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How UEM and user installed applications enhance desktop management

User environment management tools such as Liquidware Labs' ProfileUnity can help admins manage user profiles and migrate to Windows 7.

UEM tools and user installed applications help streamline the user experience by giving more control to both users...

and their administrators.

Last week, I took a briefing with Liquidware Labs to learn about the company's ProfileUnity and FlexApp offerings. ProfileUnity is Liquidware's user environment management solution, and FlexApp is a user installed applications feature of ProfileUnity. Before we dig into those products, however, it's important to explain the problems they are trying to solve.

What are UEM and UIA?

User environment management (UEM), which goes by other names including user environment virtualization, user virtualization and user workspace management, is an important element of any desktop management solution. UEM software manages the user environment including personas, access, security, application settings and more, focusing on the user workspace rather than the device. After all, desktop management -- whether it's for desktop virtualization or not -- is equal parts the device and the user.

With Windows XP, we got pretty good at managing desktops a certain way, but when Windows 7 came out, user profiles (specifically file and registry locations) changed. Today's UEM solutions are also migration tools to help make the transition from Windows XP to Windows 7. Some tools even allow you to bounce back and forth between Windows XP and Windows 7 machines.

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User installed applications (UIA) are closely related to UEM. UIA gives the users more autonomy without giving them admin rights. It allows them to install applications on their machine without those applications affecting the underlying OS.

Doing that means you can use one OS image for all your users (the shared or non-persistent model in VDI terms), and their applications can follow them around wherever they log in. In some tools, this is accomplished by layering virtual disks on top of each other when a virtual machine boots. In other tools such as Liquidware's FlexApp, the applications are integrated by an agent after the user logs in.

Managing user profiles, migrating to Windows 7

Liquidware Labs' ProfileUnity is a user environment management tool that grew from what was effectively a collection of sophisticated Kixtart scripts into an agent-based, centrally managed product. It not only manages the user environment but also facilitates migration from Windows XP to Windows 7 and from physical to virtual desktops.

The UEM agent keeps track of changes made during the user's session and synchronizes them at logon and logoff. It caches information for offline use, and synchronizes changes when a connection is re-established. ProfileUnity does not move around the entire user profile like you would expect from roaming profiles. Instead, it watches for changes from the default profile, compresses them and saves them to a network location as application-specific files.

Because each aspect of the user environment is broken up, ProfileUnity can place the files wherever they need to go based on the OS that is running. This can happen back and forth as the user moves around, so if you migrate a user to Windows 7 on his desktop but he still accesses a Windows Server 2003 terminal server, his environment will still follow him around.

ProfileUnity can even help you automatically shift to using folder redirection for traditional "shell" folders. If redirection were turned on first, files in the Documents folder, for instance, would essentially be lost (not deleted, just missing from the user interface). The agent can identify files stored locally and copy them to the redirected folder location before turning on folder redirection.

As with most UEM tools, admins can lock a desktop down completely or turn certain features on or off for certain users.

How user installed applications work

The FlexApp component of ProfileUnity stores applications in a virtual hard disk (VHD) file that's mounted as another drive that the user can see but never works with. Once the VHD is mounted, FlexApp automatically registers the applications with the system by a series of symlinks, or dynamic shortcuts, so that from the user's perspective the applications and settings are where they ought to be. 

Applications are packaged either by installing them with the agent running, whereby the agent then watches the installation process and packages the application on the fly for future use, or via an application packaging console in the admin Web interface. Admins can also allow or disallow the installation of applications based on criteria such as publisher, file extension, install location, whitelist/blacklist and certificate signing.

Like AppSense StrataApps, this user installed apps feature runs in user mode, so there are some limitations. Applications that require something during the Windows boot process, such as antivirus, won't work. Also, if the agent isn't present or running, the applications aren't available and revert back to whatever is in the default image.

Plus, FlexApp is only supported on non-persistent virtual desktops, but support for persistent and physical desktops may come in the next month or so. FlexApp will also include a Departmental Installed Applications feature that allows admins to assemble VHD files with custom application packages for delivery to different departments. That would eliminate the need for department-specific OS images -- one step closer to pulling off a single image for all users.

The fact that ProfileUnity does UEM, user installed applications and helps you migrate away from Windows XP is more than enough to include it in the conversation for any migration or desktop management product. Happy testing.

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