Products to help you get the most out of your Windows IT infrastructure
| Executive Summary: |
For our 2008 Editors' Best awards, Windows IT Pro editors have talked to hundreds of vendors, attended dozens of product demos, and tried out and reviewed products in the Windows market to find the best offerings of the past year in 15 categories, including Product of the Year, Breakthrough Product, and Special Achievement. If you're looking for a particular product to maximize the ROI of your IT infrastructure, start here.
The Windows IT Pro awards recognize products and services that our editors and contributors have selected as standing out from the rest in more than a dozen categories. Our judging team narrowed the list down to dozens of finalists, then winnowed that list even further. After some heated discussions and testy email exchanges, we arrived at those you see here: the Windows IT Pro awards winners. All these products can help you do your job faster, more efficiently, or more economically.
IT pros will undoubtedly debate some of our picks more than others. Is the Apple iPhone worthy of a Special Achievement award? Talk to a host of mobile phone executives as we did, and you’ll see why it is—nearly all of them mentioned the iPhone when discussing where smartphones in the enterprise are headed. And what about Google Docs, winner of our Breakthrough Product award? Although most enterprises might not be using hosted applications now, they soon will be: Microsoft is following Google’s lead in a push to offer more online services through its Software + Services (S+S) strategy.
Speaking of Microsoft, Windows IT Pro Editorial and Strategy Director Karen Forster devotes her IT Pro Perspective column to a discussion of the best Microsoft products she’s seen and hands out awards for three worthy offerings from Redmond.
The following pages contain what we think are the best products on the market, but we also know that you—Windows IT Pro’s readers—have your own opinions about which products are worthy of recognition and which deserve a quick delete or spirited heave through a nearby office window. We’ve created an awards category in the Windows IT Pro online forums (www.windowsitpro.com), and we invite you to log on and share your opinions of the good, the bad, and the spectacularly ugly products you’ve had the privilege (or misfortune) to buy and use. If you think that our choices are misguided, feel free to log on and give us a piece of your mind!
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Although it’s too early to tell how successful the iPhone will be in the enterprise market, there’s little doubt that Apple has made all the other players in the industry take notice. “Apple’s doing what they have repeatedly done in the last seven years or so: introduce a product that forces the entrenched market leaders in that segment to hustle like mad to catch up to both perception and reality,” says Robichaux. “The iPhone has generated buzz around smart mobile devices in a way that nothing else has been able to.”
Gold: Barracuda Spam Firewall
Why it won: Spam management is a frustrating, time-consuming process. The Barracuda Spam Firewall’s appliance-based approach takes the sting out of the task.
Spam continues to be a problem for everyone who uses email. What many users probably don’t understand is the Herculean effort that most administrators put forth to combat the problem. Boasting ease of use and affordability, the Barracuda Spam Firewall—an integrated hardware/software solution for protecting email servers from spam, viruses, and spyware— is gaining remarkable traction.
With its hourly spam- and virus-definition updates, the Barracuda Spam Firewall requires very little maintenance and administrative overhead. Compatible with all email servers, the appliance can fit into nearly any corporate or small-business environment. And unlike software solutions, it reduces the load on the email server by offloading spam and virus filtering. The product also includes essential outbound filtering techniques.
To get a feel for the product in the real world, I spoke with Kirk Whitham, a systems administrator at North American Directory Services. “I was a little apprehensive about using a hardware solution for email management, but the Barracuda has surprised me. Installation was simple, and the software tools are easy to understand. It’s much smarter about spam filtering than any software-only solution we’ve tried.”
Windows IT Pro contributing editor Eric Rux agrees that the appliance does a great job of filtering out spam and virusinfested email. “But what really sets it apart are its great features and outstanding support,” Rux said. “I value its hourly and daily statistics graphs and its appliance-health information—such as system load, CPU temperature, and mail/log storage—and I love the clustering option, which lets multiple Barracuda Spam Firewalls share configuration information. But my favorite feature is remote troubleshooting, which gives you online access to Barracuda support technicians.”
Why it won: Riverbed’s Steelhead appliances offer a scalable approach to application acceleration across your WAN. Our readers have sung the praises of the Steelhead appliances, reporting incredible compression and bandwidth savings after installing them.
