A fine example of feature creep | Rickard Andersson

A fine example of feature creep

I’ve been playing around with application virtualization at work. We’re in the process of evaluating and testing Microsoft’s latest offering SoftGrid. Essentially, SoftGrid is technology that allows you to run applications (as opposed to operating systems) in a virtual environment. So far, our experiences with SoftGrid have been far from ideal. It’s been under development for quite some time (Microsoft aquired the technology from someone else), but still, it feels like beta software.

Anyway, a large part of the work with SoftGrid is to sequence applications so that SoftGrid can package them up and distribute them to any clients that want to run them. Think of it as recording the installation of an application so that the end result of the installation can be duplicated in a virtual bubble. During my work with the SoftGrid Sequencer, I’ve installed a lot of programs. In all honesty, most programs just work out of the box, but there are still quite a few programs that cause problems. One fine example is the horribly bloated, piece of shit software Nero.

I remember a few years ago that Nero was the CD burning program of choice, but trust me, this is no longer the case. First off, the download is 180MB. That’s not a typo, it really is 180MB. Mind you, this is the Swedish version. If you want the download with all languages included, you’ll need to make room for a 420MB download! They must have a lot of text in their applications to warrant that kind of size increase for additional languages. Included in the massive download is not only the actual burning program (the one thing you’re interested in), but a myriad of often completely unrelated applications. Here’s what’s included:

  • Nero Home
  • Nero Mobile
  • Nero Scout
  • Nero StartSmart
  • Nero Burning ROM 7
  • Nero Express 7
  • Nero WaveEditor 3
  • Nero SoundTrax 2
  • Nero Vision 4
  • Nero ShowTime 3
  • Nero Recode 2
  • Nero MediaHome
  • Nero PhotoSnap
  • Nero CoverDesigner
  • Nero Toolkit
  • Nero BackItUp 2
  • InCD 5
  • Nero SoundBox
  • Nero ImageDrive
  • Ask Toolbar

Obviously, there’s no easy way to disable all these applications in the installer. You have to go through each one and deselect it for install. All I want is a program for burning CD’s and DVD’s. For everything else there are much better applications out there. “Nero AG”, please realize that what you’re doing is crazy and allow us to download only the burning program. If I wanted an audio editor or a media center, I would have looked for one.

Not only is it a hassle to make sure you only get what you want out of the installed, but out of the 20 or so applications, two are what I would classify as downright malware. Nero Scout is a media file search indexing thingy that is utterly useless and installs an annoying search field in your taskbar. Even if you disable the application, it installs a service that consumes system resources to no good. Ask Toolbar is an IE browser plugin similar to the Google Toolbar only it lacks the one feature the Google Toolbar is good for, the PageRank monitor. On nero.com, you can read this about the Ask Toolbar:

Nero is offering the Ask Toolbar for download from its website as an added bonus to Nero customers. What better way to enhance the digital lifestyle than with a handy toolbar featuring great links and editing tools?

Right.

There’s one more application of interest that isn’t on the list and that’s what Nero call BurnRights. What this does is to grant non-administrators the permission to burn CD’s and DVD’s. For this purpose, it needs to be run with administrative privileges. Only problem is, there’s no standalone MSI installed for BurnRights so we can’t push it out to all clients via a group policy. It has to manually installed on all computers. Wonderful.

9 comments

  1. Søren Qvist
    Posted May 15, 2007 at 22:57 | Permalink

    Jeg er HELT enig i dine betragtninger vedr. NERO. Programmet er fyldt med unødvendigt extra ‘sniksnak’. Det er et helvede at installere og det fungerer dårligt, hvis man fjerner for mange af delene. Jeg har kun Nero Burning og Nero Express installeret og må hver gang jeg har brugt en af dem lukke Nero.exe ned manuelt.
    Desuden er opdateringsserveren langsom som h*****. Det er mig kun muligt at DL ved at bruge Getright. Ellers bliver jeg smidt af efter få minutter, selvom jeg er på en meget hurtig linie.
    Desværre købte jeg licens for nogle år siden og ved ikke rigtig hvorfor jeg bliver hængende. Dovenskab måske!!

