VMware buys Thinstall! What does this mean?

Today VMware announced they're acquiring application virtualization vendor Thinstall for an undisclosed amount of money. Thinstall has an application virtualization product that's similar to Microsoft SoftGrid, Citrix's Application Streaming, or Symantec / Altiris's SVS technology.

Today VMware announced they're acquiring application virtualization vendor Thinstall for an undisclosed amount of money. Thinstall has an application virtualization product that's similar to Microsoft SoftGrid, Citrix's Application Streaming, or Symantec / Altiris's SVS technology. It lets Windows clients run applications locally from a single-file package within a protected sandbox without ever having truly "installed" the application.

The key differentiator between Thinstall and the other products is that Thinstall is "agentless." It doesn't require any software agent to be pre-installed on a workstation before Thinstall-packaged applications can run. Of course in reality nothing is truly agentless--it's just that in Thinstall's case the client agent components are packaged into the EXE package along with the application files.

The specific mechanics of how Thinstall works are not important at this point. (We'll look at that more in the coming days and weeks.) What's important now is what this means in the grander scheme of things, namely, that VMware is now working their way out of the hardware virtualization game and into the application space.

If you think of the OSI stack, the "value" of each layer increases as you get further away from Layer 1 (the physical layer). Layer 1 is about copper and wires and electrons and photons. Layer 2 (the data link layer) is about physical connections like Ethernet and WiFi. Then you get up into protocol routing and stuff... This continues through Layer 7, the application layer, where things like HTTP live. Even though it was developed for computer networks, you can imagine how an OSI-like model might apply to computing in general (at least in terms of how applications are delivered to users.) At the bottom you have your physical hardware, then your operating system, then your user personalization, then your data, and then your applications. (You could argue the order of these higher layers, but probably everyone can agree that applications are more valuable to a business than the hardware on which they run.)

Apply that concept to software vendors like Citrix and VMware. Citrix started life at the "high level, high value" application layer. They only "stooped" down to lower layers (via hardware virtualization and disk virtualization) so they could increase their competitive position by offering the "full stack." (This is important becasue unlike the networking world with its open OSI model, no such model exists for the application delivery world. One company's lower level components are not necessarily compatible with another's higher components.)

VMware, on the other hand, began life down in the low layers of hardware (via hardware virtualization). Even though hardware virtualization can be very strategic to companies and can have its own nuanced layers, fundamentally hardware is "just" something an OS runs on (whether it's virtualized or not). And at some point everyone will have all the hardware virtualization they need and VMware will be in the commodities business.

The folks who run VMware aren't stupid. They know what Citrix's acquisition of XenSource means, and they know what Microsoft is trying to do with Hyper-V. In order to survive, VMware needs to climb up the application stack and into some higher value areas that are closer to the applications. This is where Thinstall comes in.

The immediate impact

First of all, VMware initially plans to continue selling Thinstall as is, except with the added bonus of thousands of VMware engineers, consultants, and tech support staff brought up to speed for support. They also claim that Thinstall will benefit from the VMware QA, distribution, and channel network. Later this year they hope to release a VMware-branded version of Thinstall that incorporates some of the most often-requested new features, although at this point they feel that product will still sport the "Thinstall" brand.

The most obvious place for Thinstall in VMware's solution stack is for use with their Windows XP and Windows Vista desktop delivery products, including their VDI solutions for server-based computing scenarios and VMware ACE for local computing scenarios. Thinstall is great here because the more apps you package with Thinstall, the less you have to build into your base Windows disk image that your desktop users will use.

Last September I wrote an article about the importance of a "stateless" desktop disk (which is important regardless of whether your users are running the desktop locally or remotely). Owning an application virtualization capability allows VMware to offer a more complete desktop delivery solution. Up until today, VMware's desktop solution went something like this:

VMware: "With our stuff, you can completely manage, deploy, and provide access to desktop instances of Windows from anywhere."
Customer: "Cool! What about my applications?"
VMware: "Ummm.... Citrix?"

We all know how much VMware and Citrix like each other now.

But now it can go like this:

VMware: "With our stuff, you can completely manage, deploy, and provide access to desktop instances of Windows from anywhere."
Customer: "Cool! What about my applications?"
VMware: "Glad you asked! You can use VMware Thinstall to 'virtualize' your applications too, and provide them on-demand wherever they're needed, whether that's within a virtual instance of Windows or on a physical Windows desktop."

The million-dollar question now is whether the Thinstall acquisition fulfills VMware's needs in the application space.

On the one hand, you could argue that single user-based SBC solutions (VDI) could replace multi-user terminal server-based SBC solutions (Citrix Presentation Server, Ericom, 2X, Quest / Provision) as hardware continues to fall in price and VDI user density approaches terminal server user density in terms of users per dollar.

On the other hand, all of VMware's solutions today are only useful if VMware is delivering and managing the entire desktop. (Again, this can be remotely via VDI or locally via VMware ACE.) But what if the user already has a desktop and doesn't need another one? This is where the beauty of single application publishing from those traditional terminal server-based application delivery companies comes in.

So what does VMware do next? Do they buy one of the terminal server-based SBC vendors do delivery applications into unmanaged desktops? Or do they assume that in the future, all applications will run on managed desktops, and unmanaged desktops will simply run a managed desktop in a VM? (Maybe even seamlessly?)

While you're thinking about this, don't forget that Microsoft will release Windows Server 2008 in a few weeks, and one of the new terminal server features is "Remote Applications," a capability that lets Windows-based clients connect to remote terminal server applications in a seamless way. The out-of-the-box feature from Microsoft isn't necessarily mature enough to use on its own, but maybe there's enough there for VMware to build upon?

Then again, that may be "dancing with the devil" for VMware, because if they wanted to just add management capabilities on top of core Microsoft capabilities, then why did they buy Thinstall instead of simply building on top of Microsoft SoftGrid? (The answer to that question may have to do with Microsoft's focus on SoftGrid, and the hoops they make customers jump through just to get the product!)

The bottom line is that it's no secret I think this is a brilliant move on VMware's part. (In fact I wrote "they might as well buy someone like ThinStall" in an article last October about whether VMware should focus more on applications.) What a great day in our industry!

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