Application Virtualisation In The Spotlight

Some IT industry observers confuse application virtualisation with server virtualisation - Steve Gold explains what the technology is and why it so highly advantageous to tap the advantages that it adds to the benefits of hardware virtualisation...

Application virtualisation is one of the most exciting advantages to stem from the explosion in virtualisation technologies in recent times.

In simple terms, the process isolates applications from the operating system on which they are running, streaming a clean copy of an application from a central repository to the end-user system.

Using this approach - which major IT players such as Citrix, IBM, Microsoft and VMware have all embraced in the last few years - gives IT managers the ability to rapidly re-provision users and so lower their desktop management costs.

Interestingly, application virtualisation is a key component of cloud computing platforms, since it effectively encapsulates the application in a software `bubble' that is quite distinct from the local hardware.

Perhaps more importantly, however, these bubble-enabled applications can still interact with other applications and local resources, such as printers and local disk drives.

The key to effective application virtualisation is the provision of high availability bandwidth. The effectiveness of application virtualisation was highlighted in the spring of this year when Microsoft demonstrated - for the first time - its server application virtualisation technology.

The technology functions in much the same way Microsoft's App-V desktop application virtualisation does by separating the application from the underlying operating system.

The idea is to create images of both the application and the operating system that are stored in an online library.

Each of the images can be deployed separately and combined during installation ensuring that the operating system image is the correct configuration for the application.

The model also allows different versions of server applications to run on the same box, so extending the advantages of virtualisation beyond the simple hardware equations that bring most organisations to the virtualisation table.

The main goal of server application virtualisation is to create a services environment where users separately manage and update operating system and applications as virtual machine images that are only linked together at the time of deployment.

This approach to applications and operating systems is in stark contrast to the traditional client-server strategy seen in desktop applications, but if the bubble principle is carried to its logical end, then serious economies start to apply.

Because, for example, the applications image contains not just the core application code, but all the components that go along with it, such as database drives, this makes the installation process a lot simpler from the IT perspective.

Again, carried to its logical end, application virtualisation means that the separation between the operating system, the middleware and the applications means that the only traditional installation IT will have to do is to lay down a hypervisor on physical server hardware.

This separation between the triumvirate of the operating system, the middleware and the application is what makes the cloud computing environment so attractive for major enterprises.

It's also one of the main reasons why IBM has apparently taken longer than some of its competitors to offer a private cloud solution to the marketplace.

In mid-November, IBM took the wraps off a massive private cloud - of more than a petabyte (a 1,000 terabytes) of data - called Blue Insight.

Blue Insight - as the environment is becoming known internally to IBM staff - opens up client and market data gleaned from nearly 100 different information warehouses and data stores to 200,000 IBM sales staff and developers worldwide.

The idea behind the private cloud - a version of which is also being offered to major clients - is that IBM's product development teams will be able to study sales information and industry trends from the cloud.

Technology teams will then gain a clearer perspective on customer relationships and regional trends. Overall, the aim is to pull together best practice from teams across the IBM operations in various countries and give IBM the edge over its competitors.

As well as giving IBM an improved edge over its competitors, the plan is for the client version of the private cloud - known as IBM Smart Analytics Cloud - is to create a similar level of advantage for client organisations.

It's interesting to note that, in a survey carried out this summer by TheInfoPro (www.theinfopro.com) - a peer network of more than 1,800 of the world's largest buyers and users of IT - 70 per cent of IT professionals reported server virtualisation as being critical to meeting their business objectives.

Despite this, however, the same professionals also cited manageability and application performance as being of concern.

The server study - which TheInfoPro released in October - indicated that more than 50 per cent of new servers being installed in 2009 will host virtualisation, and future progressive growth indicates an 80 per cent level by the time 2012 rolls around.

According to Bob Gill, the research association's managing director of server research, whilst virtualisation does show continued growth in 2009, the depth of this penetration will really depend upon the ability to manage and deploy applications in these complex environments.

"The 2010 outlook and beyond are good indicators that, even as IT budgets continue to rise, hardware spending will be looked at differently given the options of virtualisation and consolidation," he said.