Tim Mangan was at Softricity ten years ago, when application virtualization was in its infancy. In this article he looks back at the history and what's happening now.
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On February 26th this year, Softricity, the creators of what is now called App-V, turns 10 years old. Well... sort of. Softricity was a rename from the previous company name, "Software Wow." Actually we really did the rename in the previous November, but we kept it private for three months to get our new act together before going public with the name. February 26th, 2001 seems to be the first public record of the name Softricity that I can find, so I'll just go with that date -- ten years ago today.
The biggest hit of the English band "10 Years After" was probably the song "I'd Love To Change The World", a title that embodies what we thought we were going to do with Application Virtualization. We were a really hot and new startup company. We were going to turn applications into a utility, like water or electricity that you just turn on when you need them. David Greschler loved to tell potential customers that "this is the last install you'll ever have to do." Perhaps a bit of marketing hyperbole? Of course! But we did believe that we were going to forever change the way companies dealt with distributing software. ASPs (the forerunner of "Clouds") were the next big thing. 10 years later we can look back and ask, "did we do that?" Not so much as we thought at the time... But not that the company and ideas weren't a rousing success.
Back then, we were replacing "sneakernet." The vast majority of application installs in the enterprise ten years ago were manually performed with the technician going to the desktop with the installation media in hand. Automation was being used by some, but not many. Originally, SoftGrid could help on a majority of those applications, but there were still many that it didn't work for. For companies that have gone this route, some claim today to virtualize over 95% of their applications. We will probably never get 100% coverage, but then we don't have to. The enterprise today has many choices to automate application deployment, and they will multiple methods to get to the 100%.
Another sign of success, Microsoft bought the company (rumored to be about a $250M purchase) and App-V (the new name under Microsoft) today has tens of millions of licenses out there. Over the years the capabilities of SoftGrid have steadily, if slowly, evolved to cover many of the problems we knew needed to be addressed even early on. Like how different terminal services and desktops are. Handing temporary offline usage cases. Covering a wider array of applications, including those with services. A solution to the "bubble to bubble" issue, or at least part of a solution. And it seems that today everyone talking about the new greatest thing, virtual desktops, acknowledges that application virtualization must be used to layer apps in if you are doing VDI.
Another sign of success may be the others out there virtualizing applications. Citrix, VMware, Symantec, and a host of other companies have parallel capabilities in this space. Each has their own take on how to handle applications and each has strengths and weaknesses, depending on your needs. New companies are also still entering this space, like App Zero. And one could argue others are embracing the ideas in new ways; with ideas like MokaFive's application and user layers.
By many yardsticks application virtualization has been a winner. But we didn't solve everything. Fundamentally, massive deployment of applications is hard. It doesn't matter how you try to do it, it will be hard. Each application has its own unique quirks. Each enterprise also has its own unique needs; needs that often were not under consideration of the developer. Heck, we keep these apps around through multiple generations of hardware and OS technology and that they work AT ALL should be considered a minor miracle. As much as we like to bash Microsoft (and who doesn't like to do that?) one thing that Microsoft has been pretty good at is providing a platform that tries to embrace the older applications as the platform evolves. Heck, you could still run those old 16-bit DOS apps from the early 80's on Vista.
The newest incarnation of App-V 4.6 SP1 is expected out sometime this quarter. From the previews at Tech-Ed Berlin, it is clear that Microsoft is squarely taking aim at making applications easier to deal with. And while the videos look cool and I'll be excited to work with the new version and will find it easier, virtualizing applications are still going to be hard. Because applications are hard.
So we didn't get it all right in the last 10 years, but I think that we got some of what we were dreaming of. At times I feel like "if we just rewrote these old apps the problems would go away." But the reality would just be another version of the same problem a few years down the road. We heard that story with Java. We heard it with web apps. We are hearing it again with Cloud apps. But we cannot write applications today that anticipate the changes of tomorrow, either in the surrounding technology or in what a business will need. So dealing with apps will remain hard. This means we need good tools to help with the bulk, and smart people to deal with the rest.
Not that the software vendor community can't help. I really don't think that the ISVs really understand how the enterprise modifies their products to make them work the way the enterprise needs them to work. Better information on what the applications touch is sorely needed across the board. Support for enterprise customizations -- things as simple as allowing IT to easily disable the update menu -- should be standard across the board.
So while application virtualization may have made great strides in the last 10 years, the adage "garbage in, garbage out" remains true. We will continue to want to evolve our environments, embracing new technologies and new concepts. Unfortunately, as the next evolution occurs we will need to bring much of the garbage along, hopefully cleaning up some of it from time to time, but only when we have to. As the song said:
I'd love to change the world
But I don't know what to do
So I'll leave it up to you
Virtual Desktops, The Cloud , and User Mobility, let's face it: we all want to change the world. In the next ten years we will make great strides, but you can bet that the world won't look like we think it will today anyway. Grand visions are great, but at the end of the month you need to improve your operations today. We need to be thinking at both levels.