Bronze: HP ProLiant DL585
Why it won: If you’re looking for a rackmounted enterprise-class server, you can’t go wrong with the HP ProLiant DL585. The system’s four-way dual-core Opteron configuration provides amazing performance, and HP’s Insight Manager and iLO enable effective remote management for enterprise deployments.
Gold: Centrify DirectControl
Why it won: Centrify DirectControl easily and seamlessly integrates Linux, UNIX, and Mac OSs with Active Directory and provides robust UNIX and Linux personality management and strong migration management.
As open-source and Macintosh OSs become increasingly enterprise-friendly and widely used, IT administrators will face growing interoperability concerns. Centralized account administration solutions can help you manage mixed environments by enabling single sign-on and controlling authentication, access, and security policies for Windows, Linux, UNIX, and Mac OSs.
Centrify DirectControl centralizes management of disparate systems in Active Directory (AD), providing a single point of control over security and configuration policies. With DirectControl, non-Microsoft systems can join an AD domain so that you can manage them by using Group Policy and the other controls you use to manage your Windows systems. DirectControl lets you organize systems into logical groupings that have a unique set of security policies, a unique set of users and administrators, and separate access rights. You can even specify what action DirectControl should take in the event of a conflict (e.g., between GUIDs).
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In “Cross-Platform Identify Management Solutions for Single Sign-On” (September 2007, InstantDoc ID 96592), a comparison of DirectControl and two other products, Darren Ehmke and Eric Rux wrote “DirectControl is by far the most complex when it comes to setting up and using UNIX personality management, but it’s also the most robust. You can’t go wrong if you choose Centrify.”
Why it won: Splunk lets IT pros index and search all sorts of enterprise data, such as alerts, logs, and config files. If you’re drowning in data, Splunk can help you find what you need, when you need it.
Bronze: Likewise Open Spring ‘08
Why it won: If you have a heteregenous shop and need to incorporate Linux, UNIX, or Macintosh systems into AD, Likewise Open Spring ‘08 has you covered. It offers a single, unified username and password solution for all those environments.
Gold: PostPath Server
Why it won: PostPath Server is a drop-in, compatible alternative to Microsoft Exchange Server that saves money on licensing, hardware, and management tools.
There are many reasons you might want to consider an alternative to Exchange Server for your messaging environment, particularly if your organization is looking to upgrade or expand. The new architecture and management structure of Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 have caused many admins to wonder whether upgrading is worth the hassle. Linux-based PostPath Server is a viable alternative; in fact, it’s the only email and collaboration server that’s natively compatible with Microsoft products and existing Exchange organizations—no add-ons or plug-ins required.
According to Duncan Greatwood, CEO of PostPath, “We’ve broken this compatibility lock so that we really are in a position to give customers a choice.” Outlook, BlackBerry Enterprise Server, and other Exchange servers all interact with PostPath as if it were an Exchange server. PostPath uses a standards-based Linux file system for data storage, enabling lower storage costs and backup and restore without the need for specialized tools.
Clyde Williams, infrastructure systems manager for Southeast Alabama Medical Center, cited both lower cost and ease of implementation as reasons for switching his organization to PostPath Server. “For an Outlook user, they don’t know the difference,” Williams said. New users and mailboxes are created through AD, and you can use Exchange systems management tools to manage PostPath Server. “From my experience so far, it just plain works,” Williams said.
Silver: 3CX Phone System for Windows
Why it won: The 3CX Phone System for Windows is a software VoIP system that runs on Windows. It replaces the traditional hardware PBX and is much less expensive.
Bronze: Unify Enterprise Edition
Why it won: Ensim’s Unify Enterprise Edition automates provisioning and change requests as part of a comprehensive systems management solution. It’s a market leader in managing all the elements of a unified communications environment. Recent upgrades solidify this position by enhancing features such as security, mobility, and management of Exchange deployments.
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Mobile and Wireless Winners
Gold: Zenprise 3.3 for BlackBerry
Why it won: Zenprise for BlackBerry is the best overall management solution for an area that’s often an IT administrative black hole.
