Suncor to virtualize apps through XP upgrade

A Canadian energy company wants to mine the potential benefits of application virtualization as part of a migration to Windows XP.

Suncor Energy Inc., based in Edmonton, has already begun some initial pilots of virtualized

applications with Boston-based Softricity’s SoftGrid platform. Virtualization allows companies to run applications without having to install them locally, and without changing the host operating system. Instead, they exist as virtual services that can be managed independently.

Suncor, which is focused on developing one of the world’s largest petroleum resource basins in Canada’s Athabasca oil sands, decided to migrate to XP in January as part of an over-arching project to move to SAP’s enterprise resource planning system. Some of the SAP software’s functionality is enhanced through the use of Microsoft Office 2003, which means the company has to ensure its desktops are stable and well supported, said Suncor director of IT infrastructure Doug Pelton.

Suncor has about 4,000 employees and deploys close to 1,000 applications. Pelton said that with external pressures to continually patch and manage those apps, he felt that the company needed better tools to accommodate changes without having to do all the testing that’s normally required to certify apps every time a change was made to the operating system.

“”We’re an oil and gas company — we live or die on our ability to be good at maintenance,”” he said. “”We need to provide completely reliability for those applications, or our operations grind to a halt quite quickly.””

Softricity co-founder and executive vice-president David Greschler uses a simple analogy to understand why users get nervous during major OS migrations.

“”You’re trying to move your house by changing the foundation and you’re not sure all your pictures are going to fit on the wall any more,”” he said. “”As you move your apps over to this new operating system, there’s this great fear that you’re going to mess things up — apps that you’re done all these workarounds within the operating system to make compatible with each other.””

Suncor employs one deskside support technician for every 150 workstations. Once the XP migration project is complete, Pelton said Altiris and SoftGrid will allow him to dramatically cut back on those resources. “”Machines will be able to be shipped directly to an end user who can unpackage them, plug them in, power them on and either by themselves or perhaps the help of a phone call to the client support centre, rebuild their image,”” he said. “”If anything goes wrong with that workstation other than a hardware failure, we can redeploy the applications over the phone.””


Right now Suncor is identifying its existing applications to determine which ones are required for business purposes and which aren’t, Pelton said. Once the sequencing and packaging for those are tested by users, they will be pushed out to various business units in conjunction with the XP upgrade. Some applications may have to be packaged in a “”fat”” image as opposed to a virtual one, he added, including those that require access to hardware components directly. Those that need USB ports, for example, can’t run in isolation from the rest of the operating system.

Greschler said many enterprises are looking at virtualization as a way of simplifying administration.

“”The key to it is that by virtualizing the apps you’re keeping your operating system pristine,”” he said. “”You’re not adding layers and configurations that are there when you start installing one app over another.””

Users are coming around to the concept now that they’ve started the pilots, Pelton added.

“”There was a great deal of pessimism in terms of whether this architecture would work or not,”” he said. “”The feeling (now) is that remote management of the desktop is completely doable now. The concern in the business units now is logistics and timing of the rollouts.””

Suncor hopes to have the XP migration complete by December.


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Shane Schick
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