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Softricity Purchase: Year 2 and beyond

Written on Jun 06 2008 9,810 views, 35 comments


by Tim Mangan

 

It has been about two years since Microsoft purchased Softricity, and probably a good time to take one more look at what has happened since, and is happening now. 

 

[For reference, when Microsoft purchased Softricity, I spoke with Brian Madden in one of his podcasts  I also wrote an article   last year at the one year mark.]

 

When Microsoft announced the purchase, I stated that the real value of Softricity to Microsoft might not be in the "product as a whole", but in the pieces.  With the changes to the product being released this year, we are seeing some of that come true.

 

Today, when I look at what application virtualization involves, I break it into three parts:

  • Application publication
  • Application delivery
  • Encapsulation/Isolation

 

What we had

The Softricity SoftGrid product did all three parts. 

 

The client would pull down the application publishing information at logon.  This  involves the shortcuts, icons, and file type associations needed, plus the OSD object to make the magic happen.  Some customers, especially when using Citrix and/or RES PowerFuse, were already turning off this part of the functionality and doing the application publishing with those products.

 

The application delivery with SoftGrid was performed by a client pull mechanism using the RTSP(S) streaming protocol.  Softricity could never get over just how cool this was and were effective in their Marketing message of a kind of "just in time" delivery.  In practice, we found we had to invent ways to get the client cache pre-filled with the assets to that the user never needed to wait for the streaming and could also work (disconnected mode) if the client lost connectivity with the server for some reason.  Technically, this streaming uses a special ("remote sparse matrix") file system that was specifically developed for the product.  At the time of the purchase I felt that Microsoft would probably find other uses for technology.

 

The actual virtualization engine doing the encapsulation and isolation (SystemGuard) was of course the real heart of the product.

 

What has happened so far?

 First of all, Microsoft has managed to not screw everything up.  It is hard for a large company to successfully bring in a start-up company and not destroy the product.  So let's give them credit (Citrix also seems to be doing this well, currently) for that.  First, Microsoft decided to give away all the server and sequencer pieces and charge a client license only.  This was good.  Yes, there are many customers unhappy with the client licensing model.    The SoftGrid for Windows Desktop client, was bundled into the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) and offered for a ridiculously low price.  This is a problem, however, because to purchase MDOP, the client OS has to be on subscription (Software Assurance), and SA is considered expensive given the long time that lapsed between XP and Vista (assuming the customer even wants Vista - but let's not go there).  Ultimately, I think Microsoft intends to make desktop SA work.  The fact that you can also get VECD (which you will want for VDI) only if you are on SA makes the cost of SA look a whole lot better.  At any rate, although non SA customers are unhappy, Microsoft has been shipping an awful lot of MDOP (reported at 6 million copies in the first 6 months).  In addition, we have seen good improvements to the virtualization engine.  Support for virtual services has been added, as well as for applications that are .net based, and a bunch of other things which increase the range of applications that can be supported. 

 

Finally, they also quietly included a new option for application publishing and virtualization without using streaming for the delivery.  This major new feature was included in a hot-fix rollup pack in February of this year.  And it was described as for use in one-off situations like for a contractor in India  and you don't to try to stream stuff over the internet.  But this week, I suggested using this feature (MSI based publishing) across the board to a customer with 50,000 SoftGrid client seats.  Basically, you take the publishing info and create an MSI that "installs" the publishing info using whatever push mechanism you use for non-virtualized apps (such as SMS).  The MSI populates the shortcuts and icons and file type associations, and them imports the asset file (sft)  to pre-fill the cache.  Configure the client to never look for a server and boom - you have a client with virtual apps with no back-end infrastructure to worry about.  Fewer moving parts is reason enough to give up things like app usage reporting in my book.  And if that reporting is important enough for you just use a tool that will monitor the clients and report both the virtual and non-virtual apps in one report.

 

What is coming soon?

 

The new 4.5 release coming out this year (Microsoft only says Q2/Q3 but the rumor mill puts money on a release candidate soon and RTM in probably September).  Also important to some customers will be SCCM R2 which will have a slightly later timeframe.  So what is in 4.5?

 

First, we have renaming happening.  The Softricity name clearly will be gone.  Microsoft is also trying hard to eliminate the SoftGrid name, but that is turning out to be more difficult than they realized.  "System Center Microsoft Application Virtualization" sounds awful to say even the first time.  Oh well, I'm just going to say MAV and move on to features.   The beta only included a small set of these, but the others were shown or discussed at the Microsoft Management Summit ( which I blogged about here).

