TECH.ED |If you run a Windows network, you really need to read this: the nitty gritty of SoftGrid. We've spoken to Microsoft Australia's Windows technology expert, John Pritchard.
When Windows Vista was in beta and we were crawling over every inch of it, tracking down all the new features and working out the their implications to users, one of the most exciting features was the new image-based install image - WIM - which Vista is based on, and there was certainly plenty written about it. Past coverage on APCMag.com has included:
|John Pritchard: Microsoft Australia's chief tech guy for Windows
WIM has a few obvious and easily visible implementations, like the Vista DVD containing all versions of Vista on the one disk, users being able to perform seamless in-place upgrades from Windows XP, and all the advantages of using Windows PE as a boot environment.
But what are the long-term implications of the WIM format for businesses and administrators? At Tech.Ed, I spoke with John Pritchard, a Microsoft Product Technology Specialist for the Windows Client, who gave me a more holistic look at Microsoft's approach to image maintenance and deployment in enterprise environments.
How It All Hangs Together
There's no denying that with Vista's release, there's been an accompanying swathe of admin tools and applications - Business Desktop Deployment Workbench, Application Compatibility Toolkit, Windows Deployment Services, Vista Optimised Desktop.
To be honest, it sometimes gets a bit confusing, especially when trying to determine where to start and how to implement all these tools effectively.
The client-side tools (BDD Workbench, Application Compatibility Toolkit) are what the desktop administrators will use to interact directly with the images captured and deployed within their environment. The Workbench sets up network shares from which Vista can be installed, and other deployment assets on the local machine - in a lab environment you can install all this software on the local WDS server, but in a live enterprise environment it's better to have a dedicated workbench system. However, as access to virtual machines is so straightforward now, using a virtual PC system as the workbench admin client is good practice.
At this level, administrators can build up a library of drivers and applications which can be inserted into the image during or post-installation. Therefore, businesses with existing packaging procedures and technologies in place will continue to use these methods, except that now BDD will give them much greater administrative control and management over how images are built and deployed.
Once the images are deployed, what then? Looking at SOE management tasks like security updates and patch management, current practices are unlikely to change. However from the perspective of application management, SoftGrid comes into play and represents a substantial change (and improvement) in methodology.
A deeper look at SoftGrid
In the last couple of days on APCMag.com, I discussed how SoftGrid allows admins to virtualise applications and stream them across the wire to connected clients. Have a read of the original article, Microsoft jacks into the Softgrid, if you haven't already.
Application control and distribution is linked strongly to Active Directory, but the good news is that you don't have to be running AD across the whole network to get the benefit. Although it requires AD itself, SoftGrid can be set up on a standalone server in a network with an alternate primary directory service, such as Novell eDirectory for example.
As Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP) -- the same protocol used by RealPlayer, Skype, Windows Media Player and so on for live media streaming -- is used for streaming applications out to clients, the actual transfer rate is very fast, especially over a wired LAN network.
John Pritchard commented that in lab environments, a single SoftGrid server had been able to service up 1000 concurrent connections without experiencing any problems. If large businesses were anticipating having that many connected users in a live environment they'd probably consider multiple physical servers, but it's still encouraging to know that introducing SoftGrid into a live environment isn't going to result in network lags and server slowdowns.
I was especially interested to find out precisely how the client workstation interacts with the networked applications. For instance, are they cached locally? How are updates applied to virtualised applications? How can administrators streamline the user experience?
Well, yes the applications are cached locally on the client machine -- in a secure cache within the filesystem. So when a client accesses a virtualised app they are in effect downloading the entire application. However, what happens is that the client receives the first streamed data packets, known as "feature blocks" - this gives them all the necessary components of the application while the rest is downloaded and cached in the background.
Feature blocks are controllable by administrators during the virtualisation process. Once an app has been virtualised, admins can open the application and access what they know are going to be the most important features. For example, if Word is being virtualised, then the File >Open feature is a lot more important than Mail Merge. By accessing those features during the virtualisation process, admins are ensuring that they will be made available within the first few feature blocks to be streamed to the client, thus enhancing the user experience.
Additionally, as applications are cached locally, users can access those same apps at any time, even when there's no connectivity back to the SoftGrid server. This means that SoftGrid virtualisation is useful across all hardware platforms and any environment
Once you have a virtualised application, it gives you a lot of flexibility from that point onwards. For example, if you've virtualised an application but there's an update or a patch for it, you have two options. First option: you can apply the patch directly to the existing virtualised application. Then when the users who have been granted access next log in and access the app, they will receive an incremental update to bring their locally-cached version into line. Alternatively, if the update to be applied represents a major version change (like Adobe Reader 8.0 to 8.1.0) then you can simply create a new virtualised app and remove the old one, forcing removal of any cached copies of the older version.
Implications for large organisations
The suite of applications and tools now available to assist with OS and application deployment is really very exciting for businesses. BDD, WDS and SoftGrid present administrators the ability to streamline and manage end-to-end deployment in way that hasn't previously been possible.
Traditionally, when an business is particularly application-dependent, or has a wide spread of physical locations to cater for, image management is especially difficult. Supporting and maintaining a large number of software images is costly and time-consuming for IT staff and for the business as a whole, but now we can talk about streamlined standard operating environments across the board, small numbers of base images and easily-built and deployed applications.
The best thing is that most of this technology (especially WDS and SoftGrid) is fully compatible with Windows XP, so businesses don't even need to wait until Windows Vista migration is on the cards - it can all be implemented now.
James Bannan is attending Tech.Ed Australia 2007 as a guest of Microsoft.