In Search of the “Nirvana App”: Cloudhouse, Next-Generation Application Virtualization

Today I was speaking with Mat Clothier, CTO of the application virtualization new-kid-on-the-block Cloudhouse. Cloudhouse, a UK-based enterprise, aims to shake up the application virtualization arena to the core, and at first glance, its solution seems very compelling.

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Mat is well-steeped in the virtualization waters, having spent 2001 through 2008 running his own UK-based IT services company and performing specialized App-V consultancy. Mat acknowledges, as most of us do, that Softricity (the pre-acquisition name of App-V), operating in the early 2000s environments of DLL Hell, seemed like it had the potential to be the perfect solution—the “nirvana app,” if you will, that could provide all of your applications, seamlessly delivered, through a single client.

Times move on, though, and so do the needs of the user and the IT ecosystem. App-V found its feet and gained traction in predominantly managed environments, making applications difficult or even impossible to sequence once they were imported into the unpredictable area of unmanaged devices. Client-server applications proliferated, meaning that apps requiring connections to back-end databases and the like performed poorly across WAN links, necessitating a shift in application delivery to technologies like XenApp and RDSH. Given the diverse nature of enterprise environments, using App-V would dictate that the same applications be packaged differently in every environment—maybe adding in different plugins or add-ons. As Mat says, “I wondered many times why I was sequencing Microsoft Office, as an example, over and over again.”

Mat moved on to become the European CTO of Endeavors Technologies, a company that was eventually acquired and rebranded as Numecent. Numecent’s Application Jukebox software is an up-and-coming player in the application virtualization market—especially in Europe, where it is dominant in the further education sector—and it has managed to simplify the process of packaging in comparison to App-V. Under the hood, both App-V and Application Jukebox remain first-generation application virtualization products, born in an era when isolation was key.

Mat formed Cloudhouse in 2010 and set out with the aim of producing the first second-generation app virtualization product. Cloudhouse’s app virtualization product, Applications Anywhere, focuses on doing deployment first and virtualization second. It can be handled in-house with a dedicated server and your own packagers, but its primary focus is to package and deliver the apps from the cloud—“Packaging as a Service,” maybe, or “PkaaS”? Gartner Research has coined its own term for the paradigm, “Cloud Application Virtualization.” The idea may be more akin to containerization than what we’d consider classic app virtualization, but whatever you call it, the concept is elegant.

Instead of fully implementing the file system and Registry in a virtual layer, Applications Anywhere redirects the initial API calls for those components into the in-container locations. Thereafter, any remaining API calls are carried out natively using local file system and registry resources from the Applications Anywhere locations. This occurs in a manner completely transparent to the application. This means that all applications may now be virtualized, no matter which complex APIs they depend on, and integrations work automatically. In order to virtualize existing Windows applications, Applications Anywhere provides Auto Packager, which automates the entire process. You can read more about this at Applications Anywhere.

That isn’t the only part of the Cloudhouse solution. The company also produces Data Anywhere, a WAN acceleration product intended to address the issue of client-server applications that run from remote locations. In coupling Data Anywhere with Applications Anywhere, Cloudhouse’s aim is not only to eliminate reliance on old, first-generation app virtualization solutions and the OpEx required to keep them running, but also to remove the need to deploy RDSH for heavy client-server interactions. It sounds very compelling indeed!

It seems to get even better once you dig deeper. Whether you use its online portal (which runs on Azure) or your own in-house server, Applications Anywhere eliminates the need to repackage applications over and over again. You can package Office, for instance, and then simply layer in add-ons or license keys without having to open up the packages. This makes the already-packaged apps portable between customers. You can run offline applications, as the whole package is delivered to the device on launch and cached there. No client or plugin is required to access the applications, but simply a browser. File type associations can be delivered as well, and work is underway on integration with SCCM and StoreFront to maintain the “single pane of glass” for workspaces that already have investment in these technologies. Applications Anywhere also works seamlessly with filter driver–based user virtualization technologies such as AppSense. Add to this the fact that Cloudhouse has already successfully packaged applications with diverse hardware, such as blood pressure monitors and foot-operated mice, and the concept of the “nirvana app” that handles all of your application virtualization needs seems to be on the horizon.

Do I see any drawbacks or omissions from the Cloudhouse offerings? Currently, it will only deliver to Windows-based endpoints, but this is a common factor among application virtualization solutions. Citrix and VMware can extend the reach of their packaged apps through their respective brokers, but Cloudhouse can’t do this yet. It looks like the integration features mentioned above will address some part of this once they become available. Also, it’s obviously a new product and doesn’t have the depth of maturity and community support behind it that the likes of App-V can boast—but that is something that will only improve over time.

The cloud focus of the application delivery aspect might make you feel that the solution is primarily aimed at ISVs, but this underestimates the possibilities. The shift toward Azure, AWS, and the like that is taking hold may make moving app delivery away from the enterprise and into the cloud more palatable. However, I think it would add to the value of Cloudhouse’s virtualization product if the in-house hosted side of it were to get attention equal to that of the cloud-hosted aspect. That’s not to say that it doesn’t, just that for broader uptake, some potential customers will be looking for an equal emphasis on development for both avenues.

It’s in its earliest days, but I have to concede that Cloudhouse looks like an intriguing prospect. It’s not often you see something that looks like a radical new approach to an existing technology area. This is definitely one of those situations where you can see the potential to significantly simplify implementation and reduce cost. I am very keen to see the product in action, and to assess whether it can live up to the aims that Cloudhouse has set. If it can, then I must ask myself, could it be the nirvana app I’ve been seeking? Only time will tell, but it’s not often I get genuinely excited about a new product—and this is one of those times.

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James Rankin
James has worked in IT since 1995, spending nearly ten years as a server engineer and systems administrator before choosing to focus heavily on user and application virtualization in late 2004. Based in the north-east of England, he runs his own consultancy focusing primarily on Citrix, AppSense, Microsoft and VMware technologies. He recently received the AppSense Community Advisor award for contributions to the online USV community.

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