 

Starting with the virtualization engine,  "Dynamic Suite Composition" (DSC) is the first attempt at solving a problem created because application virtualization virtualizes too well sometimes.  The problem is that when we containerize apps and run them in independent virtual bubbles, they also can't talk to each other.  We usually work around this by packaging multiple apps together into a single package.  If the application has too many dependencies this starts to be too much and we sometimes decide to install the major application (such as Microsoft Office) natively on the clients and virtualize the rest.  DSC allows us to make individual app packages and have the client perform a form of "mash-up" to bring them together into a single virtual bubble on the client.  This paragraph makes it sound better than it is, as there are special steps involved in the package creations due to the dependencies.  This will limit the use of DSC to a few things like Office and browser plug-ins.

 

There is a version of the MAV Server, which they call the "Streaming Server" (I call it the "lightweight server  because that name is less confusing).  The intent is to place this in a branch office.  The only purpose of the streaming server is to deliver the application (sft) via the normal pull streaming mechanism to the client.  This server does not deliver shortcuts, nor does it talk to the database.  Client overrides (registry settings at the client) are used so that the client can pull publication info from the home office at logon, and then stream everything locally.  You loose app usage reporting from these clients since nothing talks to a database if that is important.

 

4.5 will also automate the MSI option that came out in the hot-fix.  Rather than a separate tool to generate the MSI, it is embedded in the sequencer as an option.  By the way, the sequencer is getting a UI overhaul in the final release.  The three wizards are combined into one, and some options that were formerly in the wizards are now just new tabs in the sequence editor.

 

It is the delivery part which will have a lot of new architectural options.  In addition to MSI, we also have HTTP, SMB, and Bits.   While you can still use RTSP(S) with the VAS  (which is now called MAV Management Server), the new SCCM R2 release will allow you to ditch the VAS, SoftGrid Management Server, and SoftGrid Database and use SCCM instead for all of your virtual and non-virtual application distribution needs.  You will be able to specify HTTP(S) streaming from an IIS distribution point if you go this way.  There is also an SMB option ( file : // ) which I don't yet fully understand.   We also have background streaming using Bits (which may be related to the SMB option), but again you need to be on SCCM R2 so that you have the BITS distribution point.

 

Summary

The segmentation of the technology into those three parts, and providing new options for implementing them is a smart long-term move.  Maybe I'm not in love with SCCM, but the concepts work for any ESD to incorporate also.  Many of these options make us (myself included) look a little silly at poking fun at Citrix for not having "real streaming".  Streaming is a cool option, but quite frankly I would rather obtain delivery via other means.

 

Application Virtualization continues to make an awful lot of sense, not only for desktop and terminal server use, but for VDI in the future as well.  The concepts of encapsulation, segmentation, and layering are important to all forms of virtualization.

 

On the competition front, application virtualization continues to draw interest.  Two years ago we were not sure that Citrix would continue with AIE.  They did (now renamed) and have continued to improve their capabilities.  While the virtualizaiton engine of Citrix does not handle as high percentage of application as MAV, they have continued to make good progress.  Thinstall (now Vmware ThinApp) has arrived on the seen, as have others.  The Altiris/SVS/AppStream combo is also out there (I don't run into them, but if I don't mention them I'm sure "guest" will).

 

I think that Microsoft has done OK so far.  I might not make all the same choices as they made (like failure to deliver a 64-bit client for Terminal Services), but I would not have thought to make some of the right choices either.

 

 

 

 

 
 




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Comments

Guest wrote Any news on 64-bit support?
on Fri, Jun 6 2008 11:21 AM Link To This Comment

Ruben Spruijt wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Fri, Jun 6 2008 12:20 PM Link To This Comment

x64 MSAV Client support isn't available in version 4.5. Running the MSAV server components on x64 is supported with 4.5.

