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App Virtualization: Why We Need Better Options

Golden disk images are simple, but they won't cut it as implementations get more complex. Here's the problem and what vendors are doing about it.

The evolution of virtualization has made the job of configuring virtualized applications incredibly complex.

Where virtualization was once just about wringing the most efficient use out of a server, it's changed into a whole new application platform, whether that's a private cloud inside your data center or infrastructure as a service from a cloud provider. That evolution means IT now must maintain multiple virtual machine instances of an app, providing patches and updates on an increasingly diverse array of hardware, hypervisor platforms, and cloud services. Each of these application endpoints demands different tools and interfaces for configuration and ongoing administration.

As IT gets comfortable with virtualized infrastructures, companies also are deploying much larger and more complex production applications on them. They're also virtualizing more of their environments: 63% expect to have at least half of their servers virtualized by the end of next year, the InformationWeek 2011 Virtualization Management Survey finds (see chart, above). IT used to have to tend to only a few virtualized Windows development and test servers. Now it's multitier, mission-critical enterprise applications.

As a result, the longstanding practice of distributing VM disk images as virtual application appliances is showing its flaws. While these "golden images" are a fast way to deploy a new machine, the images quickly diverge from their pristine initial condition once they're in use, so you no longer have a single app type to maintain. Furthermore, they don't always work if you're using more than one vendor's hypervisor or using public infrastructure-as-a-service platforms. A similar problem afflicts IT teams trying to configure and instantiate virtualized resources--like compute cores, memory, networks, and storage--on different hardware platforms in a repeatable fashion.

In an ideal world, application and infrastructure requirements could be expressed in a machine-readable meta-format that IT could use to automatically configure and deploy instances on a variety of virtualized platforms--whether private or public. We're still a long way from this cross-platform "configure once, deploy anywhere" vision. But the industry has made some progress in creating tools for repeatable cross-cloud application deployment. So we'll focus on ways to decouple virtualized applications from the underlying physical infrastructure.

Application Virtualization

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