Have you noticed lately that virtualization seems to be the answer to every question? Last week at Microsoft Management Summit (MMS) 2007 in San Diego, I saw a variety of virtualization solutions, and Microsoft made a bunch of announcements that included some form of virtualization. So I thought I’d recap some interesting information related to Vista and virtualization for app compat, deployment, and management, plus a new Vista licensing offer involving “diskless PCs” and a subscription license called Windows Vista Enterprise Centralized Desktops (VECD). (For a quick explanation of virtualization at the hardware, OS, and application levels, see “Virtualization Technologies,” http://www.windowsitpro.com/articles/articleid/93137/Virtualization_Technologies.html.)

Deployment, App Compat, Management

If you’re a Software Assurance (SA) customer, Microsoft is offering the Desktop Optimization Pack for Software Assurance in an effort to help you get Vista up and running fast and bypass problem areas such as app compat. The package includes SoftGrid Application Virtualization, Asset Inventory Service, Advanced Group Policy Management, and the Diagnostics and Recovery Toolset. (For details on all of the technologies in the Optimization Pack, see http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/windowsvista/buyorupgrade/optimizeddesktop.mspx.)

Application virtualization effectively eliminates conflicts and incompatibility between applications. Microsoft’s SoftGrid, which is available only to SA customers, is a powerful but complex solution for application virtualization. Applications run on demand as network services--without ever being installed. SoftGrid requires Active Directory (AD) and brings all the benefits associated with AD integration. However, implementing SoftGrid is no easy task. (For details, see the review, “Softricity SoftGrid 3.1,” http://www.windowsitpro.com/article/articleID/46974/46974.html .) SoftGrid virtualizes all aspects of the application and has a cool streaming application deployment capability, but streaming requires a physical server.

If you’re not an SA customer but want to consider application virtualization, you might be interested in an alternative approach: Altiris Software Virtualization Solution. SVS isolates applications and data in “Virtual Software Packages.” SVS virtualizes only calls to the system and registry and doesn’t virtualize functions such as system and COM calls. SVS is easy to deploy and use. Although it lacks some of SoftGrid’s enterprise-strength integration, it also lacks SoftGrid’s complexity. (For more information, see http://www.altiris.com/Products/SoftwareVirtualizationSolution.aspx ).

Two New Vista EE Licensing Options

For large enterprises, Microsoft announced at MMS two new centralized architectures for Vista Enterprise Edition. These new architectures are based on virtualization and fast networking and enable new deployment models and licensing for environments requiring centralized desktops and diskless PCs (i.e., PCs with no hard disk and therefore no local Windows OS or data storage).

Microsoft is offering a subscription license, Windows Vista Enterprise Centralized Desktops (VECD), for organizations that want to use Windows in virtual machines centralized on server hardware. If you’re thinking Terminal Services, you’re right. This solution lets “minimum footprint devices” (aka thin clients) connect via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to a server running Terminal Services.

Scott Woodgate, a director in the Windows Business Group, said, “VECD enables customers to deploy and run Windows Vista Enterprise in virtual machines on server hardware. It provides a Windows experience that is centrally executed in the data center and delivered out to either PCs or thin clients. Using VECD with PCs provides a flexible combination of local and remote computing, including mobility and offline usage.”

With regard to Terminal Services, Woodgate explained, “Functionally, Terminal Services is really a superset of VECD. Terminal Services is a mature, proven, and highly scalable technology for centralizing desktops and applications. In comparison, VECD is new and we consider it an early-adopter model. VECD likely has a lower price-performance ratio than Terminal Services--due to the hardware requirements of virtual machines--but it does have the benefit of the same application compatibility and isolation boundaries as Windows Vista.”

Explaining the diskless PC option, Woodgate said, “We are working with our partners so they can provide the software to enable diskless PCs, and they will likely enable two different scenarios for customers. In the first scenario, each employee’s hard drive is stored individually on centralized storage hardware. In the second scenario, shared images are used by a group of users. Our licensing enables both of these scenarios so that customers can work with our partners to determine if these are valuable architectures within their desktop environment.”

The VECD license, which is available only to SA customers, is based on an annual, per-device subscription fee. The fee depends on whether you are licensing PCs or thin clients. The diskless PC licensing is free for current Vista Enterprise customers as part of the existing SA license.

Woodgate said that “these are still nascent technologies and new architectures, and we think that only a select few customers are planning to broadly implement these centralized desktop models today.”

Virtual Future

Going back to my observation that virtualization is the answer to just about any question, I was interested in Woodgate’s comments about the future: “Now that we’ve licensed Windows Vista Enterprise in these new ways, we’re interested in getting feedback from the Software Assurance customers that will take on the role of early adopters and start trialing diskless PCs or VECD in production over the next few years. And of course, we will continue to examine new and flexible ways to provide Windows solutions to our customers based on their needs.

"Later this year, we will release System Center Virtual Machine Manager to increase physical server utilization, centralize management of virtual machine infrastructure, and rapidly provision new virtual machines.

"Looking ahead to Windows Server Longhorn, codename for the next version of Windows Server, we will introduce a new hypervisor-based virtualization architecture that will provide customers better reliability, greater scalability, and dynamic capabilities to virtualize most workloads in their infrastructure. Windows Server Longhorn also will include Terminal Services Gateway--a feature that will enable customers to access both their TS and VECD desktops remotely. Beyond that, Microsoft will be making broad investments to offer customers a set of virtualization products that will be more dynamic. These investments will span multiple disciplines, ranging from the desktop to the data center, and will fuel our overall virtualization strategy.”

I’d like to hear what you think about these new licensing options and virtualization in general. How interested are you in virtualization? Is application virtualization a way to smooth your organization’s transition to Vista? What virtualization technologies are you currently using and planning to use?

Vista Tips

I'll leave you with something practical after all this Microsoft information. Paul Thurrott has been collecting Vista tips from readers, and he’s got quite a cache. You can scan through the latest batch at http://www.winsupersite.com/showcase/winvista_tips6.asp.