Guest wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Fri, Jun 6 2008 8:45 PM Link To This Comment
64 Bit Client is a major feature of MAV 5.0, due out in 2010.
Guest wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Mon, Jun 9 2008 8:31 AM Link To This Comment
2010?  Are you serious?
Tim Mangan wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Mon, Jun 9 2008 10:02 AM Link To This Comment
This is the rumor our there (neither Ruben nor I can confirm it due to NDAs).  TS customers need to make their needs known to Microsoft in a louder mannor.
Guest wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Mon, Jun 9 2008 12:01 PM Link To This Comment
Just do what we do. Softgrid on 32bit servers and Citrix streaming on 64bit servers. The goal is application virtualization, the tool should be irrelevant.
Guest wrote .
on Mon, Jun 9 2008 12:11 PM Link To This Comment
What I gather is that the MSPLA licensing has not been decided nor the other non-mdop scenarious.
Kalle Saunamäki wrote Re: .
on Mon, Jun 9 2008 12:46 PM Link To This Comment

Are you sure about MSPLA? I think somebody mentioned a while back that it [SoftGrid] is now included in that licensing model too.. but OTOH it could have been SoftGrid's TS client that's included.

In MDOP scenarios I'm afraid that only option is to use TS, as far as I know, there's no plan to lift the "MDOP only" restriction.

Guest wrote Questions to folks out there.
on Mon, Jun 9 2008 2:43 PM Link To This Comment
Run business critical apps with Softgrid? Softrgrid service dies, all apps are dead. Look for a new Job. Agentless is the other key thing at least in my view a key missing piece to make app virtualization real. ThinAPP is better in this regard. Do others share my concern?
Guest wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Mon, Jun 9 2008 4:06 PM Link To This Comment
It's not just TS scenarios that need this.  A growing number of VDI users want to go with the x64 versions of xp and vista.
Guest wrote Re: .
on Mon, Jun 9 2008 7:08 PM Link To This Comment
Microsoft SPLA only includes SoftGrid for Terminal Server use, not desktop. Although, for service providers I am sure that it will change soon as hosted desktops become more common.
Guest wrote Packaged Applciation Compatibility
on Mon, Jun 9 2008 10:29 PM Link To This Comment

Has anyone heard of how compatible the Softgrid 4.2 packaged apps will be with Microsoft Virtualisation 4.5? Will importing them work? Will they stream fine with the updated client? Or will we need to repackage everything?

Guest wrote Re: Questions to folks out there.
on Mon, Jun 9 2008 10:31 PM Link To This Comment
We have two Softgrid servers using Microsofts inbuilt Load Balancer and we have also setup a dns alias so all workstations point to the load balanced ip/dns entry. If one server goes down it automagically goes to the other. (oh yeah, and we purchased MirroFolder to replicate the content directory to the second server)
Guest wrote Re: Questions to folks out there.
on Tue, Jun 10 2008 7:47 AM Link To This Comment
On the backend that helps, but the above question is about the client side agent, that represents a single point of failure. I agree with the post, that this is a limitation of Softgrid and an agentless approach would solve this amongst the host of other things that Softgrid has made limited progress on.
Guest wrote MS did screw this up!
on Tue, Jun 10 2008 7:51 AM Link To This Comment
No one can buy this product unless you are under the MS Software Assurance Subscription program.
Kevin Kaminski wrote Re: Questions to folks out there.
on Tue, Jun 10 2008 12:24 PM Link To This Comment
Yeah you can use ThinApp or Thinstall if that is your concern but in all honesty the SoftGrid client is extremely stable. I think x64 support is a larger concern if that is a major criteria in your design. I guess if you want to consolidate hardware you could run 32bit VMs on a large ESX host. :P
Rick Eilenberger wrote Integration, and the Gift that Keeps on Giving!
on Tue, Jun 10 2008 1:03 PM Link To This Comment

I work for RES Software here in the U.S.  Tim mentions our product at the top of the article!  Which is outstanding stuff, Thanks!

What a complicated business this Softgrid item has been for businesses to grasp.  Packaging applications is burdensome of its own, but once I get the application to the platform, then what?  What work am I doing to render further services and personalization for the end user?  How many management consoles and work procedures will I be required to engage to deliver the user experience?  Separating user policy environments based on platform, scripting delivered from remote file share, local file path, GPO, LGPO, registry key entries.  How many profile containers will I retain for each user as result?  How many GPO?  What level of detail in the DACL for each GPO?  It is a good deal of work, and a good deal has been done already.

At RES we integrated Softgrid, Thinstall, Citrix Streaming, as well as our RES Wisdom product into a single management console for Windows platform instances W2K, W2K3/XP, W2K8/Vista.  We have offered the ability via Wisdom to pre-cache SFT files for some time now.  RES PowerFuse offers the ability to manage the Softgrid environment in such a way as to manage HKCU/HKLM registries, as well as user policy and resource provisioning from a single management console for all Microsoft platform and device instances I mention above.

