Microsoft updates roaming profiles for the desktop virtualization age

Microsoft has finally delivered a new version of its roaming user profiles tool called UE-V, providing profile management for virtual desktops.

Microsoft has answered the call for a better roaming user profile tool, giving MDOP shops a way to virtualize desktops at the OS, application and user profile layers.

The new profile management software, called User Experience Virtualization (UE-V), is similar to Microsoft roaming user profiles, but UE-V roams user profiles "a bit more efficiently and in more scenarios," a Microsoft spokesperson said.

UE-V is now available in beta, with the final version part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) at no extra charge. The company did not offer a timeline for the final release.

An improved roaming profiles tool "has been a long time coming," said Mark Margevicius, a client computing analyst with Gartner, Inc.

"You can't do hosted desktop virtualization without profile management," he said. "This is a solution targeted at fulfilling a major hole in desktop virtualization."

Many desktop virtualization customers have already filled that hole with third-party profile management tools.

Dan Bolton, systems architect for Kingston University in the U.K., uses RES Software Workspace Manager for profile management, among other desktop virtualization products, including Microsoft App-V.

"It's nice to see Microsoft addressing the issue, and it validates what many of us have been doing for some time," Bolton said. "The proof will, of course, be in the pudding."

Microsoft's new roaming user profiles tool

The average employee has at least four devices, and UE-V gives IT pros a way to deliver a consistent user experience across those different devices, said Karri Alexion-Tiernan, director of product management for Microsoft desktop virtualization.

UE-V works with folder redirection in Windows Server to separate user data from specific devices. The data then "follows" end users from device to device -- whether online or offline.

"It keeps the user experience with them, so they don't have to reconfigure apps on each device that they use," Alexion-Tiernan said.

Microsoft's roaming profiles tool is still available, but UE-V offers more than just that tool.

Here's how the two differ:

  • When using a session-based desktop and a physical desktop, you could have two different roaming profiles. With UE-V, there is no need for this because it applies the experience from Windows desktop physical instances to Windows Server session desktops.
  • Roaming user profiles synchronies the entire profile at login and logoff, which means most of the user experience is not synched regularly. UE-V has additional triggers such as lock/unlock, Remote Desktop Services (RDS) connect/disconnect and application open/close that it uses to apply and capture the profile.
  • With roaming user profiles, IT pros can't choose which experiences roam. As some users have installed non-business software on their machine, those applications get stored centrally with roaming user profiles and take up valuable data center storage. UE-V lets IT choose what applications should have their experience roamed, minimizing the data center space used.

In addition, with roaming user profiles, IT must restore the entire profile to reset an unwanted change, which resets every application back to its last backup date. UE-V, on the other hand, lets IT reset each application individually to its original state.

The UE-V agent is deployed using System Center Configuration Manager. IT can use an existing file server to store profiles, so no additional storage infrastructure is required, Alexion-Tiernan said.

UE-V vs. third-party profile management tools

Currently, there are a number of third-party profile management tools on the market, and industry watchers expected Microsoft to acquire one of them, as its competitors have done.

Citrix Systems Inc. acquired a profile management tool from RingCube Technologies Inc. in 2011, adding to the user profile management tool it had acquired from Sepago in 2008. Microsoft competitor VMware Inc. acquired RTO Software's profile management tool back in 2010, and the company integrated it into VMware View 5 last year.

Microsoft, on the other hand, used its existing roaming profiles technology and knowledge to build the UE-V tool in-house, rather than buy popular user profile management software from one of the many small vendors in this market such as RES Software, UniDesk Corp. or Liquidware Labs Inc.

"If you think about it, who knows about profiles better than Microsoft?" Margevicius said. "It involves user migration, Active Directory… all of the things that make up the bowels of Windows."

More on profile management:

Are Citrix and Microsoft shopping for profile management tools?

How to make user profiles delete themselves in any VDI environment

Because UE-V will be part of MDOP, many customers are sure to use it instead of paying for a third-party profile management tool, Margevicius said. "It offers another bullet to the chamber of MDOP -- it's a value add for Microsoft customers," he said.

But some third-party profile management tools, such as RES's Workspace Manager Express version, are available for free, so some IT pros expected Microsoft to deliver new profile management software at no extra charge.

"This type of solution should be free, MDOP or not," Bolton said. "Microsoft has ignored its lack of a 'real' profile management solution for long enough."

Free in MDOP or not, for UE-V to compete with existing profile management tools, it needs to provide scalability and integration with third-party application delivery products, and it needs to be dynamic in terms of context-aware computing, Bolton said.

Regardless of UE-V's ability to stand up to existing offerings, there is still a place for third-party profile tools, Margevicius said.

UE-V limitations

Microsoft positions UE-V as a way to support the use of multiple devices, but the caveat is Windows devices.

It isn't a great fit for bring your own device (BYOD) environments with Apple iPads and Google Android devices because the UE-V client installed on each device isn't compatible with non-Windows devices. It only runs natively on Windows 7 or Windows 8 PCs or tablets.

Microsoft said UE-V is not compatible with Windows 8 phones but would not say whether UE-V works with Windows 8 on ARM tablets.

"It's a good tool if all of your devices are Microsoft," said Brett Waldman, an analyst with IDC Corp. "As of today, it isn't necessarily a BYOD tool."

Companies that manage profiles across multiple platforms are better off using a third-party profile management vendor, Margevicius said. "Something like AppSense works across different OSes and platforms that Microsoft's tools don't."

However, the UE-V tool does integrate with RDS or virtual desktop infrastructure software, so the UE-V settings will roam into the virtual desktop that end users access on non-Windows devices, Alexion-Tiernan said.

"Is that going to be great for most customers? Probably not," Waldman said. "But for Microsoft shops, it will be."

Microsoft also upgraded its application virtualization tool, App-V 5.0, with new features. It is also available in beta and will continue to be part of MDOP.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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