Azure RemoteApp's simplicity a blessing and a curse

Azure RemoteApp gives IT pros a way to deliver Microsoft apps from the public cloud without Windows, but before you sing hallelujah, there are a number of downsides to consider.

Early Azure RemoteApp testers say it is almost too simple to deploy and use, but the tradeoffs of simplicity, along with lack of legacy support, could severely limit adoption.

Unlike application virtualization, with Azure RemoteApp there is no application '"wrapper"' required; almost any application that runs on Windows Server 2012 R2 will work. Since it runs in the Azure public cloud, Microsoft also handles all of the app management tasks.

While promising, the lack of support for older Windows versions is a major drawback, said Aaron Ebertowski, lead infrastructure architect at Nimbo, an enterprise cloud solutions and migration services provider based in Houston.

"Microsoft always talks about enabling customers, but here they are leaving customers behind, and that's a concern for me, as someone who represents customers," Ebertowski said. "They are saying get on board this train, or you'll be left behind."

Many custom applications and those that run inside Java virtual machines don't work either, according to Ebertowski, who has tested the service and presented a session on it for an Azure User Group meeting in Houston this week.

"Microsoft says that customers want access to apps [rather than full desktops], and that's true, but they really want access to the legacy apps they are used to," Ebertowski said.

Without legacy support, RemoteApp is an app delivery farm for modern apps, he said.

Open GL 1.2 and greater apps won't work either, because those require a specific driver from chip manufacturers. To date, Azure RemoteApp supports Open GL 1.1 or lower, Microsoft said.

However, Microsoft may not be too concerned; these limitations mean people still need Windows to run certain apps, Ebertowski said.

Azure RemoteApp simplicity tradeoffs

Delivering applications from the cloud certainly isn't anything new; IT shops already outsource apps or run them in all types of clouds. Where Microsoft tried to differentiate is with simplicity.

"IT doesn't want to manage the OS or service," said Klaas Langhout, principal director of program management for Microsoft's remote desktop team. "They want to provide apps to authorized end users and not have to worry about the management."

They are saying get on board this train, or you'll be left behind.
Aaron Ebertowskilead infrastructure architect, Nimbo

RemoteApp is quite simple for IT admins to use and the application management, load balancing and other app delivery tasks are all handled by Microsoft.

"There also isn't an investment in infrastructure and IT skills to run those apps," said Mark Bowker, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, an IT analysis firm in Milford, Massachusetts. "You strip away the complexity."

But there is a price to pay for simplicity. With RemoteApp, IT pros don't have the granular controls they are accustomed to.

The big Azure RemoteApp shortcoming is clear when compared to Citrix XenApp, which includes contextual rules that IT can use to control user experience based on device attributes and IP addresses, said Simon Bramfitt, an industry analyst with The Virtualization Practice, an IT analysis firm based in Austin, Texas.

"I can't see any way to write rules for [Azure RemoteApp] that gives me the flexibility for creating the kind of policies I can with XenApp, to prevent access to local storage on untrusted devices or disable access to applications from insecure locations," Bramfitt said.

Since Azure RemoteApp is a public cloud service, IT pros can't mix and match locally-hosted RemoteApp servers with Azure-hosted servers based on app performance characteristics, or for disaster recovery or seasonable demand management, without impacting user experience. All of that can be done with XenApp in a hybrid cloud configuration today, Bramfitt said.

For Azure RemoteApp to be truly useful, Ebertowski agreed IT pros must be able to run on-premises apps on the platform.

"I am all for getting rid of the problems that come with [on-premises] apps, but there needs to be a way for companies that have invested time, money and patience on those apps to move them to the cloud," Ebertowski said.

While the lack of GPU support makes for greater simplicity, it also limits the type of applications that can be run. IT pros want to run graphic intensive applications in RemoteApp, Ebertowski said.

"I'd love to put Photoshop inside of it and give access to it on any device, but that has a heavy graphics load, and when I tried it there was a lot of latency," he said, adding that the remote protocol is partly to blame.

That graphics support is also lacking in Amazon Workspaces, but does exist in other remote desktop services, such as VMware Horizon DaaS.

Though there are limits, all in all, Azure RemoteApp is "not a bad first effort," Bramfitt said.

"Good to see Microsoft taking a leading position on something for once," Bramfitt said. "Give them another three years and they should have a good platform on their hands."

Azure RemoteApp licensing, testing

Licensing and pricing details have yet to be determined, but bandwidth used to connect to the remote applications, as well as bandwidth used by the applications themselves is included with the service. In addition, RDS Client Access Licenses aren't required; Microsoft incorporates all licenses needed to use the service, according to the company's FAQ page. Microsoft plans to make Azure RemoteApp generally available by end of calendar year.

In the meantime, the software giant continues to add new features based on feedback from beta testers, and is actively seeking more IT pros to test the service.

"It's simple to get started and that's actually throwing people off," Langhout said. "We want people to do more than kick the tires. We want people to do a test drive with 10, 20 and 100 users."

Anyone with a Microsoft Azure account can test Azure RemoteApp and provide feedback.

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