Everyone seems to be using PDAs these days—especially in the IT field, where employees often must be accessible 24 × 7. IT administrators are burdened with the task of managing all these devices, which can sometimes be more of a headache than not having PDAs at all. Research in Motion’s (RIM’s) BlackBerry has become one of the most popular PDAs and a standard addition to employees’ literal toolbelts. Zenprise 3.3 for BlackBerry provides an easy interface for managing your mobile infrastructure and eliminates many of the compliance and security problems that are inherent in widespread PDA use.
Windows IT Pro Senior Editor Jason Bovberg notes that “the complex interactions between users, the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, Exchange Server, AD, networks, and other systems can result in downtime with serious ramifications on user productivity and IT stress levels.” Zenprise for BlackBerry solves problems related to BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) database connectivity, BES Admin permissions, Exchange infrastructure problems that affect BES, Messaging API connectivity problems between BES and Exchange, Server Routing Protocol connectivity, calendar and email synchronization, attachment server failures, and enterprise device activation.
As Jayaram Bhat, Zenprise’s CEO, observes, “No single IT administrator can monitor every potential issue that can affect a BlackBerry enterprise deployment. Zenprise gives enterprise customers at all IT staff levels, from the Help desk to the mobile administrator, the ability to proactively identify and resolve user issues.”
Silver: REDFLY Mobile Companion
Why it won: The cost-effective REDFLY Mobile Companion lets mobile IT pros use smartphones as their primary computing devices while on the go, saving both time and money in a market where both are tight.
Bronze: Amazon Kindle
Why it won: Amazon Kindle, a completely wireless portable reading device, lets users download books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers. IT pros can keep up on technology from anywhere in the world.
Gold: Engineer’s Toolset
Why it won: The tools in the Engineer’s Toolset cover a broad spectrum of functionality but give you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it. There’s something in the kit for everyone, and it’s priced attractively.
If you’re like most IT pros, you’re constantly on the prowl for those perfect little utilities that can dramatically improve certain aspects of your network-maintenance duties. You’ve probably assembled your own toolkit full of these perfect tools. Maybe you even have a portable USB drive full of them and carry the device from site to site. But what if you don’t have time to scour the Web for tools or organize the ones you’ve found for easy use?
SolarWinds’ Engineer’s Toolset is a collection of 49 network-engineering utilities that let you quickly address virtually every network-engineering challenge you can think of, from configuration management, network discovery and mapping, and fault management to bandwidth and network performance monitoring. Version 9.0 of the Engineer’s Toolset introduces the first true real-time NetFlow analysis tool, letting you rapidly troubleshoot network traffic problems from your desktop.
I spoke with Network Operations Manager Greg English about the benefit of the Engineer’s Toolset to his environment. “We’re a Cisco shop, and my network has more than 25,000 devices spread across many states,” English said. “The Engineer’s Toolset has a number of tools geared specifically for Cisco equipment. Many of the tools can be found elsewhere as standalone utilities or as part of another package or even as freeware, but SolarWinds has bundled them together in a useful toolbar. I know the tools are up-to-date, virus-free, and right at my fingertips when I need them.” English also values the fact that all the tools are aware of the other tools in the toolset and will invoke one another when necessary. “I don’t have to remember where I’ve stored each tool and what it’s called.”
Why it won: Our editors value Network Instruments’ Observer as a ground-up, end-to-end networking-monitoring solution from a company that’s always at the bleeding edge of the latest networking technologies and features, such as 10GbE and IPv6.
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Why it won: WildPackets’ impressive OmniPeek family of products gives you real-time visibility into every part of your network—from a single interface. Also, WildPackets recognizes the benefit of statistical and packet monitoring working together.
Gold: Admin Script Editor
Why it won: Busy Windows systems administrators can use scripts to save time, but trying to write them can be frustrating when you’re new to scripting. Admin Script Editor helps turn that frustration into success.
In today’s fast-paced business world, employees are often asked to take on more responsibilities. To make time for those new jobs, administrators can use scripts to automate the repetitive, time-consuming tasks they currently perform. However, writing scripts is new to many administrators, and having the right tool for the job can be the difference between frustration and success. One extremely helpful tool is iTripoli’s Admin Script Editor (ASE).
