The latest version of application virtualization provider InstallFree’s platform makes a strong case for taking applications off the desktop and putting them in a central, managed repository.
InstallFree Bridge Suite 1.8 provides simple management tools, uses no installed components on the server or end-user systems and makes minimal changes to the way end users interact with applications. Large organizations with significant geographic spread may find it a challenge to keep application repositories up to date.
It was easier for me to overlook the shortcomings in this product category-that many virtual application management costs are similar to those of conventional application deployment tools-than in other application virtualization tools, namely Microsoft‘s App-V and Novell‘s ZENworks Application Virtualization. Both of those options hook into management infrastructure to provide global deployment solutions. InstallFree Bridge Suite requires significantly less planning and has far fewer infrastructure prerequisites than these two solutions.
InstallFree Bridge Suite, like all other application virtualization tools, does require that applications be specially prepared in order to be deployed virtually. The InstallFree Encapsulator enabled me to package applications for virtual distribution, or “encapsulate” them, to use InstallFree’s term, with about the same ease as other products that I’ve used.
Although the InstallFree Encapsulator doesn’t require a clean, model system, as a matter of best practices to create my encapsulated applications I did use a clean base system that represented the majority of deployed systems in my environment.
The product is entirely Windows-centric and can be used only with Windows-based endpoints. The IFMC (InstallFree Management Console) runs on a Windows Server 2003 system as a snap-in to the MMC (Microsoft Management Console). The InstallFree Bridge suite also uses read-only access to Active Directory to provision end users with applications according to policy choices I made in setting up the product.
The InstallFree Bridge, the portion that is deployed to the end-user system, enables roaming profiles and is intended for use inside an organization on a managed computer. Later in 2009, InstallFree officials are planning the release of a second component, called the InstallFree Desktop, for use outside the managed network. In my tests, the InstallFree Bridge was pushed to the end-user system during log-on to communicate with the IFMC and to retrieve applications and any customized user configurations, updates or patches from a file-share repository.
These applications, updates and add-ons were designated in policies that I created. The InstallFree Bridge enabled isolated applications to interact with each other and local system resources, including printers, USB devices and optical storage, based on my policies.
Testing InstallFree with Applications
I created several file shares on the same Windows Server 2003 R2 member system in my Active Directory domain and copied the InstallFree end-user components to one share and the applications to another. The IFMC runs as a process and is not installed on the server, in a manner similar to the process agents that run on the end-user Windows systems.
After executing the IFMC, I imported several specially prepared versions of test application software that included the Mozilla Firefox Web browser and Sun Microsystems’ OpenOffice productivity suite. I also encapsulated Microsoft Office Word 2007.
InstallFree defines three types of virtual applications for deployment: applications, patches and expansion packs. Applications are the base product, patches are fixes that change the version of the base product and expansion packs are optional add-ons, usually from a third party, which add functionality but do not change the version of the base product.
This amount of flexibility is a real positive and showed to advantage during my tests. For example, I was able to deploy a relatively up-to-date version of Firefox, apply patches to bring it up to the most current version and then add a Google Toolbar, depending on how I configured my central policy. Here is the advantage: Most other application deployment tools would require a complete library of every possible configuration of an application. With InstallFree Bridge, I was able to “dynamically assemble” (InstallFree’s perfectly appropriate term) the version, patch level and extra add-ons by mixing and matching components at start-up time.
Applications and any updates or expansion packs are most easily used when assigned to Active Directory objects in the Windows domain. By default, applications assigned to higher-level groups such as Organizational Units are inherited by child groups. InstallFree does provide an easy-to-use mechanism to block inheritance and further easily allows any type of virtual application to be assigned to an individual user.
Tests and further research showed that some applications work better with different versions of the InstallFree engine (the management console) and InstallFree Bridge virtual agents. While it was easy for me to assign the best version of the engine and the agent to applications, this is a weakness in the product and diminishes one of the chief reasons to use application virtualization-to get rid of regression testing.
Even with this shortcoming, however, the applications I used during my testing worked well with each other and the end-user operating systems.
Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at [email protected].