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Ditch Windows virtual desktops and deliver apps individually

Windows isn't going anywhere, but its role in desktop virtualization is changing. Users want their apps, and there are plenty of ways to deliver them rather than full Windows virtual desktops.

If you've decided it's no longer worth it to deploy full Windows virtual desktops, but still need to deliver Windows applications to the workforce, you need to develop a clear-cut strategy.

For a while, the buzz around VDI made session-hosted desktops and applications seem like old news. The prevailing mind-set was, "Why virtualize the applications when I can deliver an entire desktop?" For shops that still rely on the Windows desktop, delivering one still makes sense. But as time goes by, the pendulum is likely to swing back toward remote app publishing as opposed to entire desktops.

Smartphones and tablets have crept their way into users' personal and professional lives, and so have cloud services that simplify workflows. Who wants to sign into the virtual private network and connect to a remote file server to access their files when they can just sign into Dropbox from any operating system on any device and do the same thing? In short, users nowadays often just want remote access to their business applications and data rather than full Windows virtual desktops.

You can see this taking shape even today with Microsoft's Azure RemoteApp, which delivers session-hosted Windows apps from Azure. Citrix XenApp is another key player, and VMware is constantly evolving its app publishing features in Horizon View. Even Dell Wyse vWorkspace remains focused on applications as much as desktops. These are all viable ways of approaching Windows remote application delivery, but you still need one more piece to pull it all together: application management.

Remote app management basics

Before 2014, there were three ways you could manage applications. You could build them into your base image, manage them via Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) or package and stream them with products such as VMware ThinApp and Microsoft App-V. Using the base image approach usually leads to maintaining several disk images for different departments, which means any update to an application requires unpacking an image, adding the changes and recertifying the image. If the change affects multiple images, you have to do that on each one.

Companies have ... set out to make app management much simpler than it has been.

Using SCCM is effective, but it requires a special skill set to package and orchestrate application installations and updates, and it relies on a certain amount of good fortune to ensure a successful rollout. You can avoid conflicts and issues, but the success rate is directly related to your skill set; it's not for the faint of heart.

Microsoft App-V and VMware ThinApp require a separate skill set from SCCM to sequence, or package, applications for delivery. You can put most -- but usually not all -- your applications into separate packages, then assign them to users. For the apps you can't sequence, you're left with one of the other approaches, or you can install it manually.

All these methods are rather complicated, no more so than App-V, which was invented as a way to isolate applications from each other and stream them as needed over slow network connections. Over time, people came to use it more for its management and packaging capabilities than anything else. Other companies have realized this and have set out to make app management much simpler than it has been.

The new guard of remote application delivery

Application layering products from vendors such as VMware, Ceedo, Cloudhouse, FSLogix Inc., Liquidware Labs Inc., Spoon, Unidesk and others all set their sights on making app management simpler. Each company has its own approach, and which one is right for you depends on your use case. These vendors' primary goal is to focus on what you need to do today: easily compartmentalize applications so you can deploy them to users more effectively.

You can use this compartmentalized approach today, even with physical desktops. You can get away from managing dozens of images -- or trying to cram everything under the sun into one image -- or complex platforms such as SCCM or App-V by getting back to the basics. In fact, isolating and securing remote applications individually sets you up nicely for the future when you might not care about the "desktop-ness" of Windows and only want it to run a handful of applications.

Next Steps

Compare Citrix and VMware's app publishing products

An intro to using VMware ThinApp

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Dig Deeper on Application virtualization and streaming