Designed for Windows administrators, ASE supports the scripting languages they’re likely to use, including batch, VBScript, KiXtart, and Windows Power- Shell. Point-and-click code-generation tools—such as the WMI Wizard, ADSI Wizard, Logon Script Builder, and Database Wizard—make it easy for novice script writers to create scripts. More experienced users will find such features as ScriptBits (a repository for reusable code snippets), Advanced Query Builder (which helps build complex database queries), and Script Packager (which turns scripts into executable packages) useful.
Script Packager is a feature that Chang Lu, a senior systems administrator of Windows platforms, has found very helpful. “I like Admin Script Editor because it lets me package VBScript, JScript, batch, Windows Script file (.wsf), AutoIt, KiXtart, and other scripts,” notes Chang. “In fact, I even packaged several HTAs and distributed them as programs. In the executable file, you can include such information as the version, description, company, and comments, just like you find in other types of programs.”
Silver: PrimalScript 2007
Why it won: Although SAPIEN Technologies’ PrimalScript has been around for two decades, the company isn’t resting on its laurels. PrimalScript 2007’s new customizable UI and an ActiveX Data Objects wizard are among the improvements in the newest version.
IDM Computer Solutions
Why it won: Administrators who are jacksof- all-trades will find UltraEdit’s environments as versatile as they are. UltraEdit offers preconfigured and customizable environments for automating a systems administration task with a VBScript script, editing a Web page, creating a Visual Basic project, or performing some other task.
Gold: Astaro Security Gateway
Why it won: Web filtering has taken on increased importance as attacks on business networks have expanded from viruses in email attachments to phishing attempts embedded in Web sites. Astaro Security Gateway addresses these and other Internet threats and is easy to configure and reasonably priced.
The appeal of a Unified Threat Management appliance is obvious. What could be more attractive to a security administrator than comprehensive protection from multiple Internet- borne threats in one easy-to-manage box? These days, users who happen to visit the wrong Web site at the wrong time can easily have their identity stolen or can unknowingly download a virus just as if they had opened an infected email attachment. To the standard core gateway features of firewall, VPN, and intrusion prevention, Astaro Security Gateway adds Web URL filtering and malware detection; email antispam, antivirus, and antiphishing capabilities; and email encryption.
Astaro Security Gateway impressed one of our product reviewers. In his review “Astaro Security Gateway 220” (December 2007, InstantDoc ID 97266), John Green summarized the product’s strong points as follows: “Broad feature set includes email encryption and signing, VPN, firewall, and antivirus; setup is easy, with many configuration options; Web-based administrative interface is very responsive; product is available both as an appliance and as software; licensing is favorable, including free use for as many as 10 IP addresses in home environment.”
The most recent version of the Astaro Security Gateway software, released in December 2007, features a new HTTP proxy engine that boosts performance and provides other improvements. The product can also be deployed as a virtual appliance running on VMware ESX Server. The feature set, flexibility, and configurability of this perimeter security appliance make it our pick for security product of the year.
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Silver: Catbird V-Agent
Why it won: Security for mixed physical and virtual assets is becoming a top priority for IT pros, and Catbird V-Agent is one of the best solutions available. It also helps handle complex compliance and auditing requirements for virtual machines.
Bronze: OmniAccess 3500 Nonstop Laptop Guardian
Why it won: As the workforce becomes ever more mobile, managing and securing laptops can be—and often is—a fulltime job. The Alcatel-Lucent OmniAccess 3500 Nonstop Laptop Guardian gives you the tools you need to track and manage mobile assets with ease.
Texas Memory Systems
Why it won: The RamSan-500 makes the jump into solid-state-disk technology, providing the most storage capacity for the best price.
In the past, storage has focused on DAS, NAS, and SANs (including iSCSI SANs). But the latest advancement in storage technology, solid state disk (SSD), provides many advantages over those options. Because no rotation is involved, there are no moving parts and data access is faster—SSD access times range from 10 to 15 microseconds, which is 250 times as fast as hard disk drives. The lack of moving parts also means increased reliability, and SSDs use less power than other storage options. Texas Memory Systems’ RamSan-500 provides all these advantages and is one of the best SSDs on the market today.
