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Evaluating software with virtual appliances

Evaluating software often involves lengthy, complicated POC deployments. But virtual appliances can make the process faster and more effective.

Evaluating software isn’t just about features and capabilities, but also how easy a product is to set up. The availability of virtual appliances can make it easier to try out new products.

With so much software on the market, one of the biggest challenges that vendors face is getting potential customers to actually install and evaluate their products. For instance, if you are in the market for a new virtualization management tool, you will likely start with some research on the Internet. As you weed out the products that do not fit your current needs, however, you will likely want to install some of the remaining options for an evaluation or proof-of-concept (POC) deployment.

Software vendors spend a lot of time and effort -- mostly on the marketing side -- to make it to this point. But traditionally, the process of evaluating software has presented its own set of hurdles for vendors and IT shops.

Over the years, I have seen several creative solutions. One was to print elaborate evaluation guides that walk a user through the setup, configuration and even evaluation of a product with specific scenarios that would showcase the features. Others involved connecting to a vendor’s environment for an evaluation or having vendor resources come on site to configure the POC for you.

These approaches to evaluating software were not without their drawbacks. The evaluation guide was as thick as a phone book. A vendor’s environment doesn’t always replicate the real-world use cases of a specific product. And manually setting up a POC deployment at a customer site is very inefficient.

Last week, as I was evaluating a series of management tools, I was pleased to see that two of the three vendors had adopted another approach for customers who are evaluating software: virtual appliances. Those vendors’ tools were up and running in 15 to 20 minutes each, but the third took hours to set up. Going into the software evaluations, I already had a very positive impression of the first two tools -- without ever seeing their actual functionality.

This approach to evaluating software is not new. I saw BEA Systems and Oracle do it with preconfigured VMware virtual appliances years ago, allowing evaluators to skip hours of complicated setup and performance tuning. Almost five years later, this trend is finally growing -- although it has been slower than I would like.

Not only are virtual appliances helpful in accelerating software evaluations, but they also help vendors present their products in the best light. Vendors can prepackage a complete offering, pre-installed on an operating system and tuned for optimal performance. In military terms, that is referred to as a “force multiplier.”

As organizations focus on controlling operational costs, they’re looking more at virtual appliances to help in evaluating  software -- and if they like it, deploying it -- more quickly and accurately. If your vendors are not offering virtual appliances for software evaluations and deployments, you should be asking them why.

Time spent creating a server and installing an OS rarely adds any value. So why keep doing it?

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