Would you like to run the new version of Microsoft Office but hang on to the old version "just in case"? Would you like to test some beta software but can't get past the fear of messing up your underlying infrastructure? If so, application virtualization is for you.
Altiris Software Virtualization Solution (SVS) lets you run multiple applications on one system, each virtual application maintaining unique and separate file and registry settings. Altiris SVS abstracts the installation of these registry settings, letting you install and use applications without making any changes to the base Windows OS or conflicting with other applications' settings. With Altiris SVS, you can virtualize all desktop applications, but you can't use it for OS components, device drivers, or server-based applications.
Installing Altiris SVS is a quick and easy process that creates an Altiris Software Virtualization Admin icon on the desktop. Altiris SVS has minimal infrastructure requirements during the installation process, and Active Directory (AD) isn't required. To create a virtual application, you start the Altiris Software Virtualization Admin console and select Create New Layer. A layer can contain one or more virtual applications. When you create a new application layer, the software prompts you to run the installation program for the application that you want to virtualize. The console captures the setup data, including all registry entries and application files, and writes it in a special format to the system's \fslrdr folder. The process is fast, taking only the time necessary to run the application installation. (I got my first virtual application running in just a couple of minutes.) After you create a layer, you can archive it into a virtual software archive (.vsa) file and distribute it to other systems running SVS.
Altiris offers several sample .vsa files for download at http://juice.altiris.com/taxonomy/term/253.
After the installation process is complete, the Altiris Software Virtualization Admin console displays the new layer or virtual application for use. The application also appears in the Control Panel Add or Remove Programs applet's listing, but because it's a virtual application and managed through the Altiris console, the applet doesn't display a Remove button. To run the virtual application, you first activate the layer by right-clicking the layer and selecting the Activate Layer option, as Figure 1 shows. Doing so causes the application icon and menu items to appear on the Windows desktop. Activating an SVS virtual application essentially installs the application to Windows, and deactivating uninstalls the application. You can activate multiple layers simultaneously. You can also reset an application, which essentially reloads the virtual application, and you can set the layer to start automatically, which essentially activates the virtual application when Windows boots up. You can configure this functionality so that users can reset their own applications.
After you activate a virtual application, you run it exactly as you would a regular application, by clicking on the icon or menu option. In my tests, I saw no performance differences. However, there are underlying differences in the way a virtual application uses the registry. A special file-system filter redirects any registry access that the application makes to an SVS-provided virtual registry. Looking in the Windows system registry, you'll find none of the typical application registry entries. By virtualizing registry access, SVS completely avoids conflicts that might occur between applications and solves that common Windows problem in which the registry becomes progressively more corrupted through typical everyday application installation, uninstallation, and usage. SVS will definitely play a role in our lab's future testing.
One of Altiris SVS's most attractive features is its price. You can download the personal-use version of Altiris SVS for free from http://www.tucows.com and http://www.download.com. The price is still reasonable for business use. Altiris SVS is also available as part of the Altiris Total Management Suite.
PROS: Easy to use; eliminates application conflicts; provides user-initiated application reset