In speaking with a customer of similar size to that mentioned by Tim in his article the value RES creates with regard to Softgrid is that "packaging becomes the work of interns".  As the customer is able to manage the required SFT file configuration from the RES PowerFuse management console, complexities associated with packaging an application for Softgrid is drastically reduced.  This means more rapid access to virtualized application services rendered in a consistent manner delivering predicted results into the production environment of the network.  More rapid access to the services you pay for under SA is a better deal for all.

I would also mention that PowerFuse is database driven.  This offers global visibility to all application services delivered from all MS platforms (W2K and up), whether virtual, SBC, or locally installed from a single console, this includes remote laptops as logging is cached and will be delivered on next entry to the network.  Known application service configurations which exist throughout the production environment without variance, deliver predictable results (this term predictable results is really long speak for Success!).  The customer can report on app utilization across the scope of the environment I have mentioned.  You see and control every configuration associated with every application service exposed to the user on the network.

And we support every domain in the tree! 

We will be at Briforum with a booth.  I am glad to announce that our resident RES/Softgrid expert Max Ranzau will be joining us, and we are eager to follow up on your Softgrid questions.  Have a great day and see you there!

Guest wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Wed, Jun 11 2008 9:14 AM Link To This Comment
Ummmm why?  Is there some dire need for 16GB of RAM on your shared VM infrastructure?  That seems kind of counter-intuitive to the nature of shared computing resources.
Kalle Saunamäki wrote Re: Packaged Applciation Compatibility
on Wed, Jun 11 2008 9:30 AM Link To This Comment

For the most part they should work just ok, but of course there's always possibility that app here and there doesn't work for some reason. Not that there's as fundamental change between 4.x and 4.5 that there were when 3.x changed into 4.0 (and caused problems with some packages)..

Kalle Saunamäki wrote Re: Integration, and the Gift that Keeps on Giving!
on Wed, Jun 11 2008 9:34 AM Link To This Comment

I have to disagree a bit with your statement that with PowerFuse SoftGrid packaging could be done with less effort or with more "sloppy" attitude. That's simply not true as there's only as much you can do after packaging (i.e. runtime at client) when it comes to application and whether it works correctly or not.

Otherwise I agree that PowerFuse is good product and integrates nicely with SG apps.

Yuri Haak wrote Integration, and the Gift that Keeps on Giving...
on Wed, Jun 11 2008 12:06 PM Link To This Comment

Almost spot on!

Offcourse all packaging isn't really done by the interns, but it makes the concept of applications delivery a hell of a lot easier for the front end engineers, administrators and support techies. Packagers or sequencers tend to be a cheap and young labor force... (compared to the self acclaimed packaging and scripting gurus) The concept of packaging withing the application delivery model is now easy. In concept and in practice. In fact what you're doing is making the computing platform as well as the user workspace more modular. Basic building blocks and (virtual) machine and user conguration on demand. In the front-end. Using access control, workspaces, scope control and such on a enterprise level to deliver a uniform, scalable, reproducable, documentable, stable, measurable, *.*able.... And extremely efficient and effective working environment for the end user. I say hallelujah for application virtualization and workspace management...

Guest wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Thu, Jun 12 2008 7:28 AM Link To This Comment

Absolutely.

 We have been asking for x64 support for at least a year. We keep getting told by Microsoft that they are not hearing much in the way of demand for x64 support for the terminal services client.

 I am quite disappointed that they have pushed out the delivery date until 2010.

Guest wrote Re: Questions to folks out there.
on Thu, Jun 12 2008 12:22 PM Link To This Comment
ThinApp does not work on x64 either, their isolation bubble is far less featured than Softrgrid, and none of these solutions offer the ability for apps to talk to each other. So all three issues are important, x64, interbubble commuincation and agentless. Check out InstallFree
Tim Mangan wrote Re: Questions to folks out there.
on Thu, Jun 12 2008 3:13 PM Link To This Comment

You must be kidding about being worried about the SoftGrid Service!  I can't recall a single customer telling me about a SoftGrid Service crashing on them.  Still, as others mentioned you always use load balancing "just in case".  On top of that, you have the client caching.  We always teach to stuff the cache, so that if all else fails the client will pop into disconnected mode and run the app anyway.  And if that isn't enough for you we have this new MSI option that completely removed the SoftGrid service.

