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Until recently there were basically two decisions that solution providers needed to make when it came to running Windows applications–run them locally on each machine or on a server that was accessed using terminal services software from either Citrix or Microsoft.

Today, the nuances around running Windows applications on the client are multiplying dramatically thanks to the advent of virtualization, which offers a lot of benefits in terms of productivity and ongoing service and support at the expense of some initial complexity to set up.

The most compelling example of how terminal services software is evolving into a platform for application virtualization is the latest XenApp 5.0 server software from Citrix. XenApp, known as Presentation Server before Citrix acquired XenSource and changed all the branding around its products to reflect the Xen product name, now includes load balancing capabilities–the ability to more easily link applications. For the first time, it also includes the ability to support users outside a specific local network by adding support for HTTP.

More importantly, specific tasks such as order entry can now be defined across a set of linked applications, which means the Citrix software can now be thought of as a platform that gives customers the ability to wrap a specific business process around a XenApp implementation.

The only major downside to the Citrix approach is that it doesn’t work all that well for environments where there is a need to customize the applications. In that context, the more logical thing to do is to run virtualization software on the client. This isolates the applications from the underlying operating system, so it’s easier to manage. The number of virtualization options on the client are many, including offerings from Microsoft, VMware, Citrix and a host of start-up companies.

If you decide to go down this path, other options to consider are whether to use a PC on the client or opt for a thin client. Until now thin clients were pretty much a small niche. But in recent months we’ve seen advances in the graphics capabilities of these devices; many of them now also run Web browser software locally, and when they come loaded with virtualization client software, they can access applications on both Windows and Linux servers.

Given the rising interest in lower cost of ownership and the need in many cases to lock down access to data, thin clients from companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Wyse and IGEL Technology are now getting a second look in a lot of environments that previously would have only considered PCs.

Whatever path to virtualization the customer decides to take, the existence of a virtual layer of software creates a vehicle that makes it a whole lot easier for a solution provider to deliver any number of managed services around client applications. It also creates a fair amount of demand for the services of a solution provider because configuring and managing virtualization on the client is not for the faint of heart.

The challenge this poses to solution providers is that they need to first make the necessary investments in acquiring the skills to master the art of virtualization. Fortunately, there is enough vendor competition in this space now that a fair number of vendors are essentially willing to underwrite much of that investment in return for additional market share.

Of course, there is little-to-no margin in the virtualization software itself. There is some profit to be gained from selling additional management products for virtual environments. But the real money is going to be in the ongoing services that are delivered over virtual infrastructures rather than in the products themselves.

Michael Vizard is Strategic Content Expert for Ziff Davis Enterprise. He can be reached at