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Not satisfied with its prominent position on servers and workstations, VMware has charged the desktop with a new software package that creates "containers" of applications that can be centrally managed by an administrator.

VMware today has put out a beta of its ACE product - a sophisticated type of software that lets customers create multiple personalities for a given PC. Unlike VMware's typical partitioning products that are aimed at technical staffers, the ACE product is meant to be used by mobile workers and temporary contractor types. The idea is that companies will set up special containers on a laptop, for example, that cut users off from being able to use every feature on their machine - kind of like a code prophylactic.

"It is a product that is designed for a PC administrator to create a controlled virtual machine-based environment on an end user's desktop," said Michael Mullany, VP of marketing at VMware - a unit of EMC. "This puts a policy wrapper around the user's machine and assures a consistent environment."

VMware pointed to Arizona State University as a beta customer that seems to be using ACE in a way that makes a lot of sense. The school requires students to have laptops and knows they will get these machines from a variety of suppliers. Still, ASU would like to have some measure of control over the systems, particularly from a software licensing and security standpoint.

With this in mind, ASU gives every student an ACE software image that includes Windows, an application stack, a productivity suite and any other files needed for a particular quarter. ASU cuts off access to the USB and floppy drives for this software image and basically blocks the students from changing the container's configuration. After a given quarter is over, the image - or container - expires and is deleted from the laptop. This means ASU can safely adhere to its licensing policies with various vendors and keep a safe computing environment.

Students, of course, are free to access whatever they like from their standard desktop. When, however, they need ASU material, the kiddos must click on the ACE icon and launch VMware's container.

Companies could use the software in a similar way, keeping contractors or mobile workers for accessing touchy data on their corporate machines. If, for example, a laptop goes missing, the admin can notify the ACE administration software aout the loss. Then, if the laptop connects to the network, its ACE container can be immediately shutdown.

This technology is an obvious offshoot of the tools VMware provides in its workstation and server partitioning products. Customers can move various OS and application images from machine to machine with relative ease. As mentioned, however, this is clearly VMware's first move down to the corporate or even consumer desktop. You would normally expect to see software like ACE come from the likes of a Veritas or CA that dabbles in various data protection roles. The ACE software also gives customers a number of tools not typically found with Windows XP profiles technology, for example.

VMware expects to start shipping ACE by the fourth quarter for Windows XP and 2000 systems. In "the near future," it will have a Linux version as well. The cost for one end user client license will likely come in around $100 with the admin software likely costing between $400 and $500. ®

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