Microsoft this past week issued a beta version of its upcoming Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) tool, previously codenamed "Kidaro." (Kidaro was the name of the company that originally created this technology; Microsoft purchased Kidaro in March 2008.) OK, so the name isn't that great. But MED-V will be a key driver to more modern Windows versions because it provides enterprises with a way to overcome that final compatibility bump with Windows Vista and, soon, Windows 7.

As previously announced, MED-V will be made available to Software Assurance (SA) customers via the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), which is already a stellar collection of virtualization and management tools. (We last discussed MDOP in A Look at Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack from April 2008.) This addition will make MDOP all the more valuable to SA customers, though I'd still like to see this important suite of functionality become available to a wider audience.

MED-V builds off of Microsoft's free Virtual PC desktop virtualization solution, but eliminates a key complaint about that product by removing the underlying virtual machine (VM) UI and allowing users to simply run Virtual PC-hosted applications as if they were installed locally on their PC. Consider the way Virtual PC normally works: The user would have to manually start up the VM, deal with two different Windows desktops (their "actual" desktop and the virtualized one), one of which is running in a window. And then they would have to remember where to find certain applications, as they typically run some things locally and some in the VM.

With MED-V, these distinctions disappear, and to the user, they're using a single, cohesive environment. Shortcuts for virtualized applications and local applications appear side by side in the PC's Start Menu, so users need only think of individual applications and not worry about which are running inside of virtualized environments and which are running natively. If there's a major downside, it's one of resource allotment: Virtualized applications still require the overhead of their virtualized OS, so the physical PC will typically need to be a bit beefier than that $399 Dell special.

From an administration perspective, MED-V allows enterprises to deploy virtualized applications on demand, and via a number of deployment technologies, including DVDs, USB memory fobs, and the web. You can use policies to lock down these environments, making MED-V a perfect solution for security conscious businesses with remote offices or transient workers. And MED-V can simplify management across the board because applications are decoupled from specific hardware configurations.

The biggest benefit to MED-V, however, is that it decouples application compatibility issues from the Windows OS for good, and my guess is that Microsoft will be closely watching how well this solution fares in the real world to determine whether it can form the basis for a broader compatibility break that could come in a future version of Windows. To date, one of the biggest concerns with any new Windows version is that it be compatible with legacy applications, some of which are over a decade old. This reliance has stymied innovation in some ways, because Microsoft must continually serve the needs of a market that stopped upgrading their applications years ago. With MED-V, it's possible to gain the benefits of the newest Windows versions without worrying about application compatibility because it's possible to use any previous Windows version as the guest OS for virtualized applications inside of this environment.

If MED-V sounds like it might be just the right fit for your enterprise, I recommend checking out the beta, which is now available via Microsoft's Connect web site. The company has made a Quick Start Guide available as well.

Microsoft expects to ship the final version of MED-V sometime in the second quarter of 2009.

This article originally appeared in the January 20, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul