Considering the recent acquisition of Thinstall by VMware, I have to wonder: Is PortableApps next on the list of to-be-acquired companies? The two companies have one thing in common: They both have products designed to take entire applications and put them into a single container for portability and reduction in complexity. I’ve kept a number of PortableApps applications on my USB stick for a long time — it’s nice to have a quick set of tools to use without having to use somebody else’s settings, leave traces of my work on their systems, etc. Throw in VMware player and a stripped-down guest OS with PA’s software on it and you have a real winner. Take it to the next step and put PortableApps applications onto a server that distributes software via a thin approach (Citrix, 2X, etc.) and you have a hit in application virtualization. One big beef I, and many otherwise-fans, have about Citrix is the all-too-real potential for winding up DLL Hell. Applications to be served via server-based computing solutions like Citrix (or 2X, TS, etc.) often need to be isolated if they are mission critical (would you run your Peoplesoft app on the same Citrix server with your Office 2007 suite?), which usually means adding more Citrix servers. This, in turn, means a heavier workload for staff and host servers (if you virtualize Citrix).
Enter application virtualization. There are a lot of good brands out there, notably Softricity, which was swallowed up by Microsoft already. Thinstall is another application virtualizer (albeit via an entirely different process). Then there is PortableApps, which does much of what Thinstall does, just not as much of it. Thinstall 3.3’s product description reads (in part) as follows:
Thinstall is an Application Virtualization Platform that enables complex software to be delivered as self-contained EXE files which can run instantly with zero installation from any data source. The core of Thinstall VS is the Virtual Operating System, a small light-weight component which is embedded with each “Thinstalled” application.
PortableApp’s reads like this:
A portable app is a computer program that you can carry around with you on a portable device and use on any Windows computer. When your USB flash drive, portable hard drive, iPod or other portable device is plugged in, you have access to your software and personal data just as you would on your own PC. And when you unplug the device, none of your personal data is left behind.
There are differences, of course, but the overall business models are very similar. PA is an open-source outfit, which makes it a bit more transparent than Thinstall, which has a mix of OSS and proprietary products. Since PA is purely open source, and relies a lot on the community to deliver portable-ized apps, its list of of programs is smaller and limited to open-source and other freely licensed software. Still, with the recent focus on OSS in the enterprise, one can’t help but see the value of a PortableApps version of OpenOffice sitting on a Citrix Server for thin-client and virtual desktop users to access.
Since Thinstall and PortableApps both provide OpenOffice (Thinstall does so as a demo), I took them for a spin. In my “everyman” test, which was certainly not scientific, I ran them both from a network share on the same NAS box over SMB to a Parallels virtualized XP machine with 512 MB of memory. The Thinstall demo downloads as a zip file that you extract to the desired location. The PA app downloads and installs (using an NSIS installer) to the desired location. Once extracted, I ran them three times each — the total time listed is until the app was usable. The Thinstall application (which uses v2.4 of OpenOffice) took 18 seconds on the first test to load up, 13 seconds on the second pass, and 16 seconds on the third. The PortableApps version, which uses v2.3 of OpenOffice, required setup information (your name, if you want to register, etc.). I decided to discount this from my scoring, but it took 17 seconds, in case anyone is interested, from launch to the registration screen. Once that was done, loading time until a usable screen appeared took 18, 22, and 17 seconds. The splash screens appeared at 10, six and eight seconds, respectively, for Thinstall; and six, eight and eight seconds for PortableApps (excluding the PA-promo splash, which took one second each time and is a separate splash from the OOO splash).
I moved them to the local drive and things got livelier. Thinstall loaded in six, three and three seconds (with splash at two, one and one seconds). PA loaded in six, two and two seconds (with splashes at one second each, but the PA-specific splash obscured them two of three times).
There are a lot of other interesting applications out there just ripe for the virtualization space; browser-based desktops like that offered in alpha by g.ho.st comes to mind. Expect a post on that sometime in the near future.