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Joe Hernick
Joe Hernick
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vThere: A Fine Model Mashup

Sentillion saw a business opportunity, talked to its customers, and mashed up a novel solution to a problem that already had a couple of "answers."

Sentillion saw a business opportunity, talked to its customers, and mashed up a novel solution to a problem that already had a couple of "answers."Most big companies still roll their own desktop deployments via homegrown solutions, ghosting, Windows imaging, or some variation of vendor partnering. Maintaining IP security policy compliance for remote user desktops and field locations can be daunting. Many organizations address user desktop delivery via Citrix or other terminal- or presentation-server solutions. Big back-end investment, mildly tricky networking and performance issues for greedy apps, but thin-client Windows solutions work for a range of low-horsepower environments. Anyway you slice it, crafting, deploying, patching and supporting user desktops is a pain.

Desktop virtualization is just starting to gain speed as an alternate deployment strategy. What could be simpler than rolling out a pre-packed ISO bundled with all your corporate goodies? How about simple AD authentication, user-type customization, and end-user lock-downs. Hmmm... you still have those pesky deployment, patching, and support hassles with VMs, too.

Sentillion is a VC-backed HP spinoff in Andover, Mass., with a hundred-odd employees. It posted 2006 revenue of $29 million; 2007 numbers aren't out yet. Sentillion runs a number of business lines, including a single-sign-on solution, context management, and other health-care specific services. According to David Fusari, CTO at Sentillion, the company launched its vThere product as a "virtualized remote access" solution in 2006 to give customers a simple deployment tool "inside and outside the four walls."

What's vThere, aside from a fairly catchy brand name? I'd say it's a mash-up in the best possible sense. Sentillion leverages Parallels virtualization tech, Cisco VPN, Amazon S3 storage hosting, NaviSite hosting, custom packaging tools, and a firm understanding of niche markets to deliver a packaged desktop virt solution.

vThere has three primary components: an admin station/Image Creator for generating customer VMs' to host customer VM image repositories; and the vThere player, a tweaked instance of Parallels workstation running on top of a Windows platform.

Why should you care about a product with just 14 customers? Perhaps because it promises to be the tip of the iceberg for desktop virt. Aside from the imaging platform, customers don't need to make any infrastructure investment. Really. Customers create images based on user type, host the images on, then send users (either on-site or remote broadband folks) a download link via e-mail. Compare that with any terminal services solution.

Users pull the player and image down, auto install, and Sentillion's custom code passes a user's first login back to their enterprise AD authentication via CISCO VPN. Subsequent logins to the vThere guest VM tunnel directly back to the enterprise auth scheme. Compliance-types can use RSA/SecureID. A "locked" full-screen mode, admin-defined MAC addressing, and auto-updates to player and guest VM software were recently added to the mix to address customer requests. Bill Silvey ran a solid tech review of vThere last year for Network Computing if you're interested.

Most vThere customers expect remote employees to use their personal computers as host platforms. Configuration issues are minimized; as long as a user desktop meets the minimum spec for a client's image, they're good to go. Compliance issues are minimized, thanks to locked-down VMs, and no more pesky returned-equipment hassles to sort through when an employee is, um, right-sized. vThere guests can be set to self-destruct per admin criteria.

Sentillion switched hosting platforms to Parallels after it found VMware 'just didn't play as well' as the development team had hoped. Citing a simplified user experience and cleaner installation, Fusari was effusive about his company's decision to go with Parallels.

Like the plain-vanilla Parallels Workstation, vThere will run on any flavor of Vista or XP SP2 or better. A Mac OS X solution is due this year. One caveat -- vThere will only work with XP SP2 guests running the Cisco 4.7 VPN client. How about those business-driven Vista clients? Fusari's answer: "Less than 1% of Sentillion customers run Vista, and there has been no Vista interest on vThere."

Will anyone outside of health care, financial institutions, or large call centers be interested? I suspect we'll see a wide variety of packaged desktop VM solutions and app-virtualization offerings hitting the market from new vendors and 'old hands' like VMware, Citrix, and Microsoft. AMD and Intel are looking at desktop and laptop chipsets as the next hypervisor-optimization target. An Intel tech exec I interviewed last July was very, very intrigued by the opportunities offered by virtualization at the user level, for fun and profit over the next few years. So am I.Sentillion saw a business opportunity, talked to its customers, and mashed up a novel solution to a problem that already had a couple of "answers."

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