Microsoft App Virtualization 4.5 Is a Task

 
 
By Cameron Sturdevant  |  Posted 2008-09-07
 
 
 

Microsoft App Virtualization 4.5 Is a Task


Microsoft Application Virtualization 4.5 enables large organizations to provide applications to end-user computers without installing the software on the local Windows operating system. Although this reduces application conflicts by isolating applications from each other and the underlying OS, my tests showed that IT managers will be tasked with significant packaging and setup burdens to make App-V 4.5 work correctly.

App-V 4.5 is just one of many contenders now engaged in a full-fledged fray to garner the attention of IT desktop managers. Competitors include Symantec's Altiris Software Virtualization System (SVS), VMware's ThinApp 4, Sun Microsystems' VirtualBox, Novell's ZENworks Application Virtualization and Citrix Systems' client-side application virtualization. IT managers not only must decide if application virtualization is useful as a strategy for unifying the corporate desktop and reducing support costs, but which vendor will fit most easily into the existing infrastructure.

There are several factors I consider when I test application virtualization products. The most important is the ability to significantly reduce application conflicts in the production environment, followed by being able to improve centralized configuration control dramatically, license management, and desktop and application security. 

In the case of App-V 4.5, the product did significantly reduce application conflict because application virtualization enables a program such as Word to run as if it were the only program running on the end-user system. The amount of back-end work to make the gain a reality was considerable. All told, I installed an App-V management server, a streaming server, a sequencer (where applications are packaged for delivery) and an App-V client on all my Windows end-user systems.

App-V 4.5 can be tightly integrated with Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager 2007 to handle application package distribution. Sequenced packages can be delivered by third-party electronic software distribution systems as well. Compared with VMware's much simpler ThinApp 4, Microsoft's App-V 4.5 handles application packaging using the App-V sequencer, a component that is installed on a PC with a clean install of the Windows OS that matches that of systems deployed in the enterprise. In App-V 4.5, the sequencer has been streamlined and now requires only a single wizard to package applications. Advanced configuration settings such as using HTTP, HTTPS or the RTSP protocol (among others) to use for deployment can be fine-tuned after the basic sequencing process is completed.

App-V 4.5 can use the management server or streaming server to distribute sequenced applications to end-user systems, but is also designed to integrate with Microsoft System Center software distribution and management tools. For enterprises that use System Center Operations Manager, there is a management pack that specifically monitors the App-V management server. The management pack checks system health and can signal if a problem is detected with the content directory (where the packaged applications are stored), security certificates that are used to secure communication between App-V servers and clients, or in client handling requests.

Putting the Pieces Together


 

The convoluted documentation-and I hesitate to grace the planning and deployment guide with that much credit-almost ensures that initial installation will require a consulting gig. Written in the typically confusing Microsoft style of "before you do this, you need to do X, Y and Z"-rather than just saying do X, Y and Z as part of the installation process-the guide was one of my biggest challenges in test setup.

However, after bulling my way through the docs, the first thing that became clear is that flexibility and large-scale deployment is the name of the game for App-V 4.5. The App-V sequencer captures not just the file and registry settings like I've seen in recent tests, including VMware's ThinApp product, but also enabled me to preset many end-user preferences. For example, I sequenced a couple versions of the Mozilla Firefox browser and was able to deploy the application without it bugging end users to import settings from Internet Explorer by answering that question "no" during sequencing.

The App-V sequencer provides detailed access to a variety of settings and should satisfy even the most fussy (and I mean that in a nice way) deployment technician. Registry and file system settings can be hand-edited to ensure that application packages are correctly customized for end-user systems. In addition, there's plenty of room for comments in the package file to provide hints and insight to future technicians who may need to make changes.

App-V enabled me to create sequenced application packages, but I needed a client on my end-user systems to get the package onto the appropriate desktop. First, I am not a big fan of desktop agents, but this is one of the facts of life that IT managers must accept if App-V is adopted in the organization. The agent manages the virtual environment on the end-user system, which is where the virtualized applications run.

To get the applications, I first published them on my App-V Management Server (this could also have been on a specialized App-V Streaming Server), which enabled the end-user systems to run the virtual application. The publishing process puts the application icons on the computer so that the end user simply clicks to begin using the app. The application is then streamed in blocks to the client and cached locally.

The Web and file servers can also be used as streaming servers so it isn't necessary to create a whole slew of new infrastructure to provide applications to client systems. The App-V sequencer does its best to ensure that the parts of the application that are needed first are sent first to speed up application start time. I was satisfied with my virtualized Office programs startup process.

I updated from Office 2003 to Office 2007 during my tests and didn't see any difference in the performance of the product. One appealing aspect of using virtualized apps is the ease of keeping end users on the most current version. Deploying updated packages-in this case of Office 2007-was just a matter of sequencing and publishing the new product to my clients.

eWEEK Labs Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at csturdevant@eweek.com.


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