  2. Posted May 21, 2007 at 13:27 | Permalink

    In your post, you sugest that Softgrid feels like it’s in beta.

    I have been working with SoftGrid for several years, and find that it’s the least beta like software I have used. I would be interested in knowing what you think it beta like.

  3. Posted May 21, 2007 at 14:03 | Permalink

    Well, there’s nothing specific, but we constantly run into problems when sequencing and deploying applications. Sometimes, an application just won’t sequence properly. The sequencer hangs when doing its reboot actions or the application just won’t run. There are often ways around these problems, but they generally are very “hacky” and you spend hours scouring the web for potential solutions. In other situations, an application simply cannot be sequenced because it uses a custom driver or it’s an SxS app.

    In other cases, we have problems deploying applications. Clients aren’t properly refreshed to reflect changes in server side packages (for example an OSD edit) and client side caches need to be manually flushed (something an administrator has to do).

    Then there’s the lack of proper documentation and good practices. Why have a field called “Suite Name” when it isn’t even used anymore and why have it mandatory? What about “Title”? What’s up with us still having to deal with 8.3 folder names?

    In my opinion, it just doesn’t feel finished. There are too many problems and too many question marks to consider before attempting to migrate to a SoftGrid environment. The fact that all applications simply cannot be sequenced is in itself enough reason for most businesses to look elsewhere. What good is application virtualization when a couple of apps have to managed the “old way” anyway? I understand that supporting virtualization of all possible applications isn’t easy, but this deficiency isn’t exactly something that Microsoft advertises when they’re promoting SoftGrid. They promote SoftGrid as the end-all solution to centralized application management, when in fact, it isn’t.

  4. Andrew Cooke
    Posted May 25, 2007 at 09:10 | Permalink

    To try and comment on your points.
    1. Not all applications can be sequenced or hacks need to be applied

    Is this any different from other packaging solutions ? I have seen many custom .msi packages that have been put together that don’t work and cause tons of error messages in the event logs.

    2. Reboot actions not picked up
    I have not seen this in my years of sequencing. I would be interested in your particular situation. Did you do more than one install at a time in a single package that both required a reboot ?
    If so accept the reboot on the first one, stop the monitoring and complete the wizards, then re-run the second wizard to start monitoring again to append the first package sequenced and finally once again accept this applications request to reboot.

    3. A lot of people don’t execute the shortcut that the end users will be using during the sequence. This can often cause the symptoms you mention. Have you been running the application DURING the monitoring phase ?

    4. Local client cache needs clearing to pickup changes.
    It is true the local client cache needs to be cleared on occasion. From memory editing an OSD on the server should be picked up without the need to clear the local client cache. But regardless, the editing of an OSD file is typically done during the packaging and testing phase, and yes during the testing the clearing of cache has to be done often, but that’s all part of testing. Remember you can double click on an OSD file to have it run, this is great for testing.
    If you do edit an OSD file that is already in use in a production environment, that chances are that you will create a new one and publish this new one with the other being ready for de-commission.
    5. With regard to Softgrid NOT being able to do SxS applications, printer drivers and device drivers, it is true that this limitation will mean a separate process is required. However in my experience most companies applications can be sequenced, the few that use device drivers and such are often only in use on a handful of PCs, in which case a manual install or script is not too much of a pain. The amount of time that SoftGrid saves, far out ways this limitation. Remember the icon can still be distributed using SoftGrid for this application even if the program is installed locally.

    Like all good strategic products, best practice often comes from attending training courses or by having a professional consultancy company assist you with the evaluation process. The items you mention are all well documented, but are not in the mainstream. This documentation is provided on training courses for example. After all, you would not expect to install SMS or Exchange if you had never used the product before or attended a training course would you ?
    Traditional manuals are ok, but they never in any product offer recommend best practice.

    That said, Microsoft have now published a ‘Best Practices’ KB. Pay attention to the section that explains WHY 8.3 install folders are used.

    http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;EN-US;932137

  5. Posted May 25, 2007 at 16:21 | Permalink

    1. Maybe not, but I haven’t worked with any other packaging solutions. I only have experience with SoftGrid and my opinion is that there are still quite a few teething problems that need to be sorted out.

