App-V versus ThinApp: a VMware pro votes Microsoft

One longtime VMware expert looks at Microsoft remote desktop technologies and gives App-V the thumbs up.

I’m a long-time VMware guy, but recently I took interest in VMware's competition and attended a Microsoft Communicator...

Session in the U.K. to learn more about its desktop virtualization products.

Microsoft still champions local desktops, and suggests that traditional PCs are ideal for office workers. But the company realizes that a one-size-fits-all solution will not cut the mustard, so it supports multiple methods of application delivery, including Remote Desktop Services (RDS), Terminal Services and application virtualization. By contrast, VMware delivers only virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

For local desktops, Microsoft positions App-V as the best way to deploy virtualized applications. Personally, I think App-V is the ace up Microsoft’s sleeve, and perhaps the guys at Microsoft haven't realized it yet. Even as a certified VMware guy, I'd go so far as to rate it above VMware's application virtualization tool, ThinApp.

Microsoft App-V vs. VMware ThinApp
ThinApp's claim to fame is that all applications are self-contained executables with their own runtimes. Therefore, there is no agent or client-side software to install and maintain. That's attractive, but ThinApp has its downsides.

For example, ThinApp comes with relatively few tools to deliver applications remotely to users, aside from using .MSI files pushed out with Active Directory to install shortcuts. VMware customers should expect to see much better integration between ThinApp and View 4.5 in the future though.

By contrast, Microsoft App-V has an agent component that allows applications to be published to user environments without Active Directory software settings. Of course, some will baulk at having to install agent-based "receiver" software to their virtual desktops, but they would also say about installing backup agents to their VMs.

The plus of an agent approach means you can build a new application and push it out to all the clients using Configuration Manager almost instantaneously. The only way to achieve this with ThinApp is by using folder redirection with Group Policy Objects (GPO) and dragging and dropping a shortcut to ThinApp on the user's desktop.

Another plus of App-V and a capability I'm dying to experiment with is App-V Direct Suite Composition, which allows you to run Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other parts of Microsoft Office as separate applications without losing the integration that you would get within a suite of apps. With other vendors, you have to create one bloated, jumbo application or compromise on the integration, and those limitations can be a killer for application virtualization projects.

Out of all the desktop oriented stuff Microsoft is pumping out, App-V appears to be its strongest suit in the deck. But I think it will be some time before see mainstream applications like Microsoft Office are natively distributed in the App-V format, and I still detect reluctance from IT shops to modify client software licensing to reflect actual current usage. It would be nice to have 1,000 users but need to buy only buy 100 licenses, because at any one time I'm only running 100 instances.

Microsoft simplified virtual desktop licensing this year and made it easy to acquire the App-V by bundling it with its "VDI Suite," which delivers RDS client-access licenses (CALs) together with App-V. 

Microsoft customers can also get App-V by buying the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack, which is only available to Software Assurance customers.

Mike Laverick (VCP) is an award-winning expert and author who has been involved with the VMware community since 2003. He is a VMware forum moderator and member of the London VMware User Group Steering Committee. Laverick is the owner and author of the virtualization website and blog RTFM Education, where he publishes free guides and utilities aimed at VMware ESX/VirtualCenter users.

This was first published in December 2010

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