Softricity's SoftGrid addresses two challenges that IT administrators have long faced: application deployment and management. SoftGrid brings virtualization technology to the application level. By wrapping the applications in a virtual environment and supporting their deployment, SoftGrid eliminates the need to install software system by system.

SoftGrid is different from traditional virtualization products, such as VMware Workstation or Microsoft Virtual PC. Those products create a virtual machine runtime environment for the entire OS plus your applications, whereas SoftGrid creates a virtual application runtime environment within the Windows desktop.

SoftGrid Components
SoftGrid has four primary components: the SoftGrid Application Server, the SoftGrid Sequencer, the SoftGrid Universal Desktop Client, and the SoftGrid Management Console. The SoftGrid server is essentially a central file store that delivers virtualized applications to the SoftGrid clients.

The SoftGrid sequencer analyzes applications and prepares them for deployment to the SoftGrid server. Rather than install applications directly on the SoftGrid server, you first install target applications on the system that runs the SoftGrid sequencer, which then packages the applications and deploys them to the SoftGrid server. You install the SoftGrid desktop client on the networked systems you want to manage. Because the client is in a Windows Installer package, you can use Group Policy to deploy clients. The management console lets you specify the applications to deploy and establish access rules.

You use the SoftGrid client to run the applications on Windows clients. To create a virtual application execution environment, the SoftGrid client uses a technology called SystemGuard, which virtualizes the Windows environment by creating copies of registry entries, .ini files, Group Policy Objects (GPOs), and DLLs that the sequenced application uses. The application accesses the virtualized values rather than the physical system components, and the host OS remains unaltered.

SoftGrid is unique in that you don't have to deploy the entire application. The sequencer divides the application into pieces; each SoftGrid client initially receives only frequently used pieces, which vastly reduces the application's footprint. If users attempt to access a part of the application that hasn't been deployed, they'll experience a brief delay as their client retrieves the required application code from the SoftGrid server and installs it.

How It Performed
I tested SoftGrid on an HP GL350 with dual Intel Xeon 3.2GHz processors, 2GB of RAM, and a dual-channel Ultra320 SCSI interface connected to four 36GB, 15,000rpm hard disks. My client systems ran Windows XP or Windows 2000 Professional Edition.

Installing the SoftGrid server software was more trouble than I expected. The installation requires a connection to a domain controller (DC) and a database. It also required that I manually create two Active Directory (AD) groups and one AD user. I installed the product on a DC. I had the option of connecting to an existing Microsoft SQL Server database or installing Microsoft SQL Server Desktop Engine (MSDE), and I chose the latter. The SoftGrid Web Services management interface requires ASP.NET, Microsoft IIS, and Windows .NET Framework 1.1.

Installing the SoftGrid client on the target Windows client systems was quick and easy. I deployed Softricity's presequenced default application, which is automatically installed at the user's next logon. The installation makes no changes to the Add/Remove Programs entries for the Windows client.

The SoftGrid sequencer's Package Configuration Wizard makes packaging standard Windows applications easy, and the sequencer captures the required installation changes. Factors such as product-activation requirements, run-on-first-use features, and related suite components can make sequencing sophisticated applications a bit tricky, however.

The Final Analysis
SoftGrid has a few rough edges. It's difficult to install and needs a better setup process and getting-started documentation. In addition, I had to manually tweak the product to make it work correctly. Once installed, however, SoftGrid lives up to its promises.

SoftGrid 3.1
Contact: Softricity * 781-789-6108
Price: Starts at $5000 (includes 20 CALs)
Pros: Easy application deployment; no end-user intervention required; tight AD integration; ends DLL Hell
Cons: Difficult setup; multiple dependencies on various Windows components; required manual tweaking
Rating: 3 out of 5
Recommendation: Despite a few rough edges, SoftGrid does a good job of easing client application deployment and management.