Software Appliances: Lean, Mean Deployment Machines

Today’s enterprises are clamoring for software applications that run in a wide variety of environments — everything from physical to virtual to cloud. If you are a software vendor, how do you make it easy to give them what they want?

You could hand customers your software on a CD and let them figure it out. However, in this environment, independent software vendors (ISVs) that find ways to help their customers get where they need to go earn big dividends in terms of market adoption and revenue. One way to solve customer demands for software that fits any environment is by offering a customized solution in the form of a software appliance. Delivering a software appliance can be fast and easy, and it can significantly improve your customers’ time to market.

This article will show how software appliances can help your customers stretch their IT budgets with leaner, better-performing solutions.

Eliminating the Problematic Installation Process

If you’ve ever been involved in configuring, installing and maintaining enterprise software, you know how time-consuming and complex it is. When you’re trying to install software in multiple environments, the traditional model is not practical.

The cumbersome process of installing and tuning the operating system (OS), middleware and database, then integrating and configuring the software, is manual and error-prone. Even if you get it all correct, the process alone takes time and introduces challenges for ISVs developing applications for the cloud.

Once the product is up and running, maintenance is no simple task. The countless iterations of application, OS and middleware configurations and associated patches makes it extremely difficult to isolate and pinpoint the root cause of performance problems and ensure applications operate optimally.

Many of these problems stem from the fact that today’s operating systems are exceedingly complex and monolithic. Because operating systems were built to support just about every possible software function and scenario, they are cumbersome, often offering too much functionality. Yet in reality, most applications only require a small portion of the OS capabilities. All the added OS “bulk” simply introduces vulnerabilities and inefficiencies to the computing environment.

Both sides — ISVs and their customers — cannot afford to continue with this inefficient approach to application implementation and management as they move to the cloud. There’s a better way to do it.

The Need for Appliances Is Compelling

To maximize their financial return and eliminate these installation and maintenance challenges, many ISVs are building appliances — versions of their product, packaged with a just enough operating system (JeOS) required to perform the desired tasks.

Pre-configured for specific use cases, these compact, self-contained appliances can be deployed in a matter of minutes to many different environments, requiring a small amount of last-mile setup. The appliance is far easier to maintain than a traditional software installation and ensures effective configuration and installation. New tools also make it easy to test an appliance before it is deployed, so any issues can be resolved ahead of time. In addition, the appliances are much easier to manage because support teams no longer have to distribute patches that aren’t relevant to the appliance.

What Is a Software Appliance?

Appliances offer a new way to build and support tailored solutions with ease by trimming down the size of the associated operating system. In particular, software appliances are pre-configured combinations of an application and operating system integrated into a single image and optimized to run on industry-standard hardware — including your friendly Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) vendor or in a virtualized environment.

This integrated software application and purpose-built operating system contains everything needed to simply copy the software to a standard platform and boot. Since most applications don’t need all the capabilities a complete operating system provides software appliances offer an unprecedented opportunity to reduce the footprint of the combined installation, as well as the complexity of installation, maintenance and support. This results in lower-cost ownership for the customer and reduced installation and maintenance costs for the software vendor.

Why Would I Want a Software Appliance?

For software vendors and customers, software appliances are a means to reducing cost and increasing revenue for new and existing products. They improve flexibility by making it quick and easy to create a tailored application. From simpler evaluation and installation, to easier support and sales cycles, appliances can help accelerate the entire sales process.

In general, traditional enterprise data-center software evaluations are complicated for the buyer. First, the operating system has to be selected and configured for the specific environment — physical, virtual or cloud — with each kernel parameter tuned for the application. Second, the software itself has to be installed, and finally the software has to be integrated, configured and tuned. If there is middleware involved, this is even more complicated for the end customer, and the process can take days. If there were an easier way, what customer would want to spend days installing an evaluation?

With a software appliance, all of this tuning and configuration is done once by the software vendor, targeting a specific standard environment and use case. All a customer needs to get the application running is a cloud deployment, hypervisor or server as specified by the vendor. For example, take a mid-size manufacturer that would like to evaluate a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. An ERP vendor can create a single image that is a pre-configured operating system and application with only the modules needed by mid-sized manufacturers. These modules can be tuned for manufacturing best practices by the ERP vendor when the appliance is created. This image can then be provided on a DVD to the customer targeting their chosen environment, and the customer can be up and answering last-mile setup question via a wizard, and running the evaluation immediately. The sales cycle was just reduced by days, even weeks.

The same factors that make software appliances an excellent evaluation tool also make software appliances an accelerator for production applications. Instead of a customer installing and configuring an application, a software appliance image created by the software vendor can be provided. If this image is placed into the appropriate host environment, such as a cloud or hypervisor, it can be booted, configured and ready in a matter of minutes. Support for this image is also greatly simplified, as all of the standard operating system and configuration questions are now irrelevant. The software vendor created the image, knows precisely what is in it, and can simply load the same image during a customer support call for fast, deep, relevant technical support. Any problems uncovered in the application can be distributed quickly to all relevant customers via an integrated update mechanism. In the end, software appliances reduce time and cost in the sales cycle and beyond, for the customer and the software vendor.

In Conclusion

Software appliances are revolutionizing the way the software industry packages and distributes software. With appliances, ISVs now have opportunity to simplify the packaging of their solutions for multiple environments, allowing them to test, deploy and scale their offerings to their customers’ specific needs. This offers unprecedented opportunities to deliver simplified, highly portable, tailored solutions free of the maintenance headaches that have plagued enterprise IT solutions. In effect, appliances make it possible to “mass customize” application delivery and furnish a fully integrated solution faster and more efficiently than before.

Particularly in tough economic times, these solutions are appealing to end users looking to stretch their IT budgets while still delivering on the business need. ISVs building appliances gain a tremendous competitive advantage by offering highly reliable solutions, purpose-built for the end user’s own requirements, without all the baggage that usually comes with new software applications. By eliminating the risks associated with bulky OS installations, ISVs can now deliver more secure, better performing solutions than ever before possible — both in and out of the cloud.

Matt Richards is senior program manager at Novell.

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