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Finding the value in server application virtualization

Some IT pros can see the potential in abstracting applications from server operating systems. For now, the technology is just getting off the ground.

With the potential to ease application installation and mobility, products that can abstract applications from server operating systems have emerged in the server virtualization market. But right now, “potential” is the operative word.

This type of abstraction is also known as server application virtualization. It’s a means of packaging an application and information it needs to run, such as binaries, libraries, and services, into an image -- a kind of bubble -- which can then be deployed without a lengthy step-by-step installation. It can also be used to cut down on the effect of OS updates on applications.

At least, that’s the theory. But right now, products are in the early stages of development and production.

Microsoft says its server application virtualization offering, Server App-V, will minimize the impact of moving applications between environments like development, testing, quality assurance and production, and simplify the application installation process. Server App-V, launched earlier this year,  is out in beta as part of the forthcoming System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012.

VMware’s desktop ThinApp technology is also translatable to the server side. Some customers are using ThinApp today to minimize the drain of OS updates on applications. However, a server-side ThinApp has not yet been developed as a formal product, or integrated with VMware’s provisioning and management tools.

Another company with such a product is AppZero, originally founded in 2004 as Trigence, and relaunched under its current name in 2009. AppZero supports virtualizing Windows, Linux and Solaris applications, putting it ahead of Microsoft, which is limited to Windows only. But AppZero has so far amassed just a handful of customers -- about 10.

Server App-V: Beta points toward Web niche
Microsoft’s Server App-V focuses on Web-based and internally developed applications, according to a TechNet blog post. In that realm, partners see a niche for the product.

“We’re seeing light interest [in Server App-V] from companies we do hosting for, mostly financial services customers that need to scale rapidly and shrink just as rapidly,” said William Bressette, a network architect at Horn IT Solutions, based in Ontario, Canada. “It’s [meant] for that front-end layer, where you want to be able to scale out those Web servers or scale out that middle-tier application in order to meet demand.”

Hosting and cloud service providers may end up being the target market for this type of technology, as it’s most appealing when applications need to be moved between environments which may not have matching operating systems, and when operations such as application installation need to be repeated hundreds of times.

In that vein, the logical opportunity for Server App-V is its ability to move applications from on-premise servers to the cloud.  

“When I think of Server App-V, I’m thinking of a technology that brings applications from Windows Server to Windows Azure, and not bringing the application from test to dev,” said Al Gillen, an analyst at IDC. “That’s something we haven’t had to date.”

Microsoft has opened a private Community Technology Preview of just such a capability, but it has not yet targeted a release date.

Microsoft does not yet provide application virtualization support for SQL Server and Exchange.  Applications with hardware drivers also do not apply. Finally, there isn’t much third-party Server App-V support to speak of yet, though adoption of Server App-V by independent software vendors could broaden its appeal, according to some IT managers.  

Often, application software vendors will come in with CDs, which must be loaded onto a server in a particular order to install their application, said Janssen Jones, associate director of AIT infrastructure at Indiana University.

“If I could buy an off-the-shelf line of business app, and the vendor could just come in with an App-V package, hand me that, and an XML file where I put in my custom settings and spin it up, that’s appealing,” Jones said.

To some IT managers, however, server application virtualization may be a solution looking for a problem. On the desktop side, having a single back-end server streaming applications to hundreds of end users has obvious value, according to Christian Metz, a systems administrator at a Fortune 300 company. But servers are already virtualized so the value isn’t as clear.

“We’re already breaking up the workload as it is,” Metz said.

In theory: Application mobility, golden OS images, easier DR
Despite current limitations, some IT pros said they believe server application virtualization will eventually play a role in the enterprise. Horn IT’s Bressette said he expects application support to expand as Server App-V exits its beta.

“It would be my hope that it would support SQL or other workloads,” he said.

To Jones, server application virtualization may not be compelling on its own. But there is promise in its potential for moving applications between private and public clouds. 

“Each year that goes by, the scale starts to teeter toward [that] becoming the way that you’re going to deploy [applications]… At the moment it’s filling a niche, but I think that space will expand in the future,” Jones said.

Stephen Kiser, a VMware systems administrator at a utility in the Southwest, can envision using virtualized applications in a disaster recovery scenario. Removing the OS from the equation means using less bandwidth to move applications to a secondary site, for starters.

“If you had something like this maybe you wouldn’t need to come up with as much craft to do disaster recovery or failover, because the application can just run on top of the OS and you can move it around,” Kiser said.

Bernd Harzog, an analyst at The Virtualization Practice, sees the current state of server application virtualization as just the beginning of a trend.

“There are many more variances between the application and the operating system than there are variances between the operating system and the hardware,” he said.

As server application virtualization continues to develop, “by virtue of eliminating the problems caused by variances between applications and operating systems, it’s entirely possible that the virtualization of server-based applications might be solving a larger and more interesting problem than server virtualization itself,” he added.

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for Write to her at

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