used to maintain traffic fines -- required access to local drives, which don't exist on a thin-client device. All three applications were successfully virtualized.

Virtualization today occurs on several levels in an enterprise. Storage is often virtualized in the form of running a common disk array that everyone can access, versus running direct-attached storage devices. Software made by VMWare, now owned by EMC Corp., and Microsoft's soon-to-be-released Virtual Server 2005 let companies run multiple operating systems on one server.

Citrix runs applications on a server and the only portion that is delivered to users is the presentation layer. With Softricity, the application is still on the workstation, but its environment is encapsulated so it runs in its own "sandbox" and not on the machine itself, Enterprise Management Associates' Ehr said.

Apart from Softricity, another application delivery option comes from Appstream Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif., which takes a different approach to delivering applications, Ehr said.

For more information

See why Virtual Server 2005 isn't an NT loophole

Take a look at the layers of virtualization

Dig Deeper on Small-business infrastructure and operations

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