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Citrix Synergy 2017 conference coverage

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Application layering arrives on IT's radar

The promise of simplicity and the backing of big-name vendors have drawn more eyes to application layering technology. But questions swirl around performance and compatibility.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Application layering adoption remains low, but more IT professionals are coming around to the...

technology.

Layering products all work in different ways. At their core, they allow IT to package and deliver different combinations of applications and their components to different groups of users. Nearly three-quarters of VDI shops use nothing to manage applications, according to a new survey by VDI Like a Pro. But moves by VMware, which acquired CloudVolumes in 2014, and Citrix, which acquired Unidesk this year, have piqued IT's interest.

"There's a lot of really cool things that app layering can do, and there's some things it can't do," said Chris O'Hara, Citrix architect at HCL Technologies, a global IT consulting and outsourcing firm. "Elasticity is good, but I [have questions] about the performance impact of the more layers you [add]."

Unidesk boosts Citrix's capabilities

Citrix showcased App Layering, its new tool based on Unidesk, here at its annual user conference, Synergy. The product's aim is to simplify the complexity of delivering customized virtual desktops to users, said Chris Midgley, senior director of product strategy at Citrix and the founder of Unidesk.

"As we go around and we try to customize these desktops to meet the needs of every user and every department, we have exceptions and customizations and changes," Midgley said in a session. "Different laptops and desktops have different information on them and worse -- service packs, updates, patches."

Unidesk's technology far outpaces Citrix's previous homegrown application layering offering, AppDisk, said consultant Theresa Miller, CEO and founder of 24x7 IT Connection.

"One of the challenges that I've seen companies be faced with is how to package and handle their apps," she said. "So this tool does a lot of that very well."

How Citrix App Layering works

Citrix's approach to application layering allows IT to separate all components of application delivery -- the operating system, the apps and the users themselves -- into their own layers. That way, if administrators make changes to the operating system, for example, the changes automatically trickle down to every user. And if a subset of users within a group needs to access a specific app, admins can deliver that app to those users without having to create a new image.

Citrix's App Layering keeps just one copy of an organization's entire inventory of applications and operating systems. The Layered Images feature allows IT to mix and match these layers into gold images and deliver these images to specific groups of users. As a result, IT only has to manage and update each application one time -- not once for every image.

Compatibility is the biggest issue.
Pablo Tejadamanaging director of end-user computing, Northeast investment firm

"Their approach ... which controls image sprawl but gives you an efficient image delivered to the users, has a very big advantage," said Pablo Tejada, managing director of end-user computing at a Northeast investment firm.

Tejada sees potential problems with application layering, but the benefits are too great to ignore, he said.

"Compatibility is the biggest issue," he added. "There may be some difficulty in getting the application to work. But in the cases where it does work, it's a huge advantage from an administration perspective -- and also for the users, because they don't end up getting images that are big and bloated."

The Elastic Layering feature allows IT to deliver applications on demand to users based on identity and Active Directory group membership. IT can customize each workspace and enable persistence based on the apps a user works with, their profile and what data they access. It also includes containers that isolate sessions from each other.

"[One user] can be running on the same server I'm running on but in a different session and have a completely different set of apps than I have," Midgley said. "He could be running a different version of a piece of software than I am because I'm isolated. And if [a hacker] tries to access my data, it's not there. It's isolated within the session." 

Other application layering options

About 8.1% of VDI shops use Citrix App Layering or Unidesk, according to the VDI Like a Pro survey. Slightly more -- 8.9% -- use VMware App Volumes, which grew out of the CloudVolumes acquisition. That product is available as part of Horizon Enterprise and as a stand-alone offering. Tejada's firm evaluated both products, in addition to Liquidware Labs FlexApp, six months ago, prior to Citrix's acquisition of Unidesk. 

"From the three, Unidesk was the better product," he said. "Their way of automating the images is best. They are basically flattening those layers into one image prior to the user launching it."

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