I have heard of issues (years ago) about the client services and the need to sometimes reboot the client to clean things up.  I have not seen evidence that this was any different than needing to reboot a desktop on occaision as the OS goes unstable all by itself for some users.

I can buy an argument that agentless *should* be more stable, but with 7 years of history (going back to a notably unstable NT platform) we have not seen issues here.

 

Tim Mangan wrote Re: MS did screw this up!
on Thu, Jun 12 2008 3:16 PM Link To This Comment

This is true for the desktop client only, not for the Terminal Server Client.

And yes, this is a "screw-up".  If you listen to Microsoft's logic, it makes sense (from their perspective).  It just messes up a lot of existing customers.

badshadd wrote A Farewell to SoftGrid...
on Fri, Jun 13 2008 3:08 AM Link To This Comment

JC Hornbeck at the SoftGrid (make that Microsoft Application Virtualization or App-V) Team Blog just posted his reflections on the evolution of the product's name since the Softricity purchase.

If only understanding the product's path / update releases were as simple as changing the name.

badshadd wrote Re: A Farewell to SoftGrid...
on Fri, Jun 13 2008 3:09 AM Link To This Comment
Tim Mangan wrote Re: A Farewell to SoftGrid...
on Fri, Jun 13 2008 9:07 AM Link To This Comment

App-V.  That's a new one.  I know that Microsoft has been struggling with removing the SoftGrid name.  Eliminating Softricity from the product was relativly easy, but SoftGrid had to be replaced by something.  Given Hyper-V, I guess App-V is OK, but will take some getting used to.

Kevin Kaminski wrote Re: Questions to folks out there.
on Fri, Jun 13 2008 3:52 PM Link To This Comment

Ok we are using broad statements. ThinApp will deliver a 32-bit application to an x64 environment. But I still wonder if 64-bit Citrix is ready for the mainstream. If I don't want to use virtualization how do I package my apps for a x64 environment? This recent thread caught my eye.

http://www.appdeploy.com/messageboards/m.asp?m=31423&mpage=1&key=

 

Kevin Kaminski wrote Re: Questions to folks out there.
on Fri, Jun 13 2008 3:53 PM Link To This Comment

Doh, forgot to mention ThinApp does have the ability to have package to package communication but I haven't kicked the tires on it.

Guest wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Sat, Jun 14 2008 10:21 AM Link To This Comment
Epected from an idiot PM team buried in an idiot MDOP group who do nothing expcept try to slow virtualization and force customers to buy SA. Softgrid is a dead technology, many emerging superior alternatives.
Guest wrote Re: Questions to folks out there.
on Sat, Jun 14 2008 10:29 AM Link To This Comment
Are you kidding yourself with that statement! All apps on a desktop depending upon a single service is just bad architecture, just like the Q drive nonsense Softgrid has. I see it crash still, although better than the past, but that's not the point. No way in hell to run a business where you depend on those apps. Softgrid uses a kernel filter to do everything, and other don't need that anymore. It's a legagcy architecture that has been branded by MS as a standard, and the reality is that they have made super slow progrss.
badshadd wrote Re: A Farewell to SoftGrid...
on Mon, Jun 16 2008 1:23 AM Link To This Comment
I was fantasizing over the weekend on the other virtualization technologies being used that could use a shorted name: ·         Application Virtualization – App-V - resolved·         Desktop Virtualization (streaming – i.e. Ardence SmartClient) – De-V – sounds like a military term for Distinguished Visitor·         Server Virtualization (OS virtualization – i.e. VMware, MS Hyper-V) – how about Serv-V? It sounds like a type of ice cream. ;^)

·         Storage Virtualization – Sto-V (pronounced stove) Naja…

·         Infrastructure Virtualization – IV (like in hospital).
badshadd wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Mon, Jun 16 2008 1:46 AM Link To This Comment
Oh really - you don't say.  I guess that's why my customer and their 30K+ clients are still asking for more virtualized apps. With the introduction of the App-V (the product formerly known as SoftGrid) MSI Utility option for standalone package distribution, it resolved streaming issues with some of our remote customers.  Hopefully, MS can make you eat those words.  ;^)
Guest wrote Re: Any news on 64-bit support?
on Fri, Jun 20 2008 8:34 AM Link To This Comment
I would love to see MS make anybody eat their words, because that woud indicate progress. It's amazing how all the Softgrid bidgets out there with vested consulting interests, advice clients without telling them the real story behind being forced to buy MDOP with SA increasing costs.

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