Virtual Software Appliances: Why They Could End Deployment Hell

Many enterprises still don't like SaaS, but now there's an up-and-coming alternative, virtualized software appliances, that deserves attention. Here's why it might not be long before you buy software pre-packaged in a virtual machine.

Will the way you buy and deploy enterprise software change again? Analysts say yes, and it's thanks to virtualization technology.

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We're not talking about software-as-a-service (SaaS). As much as many IT executives dread the traditional software deployment process, some never bought into the concept of SaaS, citing customization, security and cost concerns, among others.

However, enterprises may like the up-and-coming alternative—software sold as a virtual appliance. This means an application is designed, certified and delivered, with its own little OS, to run as a virtual machine on your existing physical server, or to run in a VM via a "cloud computing" service like Amazon's.

Billy Marshall, CEO of rPath, bets that enterprise IT will fall hard for virtual software appliances. And analysts say his vision is grounded in reality, not hype.

RPath provides an open-source platform and infrastructure services to software vendors who want to provide their apps as virtual appliances. Current customers include Zimbra (maker of collaboration and messaging software) and Openbravo (ERP software).

"Virtualization is definitely going to become the bottom layer in the software stack," says Marshall, who served as Red Hat's vice president of North America sales from 2001 until 2005 before founding rPath. "It's inevitable because it provides so much flexibility to the customer."

Sure, IT leaders have heard sweeping predictions about software deployment before. But consider the current situation: Most IT leaders already understand the flexibility and maintenance advantages of virtual machines. And neither vendors nor customers like today's traditional software delivery model.

It takes vendors too long and costs too much to test and ship new versions given the multitude of configuration environments. As customers, you're forced into a never-ending maintenance cycle and are either nervous or forbidden to tinker with the environment if you want support from your core application vendors. Those are just the starting problems.

Meanwhile, enterprises see great cost and flexibility benefits from virtualization (see our recent survey: Your Virtualized State in 2008). However, some application vendors won't support their applications yet on all virtualization platforms. For instance, SAP only recently announced support for its products running on VMware; Oracle says you'd better use its virtualization technology if you want support on Oracle apps.

Software vendors who want to keep customers happy will need to certify their apps for use with the various hypervisors and virtualization platforms—but that might not be easy or cost-effective. Already, VMware, Citrix/Xen and Oracle virtualization platforms exist and soon Microsoft's technology will join them. (A hypervisor is a piece of software that serves as an abstraction layer between a physical machine's host operating system and the rest of the software and VMs on a machine.)

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