    2. The problem isn’t that the reboot actions aren’t picked up. They’re picked up, but the sequencer hangs when doing it’s reboot mojo (when you stop monitoring). The app in question that caused this problem was the latest version of Nero Premium 7. To circumvent the problem, I removed the reboot action from RunOnce in the registry (it wanted to run NeroFirstStart.exe or something like that) before hitting stop monitoring and then the sequencer finished, but the app wouldn’t start (some fatal error).

    3. Yes, I launch all apps both during sequencing and via the wizard. In certain cases though, you can’t run the app at all or it will cause licensing issues. For example, if you run Adobe Premiere Elements during sequencing, it ties itself into the sequencer system and subsequently won’t run on any other machine. Only problem is, if you don’t run the app during sequencing, everything ends up in feature block 1 and the full app will be downloaded to the client on the first run.

    4. The problem with the client cache is not so much a problem when the system is in use, but it’s a pain when testing.

    5. Yeah, but the point of having all applications controlled centrally kind of gets lost when you have to start making exceptions. In our case, we have to run for example Adobe Acrobat Professional 7 on quite a few machines and I don’t believe it’s possible to properly sequence this app . This means not only that we have to manually keep these machines up to date, but that we need to do custom Ghost images for all potential variations of non-sequenceable applications (we use Symantec Ghost to reinstall machines).

    Regarding best practices. Yeah, I realize that most of this documentation is provided via training courses and the like, but that doesn’t mean that’s a good thing. We’re currently evaluating SoftGrid and will within a few months decide whether we want to go forward with it or not. Unfortunately, during this evaluation period, we can’t afford to send techs off on training courses. Speaking of which, I don’t believe there are any good ones here in Sweden. I sincerely hope the softgridguru.com forums continue to grow, because without them, we’d be lost.

    I am aware of the underlying problem with using non-8.3 names for the install folder, but the very fact that this is still an issue boggles the mind. Come on, it’s 2007!

    PS. I’ve recently run into a new problem. We’re playing around with using folder redirection for “Application Data” on our domain and when the redirection is in effect, the SoftGrid client fails to create its “SoftGrid Client” folder in the “Application Data” folder on the network share. If you’re interested, read through the following topic (I jump in at the end of page 2): http://www.softgridguru.com/viewtopic.php?t=1023

  6. Andrew Cooke
    Posted May 25, 2007 at 22:11 | Permalink

    Well it’s been great to have this thread, but remember Europe is not that big, and there are many good companies around who have been doing SoftGrid for quite a while now. So well worth the investment.

    Until recently (I am assuming you obtained SoftGrid through the regular Microsoft Select CD subscription updates) the only way you could get an eval was to engage a consultancy (which in some cases was free of charge) to assit with the install and testing.

    Your right about Adobe Acrobat Pro not being sequenced. But when you break this application down, most people use it simply to convert word docs to PDF. Not many people take advantage of it’s facilities. So in some cases, by changing to an alternative PDF creator you can achieve the same basic function.

    Finally it’s worth noting that you can sequence Acrobat Pro, but just not the print driver. Not that that really helps too much.

    Of course if you take advantage of SMS and SoftGrid then you can use a single central software distribution method, which will also do Microsoft OS patches as well.

    PS: If I can provide any help, you have my email

  7. Posted May 25, 2007 at 23:50 | Permalink

    I work at a university and I’m not involved in any of the business so to speak, so I can’t really say where we got it from. We probably got it at a huge rebate though. That’s usually the case.

    If you have any ideas regarding my folder redirection problem, I’m all ears.

  8. Karl Denson
    Posted July 11, 2007 at 16:42 | Permalink

    Andrew,

    I see you mentioned that Adobe Acrobat Pro can be sequenced. I’d be interested in how you’d go about achieving this?

    Reason being, I found a Microsoft KB that might help with the print driver issue!

    Karl

  9. Posted July 11, 2007 at 18:15 | Permalink

    If you’re talking about the passthrough thing, I believe it only applies to Acrobat 6 and not 7 or 8.

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