The RamSan-500 provides up to 2TB of storage, with as many as 100,000 I/O operations per second (IOPS) sustained random reads, 10,000 IOPS sustained random writes, and 2GBps of sustained random read/write bandwidth. Texas Memory Systems notes that “compared to a similar capacity high-end hard disk–based RAID system, the RamSan-500 can deliver in excess of 16 times the performance while using 50 percent less power.” In addition, the RamSan-500 costs less than competing products; you get all these bells and whistles for a price similar to enterprise RAID storage. Windows IT Pro Technical Director Michael Otey prefers the RamSan-500 to BiTMICRO’s similar product because of the RamSan’s price and capacity.
Silver: Dell EqualLogic PS5000E
Why it won: The Dell EqualLogic PS5000E iSCSI array provides cost-effective capacity, scalability, and optimal performance for common business applications.
Bronze: E-Disk Altima ATA-133
Why it won: The E-Disk Altima ATA-133 provides huge storage capacities in a standard disk drive form factor.
Gold: File Migrator for SharePoint
Why it won: As companies flock to Microsoft’s SharePoint collaboration platform, they face having to move massive quantities of information from their file share infrastructure into SharePoint. File Migrator for SharePoint provides the best solution to that problem.
Businesses have long used file shares to store important company information, but in today’s highly collaborative business environments, information workers increasingly need functionality that file shares don’t provide, such as version history, content approval, workflow, offline access, and content management. Microsoft’s SharePoint collaboration platform provides a robust solution for these companies, but they still face a major stumbling block: the complexity of moving all that data into a SharePoint environment. SharePoint provides no help for doing that job. But Quest Software’s File Migrator for SharePoint does.
Doug Davis, director of product management for Quest, says people are definitely buying into the concept of SharePoint as the “next-generation file share.” With File Migrator for SharePoint, companies don’t have to blindly move content into a SharePoint repository.
“File Migrator lets you schedule and execute bulk file migrations, cleanse and filter data as you move it, and structure the data to fit your needs,” Davis said. “You can add metadata on top of it to classify and categorize it. This categorization and classification of data is one of the crucial components of why people want to move to SharePoint. Having that in an automated migration tool is extremely valuable.” We agree, and File Migrator for SharePoint gets our Editors’ Best award for the top SharePoint product.
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Silver: DocAve 4.5 Backup and Recovery for SharePoint
Why it won: A comprehensive backup system is essential for protecting an organization’s valuable SharePoint content. DocAve 4.5 Backup and Recovery for SharePoint offers granular, real-time backup and on-demand restore capabilities for your entire SharePoint environment.
Bronze: Colligo Contributor Pro for SharePoint
Why it won: As the mobile workforce continues to grow, the ability to collaborate both online and offline becomes more and more important. Colligo Contributor for SharePoint lets mobile users bring the SharePoint environment to their desktops, letting them easily access, modify, and create SharePoint content through familiar interfaces.
Systems Management Winners
Gold: Active Administrator
Why it won: Managing AD and Group Policy can be an onerous task, but Scriptlogic’s Active Administrator steps in to lessen the load. The product includes a host of features, but the streamlined UI, helpful support, and overall ease of use make Active Administrator a clear winner.
AD and Group Policy are joined at the hip, so to speak, so it’s no surprise that vendors offer tools to manage both. What might be surprising, though, is why one product in the market, Script- Logic’s Active Administrator, stands out: for its usability. As any admin knows, the gap between acquiring a tool and actually using it productively is often a bottomless crevasse—enthusiasm cools if a tool takes too much effort to use.
In his November 2007 comparative review of Group Policy management tools (“3 Tools to Manage Group Policy,” InstantDoc ID 97228), Windows IT Pro contributing editor Eric Rux tested NetPro, NetIQ, and Script- Logic solutions. He concluded that “Script- Logic’s Active Administrator had the best look and feel, was the most intuitive, and includes extra features to help manage Group Policy.”
Adds Senior Systems Engineer Tory Skyers, “You can have this product installed and truly functional in less than 30 minutes, no exaggeration.” Ease of use translated to a quick response when an administrator deleted a high-level executive’s ad account by accident. “The Help desk alerted us that the VIP was having a problem, and within a few minutes we knew who, when, and from where it was deleted and had the object (including passwords) restored,” Skyers said. “About the only addition I can see a need for is delegation within the product itself (i.e., levels of access to make changes to program settings); other than that, I can’t really think of much I’d change. This product has paid for itself many times over in admin time saved alone, not to mention Group Policy backups, GPO modeling, and super-detailed permission delegation and templating. We’ve gotten so used to having it around that I honestly have no idea what we would do without it.”
