Microsoft refreshes Vista's value proposition

Vista's Software Assurance customers need more value from Vista more often, and now the company has a plan for addressing their needs come next spring.

A growing number of Microsoft's business customers for Windows Vista are subscribers - customers who've signed onto the company's Software Assurance program. As such, they want their money's worth, which means Microsoft finds itself in the position of having to deploy noticeable improvements to the operating system at least every eight to ten months...as opposed to every five years.

So the occasional service pack is no longer enough.

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On Monday, Microsoft announced some of the key improvements its Software Assurance customers are due to see in the 4.5 edition of Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), come next summer. Certain special features of version 4.5 are entering public beta this week for six months, for testing not only by Software Assurance customers but from regular folk.

The beta goes by the relatively non-enticing title, "Microsoft Assessment and Planning Solution Accelerator Beta Program;" and if you just went by that alone, you'd have no idea what you might be missing.

Most notable among the new features made available for public testing is a substantial improvement to SoftGrid, now called Microsoft Application Virtualization, which Microsoft's research tells it is a "friendlier" title. Having premiered last June at TechEd in Orlando, the revolutionary new system enables applications to be streamed from a remote server and run on a thinner Vista client, without those applications having to actually be installed on that client.

The early demonstrations showed Office 2003 applications running flawlessly in remote systems, without even the appearance of being piped in from a remote server. Their launch icons can appear on the desktop just as though they point to files on the client system. But there was a major limitation: Applications with internal dependencies could not fit within the SoftGrid envelope.

Unfortunately, that included programs with embedded dependencies - libraries supplied by the operating system. And as Microsoft product manager Gabriella Schuster told BetaNews, that included essentially all programs written for the .NET Framework...unless you wanted to explicitly wrap .NET in the virtualization envelope for every application. That would work, but it was pretty cumbersome.

With the 4.5 version of Application Virtualization, Schuster told us, "the administrator would simply configure the dependencies when they do the packaging." That way, the virtualization environment can recognize what libraries it needs that are installed on the client system, and dynamically set up the configuration it needs to utilize those dependent libraries on the fly.

What goes on under the hood to be able to pull this off is phenomenal. If you know Windows, you may be too familiar already with the System Registry, one of whose many purposes is to keep track of which independent components in the system (using COM, DCOM, OLE, and now .NET) must interface with one another in order to function. Disassociating one component with another in the Registry is like pulling the plugs on a nuclear reactor - it could mean you have to reinstall the entire application, or if you really don't know what you're doing, reinstall Windows.

The new app virtualization 4.5 (I'm already missing the term "SoftGrid") overrides this way of working, setting up dynamic relationships instead between the virtualization envelope that acts as a proxy for the foreign component, and the libraries that are installed as native components - all without wrecking the Registry.

"That saves on systems overhead," Schuster said, "and on the packaging process itself, and then in updating and servicing those [virtualized] applications."

The "Assessment" part of the 4.5 public beta deals with a different feature of MDOP altogether: a feature called Asset Inventory Service that will enable administrators to assess exactly what software is installed on their users' systems. Not just the stuff in the "Add/Remove Programs" list - all of it. Including the bad stuff.

"It'll capture the information down to the patch-level code," Schuster told us, "of exactly what's installed on each machine. So it'll capture the machine name, and then it'll capture all the software installed on that." Microsoft acquired a database last April from Asset Metrics, she said, containing 400,000 known software signatures from 200,000 applications against which installed programs will be compared - not unlike an anti-virus scan. But this goes even further.

"For the Microsoft software, we can tell [their identities] all the way down to the license data from the license keys," she said. "For vendors where we have collected information around the license keys from the vendor, we can turn around and give [admins] more intelligent information about where it might have been purchased." For instance, in the case of Adobe-brand products, AIS can distinguish between that company's free downloads and previews, its individual commercial components, and the software that comes as part of a suite such as Creative Suite 3.

Another forthcoming feature of MDOP called the Diagnostic and Recovery Toolset is expected to be released soon into private beta. That tool will give admins new and essential tools for using Windows RE - the recovery environment for Vista - for rebuilding critical components, and even re-installing applications and portions of Windows from pre-assembled images without having to try rebooting the computer. It too will be rolled into MDOP 4.5, which Software Assurance customers are being told to expect this spring.

A follow-up release of MDOP is being set for summer, so Microsoft may soon have its hands full with business customers who may be more comfortable with the idea of seeing their Vista investments pay off with fresh improvements every season, instead of every year...or longer.

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