BASF, the big German chemicals company, virtualized a sophisticated desktop application that its engineers were using to model complex chemical processes. In doing so, it found application performance was slowed at the desktop but a number of other advantages offset that effect.
Application virtualization is different from the current wave of stacking up virtual servers on a single physical machine, the widely recognized practice of server consolidation. It's also different from desktop virtualization, where every end user often gets a virtual machine.
Instead, application virtualization, as implemented by BASF, concentrates on creating a specially sequenced virtualized application on a central server that includes the parts of an operating system that the application needs. As end users seek the application's services, the central server streams parts of the application bundle down the wire to run on the end user's machine. When the user session is over, the streamed code disappears from the end-user machine. Only the user's personal settings are saved for the next time the user taps into the application.
To accomplish this approach, BASF installed Microsoft Application Virtualization, or App-V. Microsoft bought Softricity, maker of SoftGrid, in 2006 and implemented its approach to application virtualization. BASF applied App-V to AspenOne, its chemical process modeling and design software from AspenTech. Between 2,500 and 3,000 engineers at BASF use AspenOne, which needs to be frequently updated with the latest chemical engineering formulations and know-how. Keeping all those desktop machines current was a headache for central IT.
Prior to virtualization, IT services' Thomas Borren said in an e-mail interview that the AspenOne application might be running fine on an engineer's desktop, then a minor upgrade would cause unexpected conflicts with other software, bringing the PC to a standstill. To avoid such conflicts, BASF subjected each release of AspenOne to extensive testing before distributing new releases.
BASF virtualized AspenOne mainly to "reduce our internal delivery time between general availability (of a new AspenOne release) and our software certification process. Virtualization can cut down this time from several weeks to a few days," wrote Borren. AspenTech's VP of engineering, Vikas Dhole, said in an interview that the delay between a new release of AspenOne and its adoption at a large customer site can be from anywhere from nine to 18 months. Virtualizing the application means that it will be streamed down to a PC and run in an isolated "sandbox" section of the PC's memory. It will not be allowed to interact with other applications on the end user's machine, avoiding conflicts and speeding adoption by end users.
Borren said BASF has virtualized about 50 applications so far, mainly in the technical and engineering realm. The end users of the virtualized applications are in many different locations around the world. Administration of their applications is much easier when they are centralized on servers and virtualized, he wrote.
For end users, virtualization "has got an impact on the overall performance. But from our point of view, the minor loss of performance is leveled out in a network by the advantages of virtualization," Borren wrote. He also cautioned it was hard to point to a specific cause of performance loss in the operation of a complex network.
IT had to assume responsibility for the application sequencing, where an application's operating system dependencies are identified, including the tricky task of identifying specific DLLs (Microsoft's acronym for Dynamic Link Libraries). The task "was labor intensive in the beginning," he wrote. But as BASF IT administrators grew more experienced in the use of the Microsoft product, disseminating new releases of applications could take place "within some days" of its arrival.
BASF first tested application virtualization in mid-2006 with an earlier version of AspenOne process modeling. As it refreshed its PC hardware, it standardized on the practice, and it's become the only way it disseminates AspenOne and the other virtualized technical applications to end users.
"We run some of the largest and most complex simulations in the chemical industry, which makes it essential to have the right IT infrastructure in place," Borren said in conclusion.
Rapid updating of AspenOne has allowed BASF to "more quickly gain insights into plant and equipment behavior to optimize decision-making, reduce capital, and operating costs and accelerate time to market," he wrote. BASF has 95,000 employees on five continents and produces chemicals used in manufacturing plastics, oil and gas products, and agricultural chemicals.