Silver: ActiveRoles Server
Why it won: ActiveRoles Server offers role-based management of AD, letting admins delegate tasks while maintaining security and control. Especially useful for overworked IT pros is its Web interface and automated user provisioning process.
Why it won: Designed for easy deployment, AppManager’s big appeal is its ability to be customized. Its visual mapping of IT resources helps when prioritizing admin responses to system problems.
Training and Certification Winners
Gold: KSource Online Learning
Why it won: A high-quality on-demand training program, combined with a flexible online delivery method, makes KSource Online Learning the best online training and certification program currently available.
Keeping IT skills current is difficult for many IT pros to squeeze into their overbooked schedules, but it’s made easier by vendors that provide training and certification courses, DVDs, and other materials. One of the most innovative programs we’ve seen is KSource Online Learning. You can choose a hosted version of KSource (accessible over the Internet) or install a local version on your network. Both options give you 24 × 7 access to educational content in dozens of content areas, including such popular topics as Microsoft Visual Studio 2008, Microsoft Office Share- Point Server 2007, and Silverlight 2.
IT Manager Dennis Podgorski has used AppDev products and can attest to the quality of the training programs. “I checked out the AppDev Web site and saw that AppDev’s training products weren’t that expensive, and I liked that I could sample the products before purchasing,” says Podgorski. “I considered attending an offsite training program as an alternative to AppDev’s training products, but that just wasn’t an option in our small work environment. After using both the SQL Server 2005 and Java training programs, I managed to learn what I needed to—all without having to be away from office, and it didn’t cost me my entire training budget to do it.”
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Silver: MCSE Boot Camp
Mountain View Systems
Why it won: High-quality content and affordable program options make Mountain View Systems’ MCSE Boot Camp an excellent choice for IT pros looking to update their skills.
Bronze: MCSE 2003 Exam Preparation
Why it won: With seven exams and specialized information on messaging and security, Transcender’s MCSE 2003 Exam Preparation is one of the best MCSE training programs currently available.
Gold: Parallels Virtuozzo Containers
Why it won: A unique OS-level virtualization approach makes Parallels Virtuozzo Containers a better (and cheaper) solution than other virtualization offerings.
Although the likes of Citrix, VMware, and Microsoft dominate the virtualization headlines, that hasn’t stopped Parallels from becoming a significant player in the virtualization arena. Parallels excels at looking at an existing market from a new angle, and Parallels Virtuozzo Containers is a perfect example of that philosophy.
Unlike hypervisor-based products such as VMware ESX Server and Microsoft Hyper-V, Virtuozzo Containers takes an OS-level virtualization approach. Running on top of the host OS, this approach doesn’t virtualize hardware, instead relying on the host OS’s hardware and device drivers. Because fewer assets are virtualized, Virtuozzo Containers can support more virtual environments on a system than hypervisorbased solutions can. It might not be the right approach for every situation, but the performance and density of virtual environments makes this product a compelling choice for many businesses.
“Speed is the difference between profit and loss in the financial business,” says Arup Das, chief technology officer of Asset Management Company. “We run 80,000 SQL transactions over a four-hour period on Parallels Virtuozzo Containers, so superior performance and the ability to handle high I/O workloads is critical.”
Das points to the performance benefits that this virtualization approach has over competing solutions. “We were particularly impressed with Parallels Virtuozzo Containers, as OS virtualization avoids the poor performance caused by double caching, which is associated with virtualizing the hardware,” says Das. “With hardware virtualization \[solutions\] like VMware, each VM has to write to both itself and the physical server, which can really erode the efficiency being gained. This is particularly important to us, as we wanted to virtualize Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle databases and needed to avoid degradation in I/O.”
Silver: VMware ThinApp
Why it won: Thinstall’s name changed to VMware ThinApp in the midst of our judging, but everything that makes this a great application virtualization product has remained the same. If you need an easy, no-fuss way to virtualize applications, you should take a close look at ThinApp.
Bronze: everRun VM
Why it won: Do you need to protect your virtual infrastructure from data loss and catastrophic outages? everRun VM does that—and more. It’s easy to use and easy to deploy, and is bundled with top-notch support options.