That's been the Holy Grail of corporate computing for some time — and now the problems that have kept this from becoming a widespread reality are being solved.
How Centralized Software Management Breaks Down
Companies using Windows Server 2000 or 2003 — and trying to eliminate their software installation chores — have generally added Microsoft Terminal Services for connectivity and Citrix MetaFrame servers for application hosting.
Unfortunately, a variety of headaches that are typical of Windows apps have frustrated some of the best-laid plans:
• DLL Hell. Different programs often conflict with each other when run from an application server. This includes "DLL Hell," in which two apps require incompatible dynamic link libraries, and other maddening gotchas.
• Intolerant versioning. It's often necessary for an end user to run two different versions of the same application to tap into documents that were developed at separate times. One legacy data set, for example, might be available only by using Microsoft Access 97, whereas a newer dataset is only compatible with Access XP. The same PC, however, cannot run both versions of these programs.
• Mandatory Profile Problems. To support users who may log in at different workstations at various times, IT administrators can institute "mandatory profiles" that store each person's configuration settings. When users are roaming, however, they cannot save changes they make to their application preferences.
These problems have largely been solved by new products such as Softricity's SoftGrid. This add-on software, which integrates with Windows Server and MetaFrame, establishes a so-called SystemGuard layer. The technique virtualizes not only multiple instances of the Windows operating system, but also provides a separate Registry for each application. This permits different profiles and versions of the same app to run without conflicts, while allowing the same cut-and-paste functionality between processes that would be possible on a stand-alone PC.
Virtualizing Windows and Anything That Uses It
Early versions of SoftGrid, released in 2001 and 2002, were promising but "clunky," according to software reviewers such as Brian Madden, the author of the Citrix MetaFrame XP guidebook. The recent 3.0 release of SoftGrid, however, gained power and performance that's attracting notice. The new package is already being employed by such corporations as AIG, Prudential, and Raytheon, according to David Greschler, Softricity's vice president of marketing.
SoftGrid isn't a magic wand that works for you without any effort. At a minimum, it requires a manual "sequencing" process that readies each end-user application for distribution on a network:
• Preparation. SoftGrid-TS, a module that requires Terminal Services and MetaFrame XP, is installed on an administrative workstation running, for example, Windows 2000 Professional. This machine is where your applications initially will be set up.
• Sequencing. Installing an application on the admin workstation allows SoftGrid-TS to analyze the components of the program. This process produces an .SFT file — which contains the entire application, broken down into small building blocks — and an .OSD file with pointers to the blocks. These files allow end users to run an application locally. The app is never installed on their PCs and the possibility of conflicts between two programs or two versions of the same program is eliminated. With the proper licensing, this is no copyright violation. In fact, Softricity is a Microsoft industry partner and integrates with the Redmond company's Systems Management Server (SMS) for electronic application delivery.
• Upgrading. Besides the convenience of not having to touch any local machines to install applications, corporations gain the benefit of easy upgrades. When a patch or an upgrade to an application is released by a vendor, you simply install the change to your original, "sequenced" file. SoftGrid-TS produces a new .SFT file that incorporates the new version of the application. Copying this .SFT file to the content server makes it immediately available to end users. Alternately, admins can choose to make both the old and the new versions available to users during a transition period.
SoftGrid's newest version supports laptops as well as desktop PCs. Portable computers can be configured to automatically download and install supported apps, which will run locally for any period of time you authorize.
Softricity has some competitive overlap with companies such as Exent Technologies, whose approach is used to deliver (among other things) Yahoo.com's Games-on-Demand service across the Web. Other players in the space include Stream Theory, Appstream, and Egenera.
Without conducting an analysis of your needs, it's impossible to say which of these competing offerings is "best." Each has features that may fit your corporate environment.
Count up the hours that your IT professionals now spend visiting individual PCs throughout your company and upgrading various versions of existing software. If this overhead cost is significant, you should be thinking about moving to centralized software distribution.
This tactic is gaining strength as the maturity of the new tools earns them some much-needed respect. Last month, for instance, the consulting group Gartner Inc. named Softricity one of five cool vendors in client-side computing.
The first time you "install" a major upgrade to every PC throughout your company — by simply "turning on" a new distribution file — you may be very glad you adopted this approach.