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How to evaluate free application virtualization software

Free app virtualization software might sound great, but it can come with complications, and without features you might need. Ask yourself these six questions before choosing a product.

Organizations considering application virtualization have a number of different options available to choose from, including free tools.

It is naturally tempting to consider a free product, and it's possible that there is free application virtualization software on the market that meets all your needs. But before you dive in, there are six important questions that you should consider:

1. Do you need to support a new OS? Many of the free application virtualization tools that are available today are open source and designed to run on Linux. Although that might not necessarily be a problem, it does have the potential to increase support costs for organizations that don't currently run Linux. If your organization is going to adopt a new server operating system, then you must consider whether the IT staff has sufficient knowledge to adequately support that operating system. Some training may be in order.

2. Does it force isolation? One of the nice things about Windows desktop operating systems is the way data can be shared between applications. Some low-cost or free application virtualization software does not support the use of copy and paste to other applications, and it can't be made aware of the existence of other applications that might be running on the desktop. Although forced isolation isn't necessarily a problem, it is something that should be tested for in case users' jobs require moving data between applications.

3. How does it push apps to desktops? Some free application virtualization software virtualizes applications, but does not provide a mechanism for delivering those applications to users' desktops. For example, a tool might create an executable file that can be used to run the virtual application, but might require you to come up with your own way of getting that file to users' desktops.

4. Are there any agents? Some application virtualization tools are agent-based and others are agentless. Agents are an additional component that must run on the system, and like any software component, they have the potential to cause stability problems or introduce security vulnerabilities. That's not to say you should avoid application virtualization tools that use agents, but you should check to see if the tool you are considering requires any. If so, check to see if the agents are known to cause any problems.

5. Is it browser-based? Another thing to consider is whether the application virtualization software delivers applications through a Web browser. If workers are used to connecting to virtual desktops through a Remote Desktop Protocol session and running applications as if they were local, they might be a little bit confused if they suddenly have to open a browser to launch an application. Again, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with exposing virtual applications through a Web browser, but it is important to consider whether the delivery method is consistent with the experience you want to provide to your end users.

6. What are the hidden costs? "Free" doesn't always mean free. You might find that basic capabilities within the software you choose are free, but that the more advanced capabilities must be licensed. Similarly, you might find that the software is free but that you have to pay for support. In fact, some free tools don't have any telephone support at all.

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