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VDI shops to gain departmental application layering tool

A new virtual desktop management tool lets IT deliver departmental applications with desktop layering rather than application virtualization.

An upcoming VDI tool will give administrators a way to deliver departmental applications to sets of end users on nonpersistent virtual desktops, without application virtualization tools.

Application management is the bane of our existence.

Theodore Love,
director of technology, Phoenix Central School District

Virtual desktop software company Liquidware Labs Inc.'s FlexApp feature will be extended to support departmental installed applications (DIAs) for virtual desktops. It will hit beta during VMworld 2012 in August and be generally available in the fourth quarter, a company spokesperson said.

The departmental application management option will be part of Liquidware's FlexApp feature, which supports user installed applications (UIAs). It eventually will work with physical desktops as well.

A DIA allows IT to place apps used by multiple employees into a layer that can be managed separate from the operating system. Those apps are pushed out to designated end users upon log on and appear native to the OS. It's a feature that desktop virtualization customers should find useful because it allows IT to deliver sets of apps to only the users that need them, on nonpersistent virtual desktops, experts said.

New York's Phoenix Central School district, for example, uses VMware View 5.1 to deliver nonpersistent virtual desktops to end users, because if they had to give everyone a persistent, or personalized desktop, the cost of storage would be far too high, said Theodore Love, director of technology for the school district.

Love considered letting users install their own applications and beta-tested FlexApp for UIA, but that feature is a problem because it extends administrative rights to end users, a thing that many IT pros consider a recipe for disaster. "I'm not going to give that to end users and pay for a VHD [virtual hard disk] for every single user to support all of their own apps," he said. "But I would love to have a VHD for [departmental] apps, so that I can deliver those apps to the users that need them."

With FlexApp, departmental apps are managed as a separate data store, and IT has a menu of "FlexApp-ed" apps that can be delivered to individual users or entire departments based on Microsoft Active Directory groups. Love and his team hope to use this feature to wrangle unnecessary apps and streamline application delivery.

"Application management is the bane of our existence," Love said. "We have three school buildings, and each has a list of 200 apps that they think they need; we still have a copy of Microsoft Works. … I'd like to go to the user and say, here are the apps we allow you to use and you can pick and choose from those apps."

DIA layers vs. application virtualization

The types of applications that FlexApp addresses are the ones that admins might use other software distribution tools for, such as Altiris, LANDesk, Microsoft Systems Center Configuration Manager or apps that IT tried to virtualize but couldn't.

In fact, the entire DIA concept sounds similar to application virtualization, but differs in that with desktop layering, encapsulation is dynamic: Changes are simply captured and layered to the operating system, explained Chris Wolf, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

IT can deploy single, shared desktop images for all common applications, then use departmental and user layers to manage applications across departments, Wolf said. "It's technology that Gartner considers very important for supporting virtual desktop deployments at large scales, as well as for cutting down the Opex costs associated with smaller-scale deployments," Wolf said.

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Conversely, application virtualization often involves considerable work to package and deploy a single application, Wolf said. "Because of that, many of our clients only use app virtualization for problematic apps, such as those that require a custom Java runtime," he said.

When those problematic but critical departmental apps can't be virtualized, an entire virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) project is compromised, according to Todd Knapp, CEO at Envision Technology Advisors, a virtualization consultancy based in Providence, R.I.

"During desktop virtualization projects, IT imagines all the apps their users need, then realizes that the Flash or Java apps or the Outlook plug-in that users apply to make them more productive were completely ignored," Knapp said.

FlexApp affords a high degree of compatibility for apps, including those that need file system drivers. The technology virtualizes only the location of an application installation and keeps the actual binaries on a VHD. With this approach, compatibility with applications is more than 97%, according to Alpharetta, Ga.-based Liquidware Labs.

Another benefit is that the OS image can be patched and managed separately from application layers. And because departmental apps are delivered only to certain employees, companies should have to pay license fees for only a small number of users, experts said.

More application management options

There are some similar technologies on the market that offer application layering -- the most well-known from Unidesk Corp. Their architectural approach to solving the application management problem is different from FlexApp's approach.

With Unidesk's software, administrators install an application into a virtual machine, then turn it into a layer that is deployed to multiple virtual desktops. This approach requires persistent desktops, rather than nonpersistent, where many virtual desktops share a single boot image, Gartner's Wolf said.

Citrix Systems Inc. acquired RingCube in August 2011 for its application personalization capabilities. Industry watchers point out that IT can use RingCube to create a departmental layer that sits between the common base layer and the personalized user layer.

Wanova Inc's Mirage software, acquired by VMware Inc. in May, supports supports UIAs. Departmental applications that can be delivered independently of the base layer are only an experimental feature for now, VMware said.

Meanwhile, AppSense supports UIAs through its StrataApps feature, released earlier this year, as does Ceedo Technologies.

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Do you need to support departmental installed applications with VDI?
Image layering does not work for us for app, that is why FlexApp will be so cool.