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A significant challenge that VDI admins face is application and image management for largescale desktop deployments.
Many vendors provide tools that can help IT deliver and manage virtual applications and desktops. Additionally, Microsoft is throwing its hat into the virtual application and desktop game with Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) and tools such as MSIX App Attach.
Organizations that deliver virtual applications via app layering should look at the capabilities MSIX App Attach can offer in its public preview and compare it to similar tools from VMware, Citrix Systems and Liquidware Labs to determine which tool fits their needs.
Differences between app layering tools
The app layering offerings from Microsoft, Citrix, VMware and Liquidware are similar in the functions they provide and the methods they use to help IT layer virtual applications. However, in terms of features, layering mechanisms and support, these tools are more different than they appear. The desired feature sets and support are crucial for organizations to understand; these differences should dictate virtualization tool purchasing decisions.
Microsoft MSIX App Attach
Microsoft, which is known for the application virtualization stack App-V, is working on a similar application layering technology, MSIX App Attach, which is currently in public preview. App Attach is a new way to wrap Win32 applications within the MSIX framework.
MSIX is an application container framework, within which Microsoft is pushing their developers to create new applications. MSIX App Attach is mounted using the FSLogix technology stack and its filter drivers.
The tool only has support for Windows 10 at this time, but it is free to use and could fit well into smaller organizations and WVD deployments. However, App Attach is within the MSIX application framework, so it has some support limitations for apps that require drivers and Windows Services.
IT can only manage App Attach using PowerShell. They can, however, publish MSIX-based apps in the Windows Store for Business to manage them, but this isn't a common approach. Currently, MSIX App Attach has no direct support for user-installed applications. IT administrators would need to wrap all applications and publish them for their users, which could be a tedious process.
Citrix, VMware and Liquidware app layering tools have support for applications with Windows services and drivers, and quality management capabilities that come with their devices. The offerings from Citrix and VMware are often included as part of their licensing bundles or product groupings, and these tools are tightly integrated with their own management platform. Citrix App Layering, VMware App Volumes and Liquidware FlexApp have also been on the market for years, whereas MSIX App Attach is brand new.
App layering vs. app virtualization
One common approach to managing virtual apps is application layering, a technology that allows IT pros to wrap applications within a bubble-like layer, either in the form of a virtual hard drive or some similar format. This allows IT professionals to manage one or two golden application images rather than countless individual versions of each app.
Unlike application virtualization, the goal of layering is not to isolate the application within its own virtual file system and registry. Instead, application layering merely houses all the file storage, registry entries and other relevant data within its own virtual disk.
With this functionality, IT pros can essentially have different applications that each exist within their own bubbles and are dynamically mounted when a user logs in. When a user logs on, the layering technology accesses and combines information from different virtual hard drives, including the OS drive, into a single file system to provide seamless structure and virtual application access.
Citrix App Layering
Citrix has directly integrated App Layering with several hypervisors, such as Hyper-V and vSphere. Citrix App layering also has extensive support for different cloud management platforms on the market today, such as AWS and Azure. Citrix is also releasing new features that deliver a user personalization layer, which allows IT to create user profiles as a separate virtual hard drive. This way, IT can isolate and manage profiles separate from the OS, similar to virtual applications.
VMware App Volumes
VMware's App Volumes does not rely on integrations with the hypervisor and runs mostly as an agent-based tool. This approach has some advantages, including that IT pros can also use this tool to manage end clients and deliver application layers to those clients. VMware is also set to release version 4 of App Volumes soon, which will bring strong integrations with Horizon and ESXi stack. The new version supports Just in Time management technology, which allows IT to clone virtual machines.
Liquidware FlexApp, on the other hand, works as a stand-alone offering, and IT can use it together with any type of platform or hypervisor. FlexApp also runs as an agent-based tool and supports a multitude of layering capabilities and cloud caching mechanisms as part of their latest release.
The future of MSIX App Attach
Even though App Attach is a new feature, it doesn't seem that Microsoft will push too hard to make it support all the features that the other vendors provide. Microsoft mainly created MSIX App Attach to give developers an easy way to wrap existing applications into MSIX based packages.
Many IT departments are struggling with legacy applications, which MSIX containers may never support, and the other vendors in this market will be able to provide more native support for features needed for the application to run properly. More and more IT departments are turning to desktop as a service and cloud-hosted deployments, and these groups must be able to manage proper auto scaling and layering technology to provide users the applications they need.
Customers that use WVD as their main platform will likely rely mostly on Microsoft's suite of virtual desktop tools and services, which includes MSIX App Attach. WVD customers can use App Attach to make the applications more dynamic and help with image provisioning for WVD deployments. For those more complex applications and for more advanced cases, organizations may need additional tools, such as Liquidware FlexApp, to bolster App Attach's capabilities.
Hopefully, Microsoft will build some integrations between WVD and App Attach to simplify delivery. This would make Microsoft's virtualization tools and services feel more like a cohesive platform, similar to other vendors' approaches, and would save IT from having to wrap components in different scripts.