Neil J. Rubenking Altiris Software Virtualization Solution 2.0 A program installed under Altiris SVS is supremely flexible. You can completely uninstall it in an instant, then bring it right back to full function. If it gets corrupted, one click restores it to a just-installed state. And you can easily copy the installation to other computers. Best of all, you can download it for free here on pcmag.com.
Altiris Software Virtualization Solution 2.0
Virtualizes software installations, allowing instant deactivation/reactivation. Can reset a corrupted program to its just-installed state. Exports installations and imports to computers with different configuration or operating systems.
No option to merge a virtualized application into the base computer. Security programs may report rootkit-like behavior. Active/inactive status not obvious in user interface.
A program installed under Altiris SVS is supremely flexible. You can completely uninstall it in an instant, then bring it right back to full function. If it gets corrupted, one click restores it to a just-installed state. And you can easily copy the installation to other computers. Best of all, you can download it for free here on pcmag.com.
Where virtual machine utilities like VMware Workstation manage entire virtual computers, Altiris Software Virtualization Solution 2.0 virtualizes individual software installations. In the latest PC Magazine Technical Excellence Awards. we recognized the product based on a beta version. The utility can instantly wipe out a problem program, allow alternating use of incompatible applications, and make transferring software between computers a breeze. SVS is free for personal use on up to ten computers; Follow the link at the end of this review to pcmag.com-hosted download. At the enterprise level, it sells for $29 per node (list) and integrates with the Notification Server and Deployment Solution products from Altiris.
Once installed on a system, SVS runs continually. If you install a program under it, SVS grabs all changes to the Registry and file system (including added and deleted files) that the installer makes and puts them in what Altiris calls a layer. Thereafter, the virtualization software directs file and Registry calls to the layer or to the base system as appropriate. The SVS-installed app looks perfectly normal, but disappears without a trace when you deactivate the layer. You can turn the app on and off like a light switch.
The layer that SVS creates during a program’s installation is read-only; an associated read/write layer holds all changes the virtualized program makes when it’s running. To return the program to its freshly installed state if it gets damaged or corrupted, for example you simply do a reset, which wipes out only the read/write layer’s contents. SVS also lets you export a virtualized application to a file and import it on another computer, automatically adjusting the imported package to match the OS, system folders, and settings on the new machine instant installation! Performance doesn’t seem to be affected with SVS or virtualized apps running, although Altiris says it may slow 2 to 3 percent.
A defective program installed under SVS supervision can’t permanently damage your system you just deactivate and delete the layer. Want to try the Microsoft Office beta without losing access to the current version? Install both, but activate one at a time. My one gripe is that SVS identifies an active layer just by displaying the name in boldface I’d like to see a stronger visual distinction.
Because all files a virtualized app creates reside in its read/write layer, they become invisible when the layer is deactivated. And resetting the layer will delete all documents its application created bummer! To get around this, you can create a data layer that you associate with folders, file types, or both. While active, the layer captures all new and modified files that match the criteria you’ve set. You can also manually move existing files into a data layer, and you can transfer its files to another computer using the export/import process.
SVS will virtualize programs on cluttered machines, but for creating and exporting installations, Altiris recommends using a clean system with a minimum of installed software. For testing, I loaded the product on a pristine Windows XP machine and started wildly downloading programs. Most of my test installations went smoothly once I remembered to click Save rather than Run in the download box.
SVS keeps capturing until the install program and any secondary programs it launches finish. So if a program launches on completing its installation, SVS keeps capturing. That happened with SnagIt. so SVS captured my initial configuration settings in the read-only layer. Nice! If I ever have to reset, I’ll still have my initial settings.
My installation of Microsoft Office. which I did from discs, seemed to go smoothly as well until I realized SVS had stopped capturing before the Web-based updates started. Undeterred, I tried from scratch. This time I installed Office, but didn’t give it permission to update from the Web. Instead, I chose the SVS Update Existing Layer option, then manually invoked the Web update under its auspices. It worked!
Next I experimented with importing and exporting installations. I exported Microsoft Office, which had taken nearly half an hour to install on Microsoft Windows XP under SVS, and then imported it under Windows 2000. The suite was up and running in seconds. I also downloaded and imported a prepackaged Firefox installation from the Altiris Web site, and I imported a packaged version of PC Magazine ‘s DiskPie utility, supplied by Executive Editor Ben Gottesman. These and other export/import installations worked flawlessly.
Going out on a limb, I installed some sample spyware using the SVS global capture mode to test whether I could clean up by rolling back changes. It didn’t entirely work. Altiris representatives confirm that SVS isn’t designed as a security product; for secure and complete rollback to an earlier state, they recommend Altiris Protect. And speaking of security do not virtualize antivirus and other security products. Also, SVS doesn’t run in Safe Mode, so don’t virtualize any tools you might need in that mode.
Because antivirus scanners function at the driver level, they can see right through SVS and scan inside deactivated layers. They may also report suspicious behavior from SVS itself, since it works by providing false information to the Windows API. F-Secure’s Blacklight scanner
(www.f-secure.com/blacklight ) didn’t report anything, but the Rootkit Revealer (www.sysinternals.com/Utilities/RootkitRevealer.html ) from SysInternals listed thousands of discrepancies. To scan for actual rootkit activity, I had to deactivate all layers first.
Anybody can use Altiris Software Virtualization Solution 2.0 to put a safety wrapper around software installations and to package installations for import on other computers. Power users can do quite a bit more by manipulating advanced properties and using the commandline interface. Give SVS a try! Just remember that if you later uninstall it, you’ll have to reinstall any virtualized applications at present there’s no way to merge them into the underlying base system.
Neil Rubenking served as vice president and president of the San Francisco PC User Group for three years when the IBM PC was brand new. He was present at the formation of the Association of Shareware Professionals, and served on its board of directors. In 1986, PC Magazine brought Neil on board to handle the torrent of Turbo Pascal tips submitted by readers. By 1990, he had become PC Magazine’s technical editor, and a coast-to-coast telecommuter. His “User to User” column supplied readers with tips. More
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