TECH.ED |Look ma, no virtualisation window: Microsoft showed a cool new virtualisation technology for desktop PCs today.
|Jack in to the Softgrid: Microsoft's Leon Booth
Look ma, no virtualisation window: at Tech.Ed Australia today, Microsoft showed its new "Softgrid" technology that allows apps to run as if they were inside a second copy of Windows. But unlike traditional virtualisation apps, there's no second Windows desktop getting in the way.
Microsoft showed Office 2003 and Office 2007 running side-by-side, even though they can't actually be installed on the same copy of Windows.
Initially, the technology is for corporate users only, but it has huge obvious benefits for home users as well. For example, the ability to install an application, without affecting the system in any permanent way, and be able to remove it completely without relying on the app's uninstaller.
To understand how SoftGrid works, imagine that Office 2003 is running on the original PC, and Office 2007 is running in its own copy of Windows. However in Softgrid, there isn't actually another copy of Windows -- the application is running on the original copy of Windows, but some software called "SystemGuard" is keeping absolutely all the Office 2007 settings separate from the rest of the system.
Put simply, unlike Virtual PC or VMware which is virtualising an entire OS, Softgrid virtualises applications.
By launching this technology, Microsoft is declaring war on Citrix, which has been the traditional vendor of choice for organisations wanting to deliver apps to desktops without installation.
The concept is intended to assist with application compatibility. In many ways, SoftGrid is an extension (albeit a very complex extension) of the Vista Application Compatibility Toolkit. Most applications can be virtualised using the technology; since Microsoft released SoftGrid, it claims that approximately 35,000 different apps have been successfully virtualised.
So, for example, if your business is moving to Office 2007, but Office 2003 is on the standard desktop PC image, Office 2007 can be virtualised and delivered to users to run side-by-side with Office 2003 without touching the client operating system, thereby circumventing application incompatibility.
The virtualisation technology isn’t like Remote Desktop or Terminal Services, where an application is running on a Terminal Server and remote users are seeing it via screen-sharing technology. Instead, SoftGrid runs a sort of virtual machine on each PC, onto which the software is installed.
The magic is that there's no second virtualised OS desktop like traditional virtualisation apps; the user just sees their apps side-by-side.
|Softgrid: click to watch the Microsoft demo on how it all works
What's going on in the server room
Behind the scenes, the technology is a cross between traditional MSI application packaging and Windows Media Services.
Essentially, to get an application ready to be distributed to users this way, you install the app on a 'clean box' (Microsoft recommends using a copy of Vista in Virtual PC) and then SoftGrid 'captures' how the software has been installed -- the arrangement of files on the disk, changes to configuration files and the registry, and so on.
Unlike many packaging utilities, SoftGrid doesn’t do a before/after snapshot comparison, but rather every change made to the system is monitored in real time, and this forms the basis of the package created at the end.
Once the capture is complete, the admin is presented with a full summary of filesystem and registry changes made, and any of them can be removed or tweaked, or new ones can be added.
Once done, the application is assigned to Active Directory groups, users and workstations.
Each machine on the network then runs a SoftGrid client, and the packaged applications are delivered to that machine, visible on either the desktop or the Start Menu (or both).
Although hosted on a main server, SoftGrid applications are actually streamed out using RTSP – the same network streaming protocol used by Windows Media Services. This allows faster user access to available applications, but doesn’t put excess load on the host. According to Microsoft, apps can start running on a user's machine only after a small part of its code base has been streamed out to the desktop machine. The code is then streamed as it's needed.
Each application is compressed and transmitted in small data chunks, making SoftGrid an excellent option for distributing applications over a WAN (including the internet), too -- another clear example that Microsoft is aiming to go head-to-head with Citrix.
The apps themselves are then run on local PCs in a virtual machine environment (but unlike traditional virtual machines, you're not running a second Windows desktop -- the apps appear just like any other app in Windows). However, this virtual machine separation means it's possible to run apps side-by-side that you otherwise couldn't.
Based on the demos Microsoft has given, it's an exceptionally clever integration of virtual machine technology onto the desktop in a way that's quite transparent to the user.
Softgrid is being provided free of charge as part of "Vista Optimized Desktop" suite, which is an add-on only available to Microsoft Vista Business customers with Software Assurance.
The question is, will we see a version of this seamless virtualisation come to home versions of Windows? Mac users already have something similar called Coherence mode in the Parallels virtualisation suite, but it's nowhere near as sophisticated as what Microsoft is offering (it's a bit of a hack really -- it's simply stripping away the Windows desktop, but if you move the Windows apps around quickly, you see the Windows desktop peering through as the graphics tear.)
Will Microsoft extend the cool virtualisation technology used in Softgrid out to home users? And would you use it?
|Parallels Coherence mode: Mac users have something a little bit like what Microsoft is providing with Softgrid, but it's similar only in appearance. The technologies sitting behind are very different.
James Bannan is attending Tech.Ed as a guest of Microsoft.