VMware's ThinApp and App Volumes tools are both part of the Horizon suite and deliver applications to users, but...
they serve different functions.
App Volumes -- the newer addition of the two technologies -- is VMware's go-to option for distributing groups of applications to virtual desktops, whereas ThinApp is a better tool for delivering specific apps that need to be isolated because of compatibility issues. At VMworld 2015, VMware announced Project A², which combines AirWatch with App Volumes to allow admins to deliver applications to any type of endpoint, including mobile devices and physical PCs.
ThinApp is the old standby
ThinApp is an application virtualization product, with some software distribution functions. It's been part of the VMware Horizon suite since 2008, so it's been around quite a bit longer than App Volumes, which VMware acquired and renamed from CloudVolumes in 2014.
Applications captured with ThinApp run inside an isolated "bubble," which is part of each ThinApp package. The bubble is an overlay on the file system and desktop registry. Administrators can include different files and registry settings inside the ThinApp application than the other apps on the operating system (OS). The application inside the bubble is also hidden from other applications running on the desktop, which allows incompatible applications to run side by side on one desktop. But this is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, companies want to integrate two applications or install apps that are plug-ins to other applications, and, therefore, require access to one another that this isolation would not allow.
ThinApp can also enable applications that would not otherwise install. For example, an organization that wants to move off Windows XP without redeveloping Web applications can use ThinApp to run Internet Explorer 6 on Windows 7.
There are a number of ways to deliver ThinApp applications to a desktop. For VDI, admins place the apps on a file share -- ideally, using high-performance storage -- which all desktops can access. This means users access the application over the corporate network. Admins need to make sure not to overload the network, though, or else app performance will suffer.
App Volumes provides a new method
VMware App Volumes is currently only available in the company's top desktop virtualization bundle, Horizon Enterprise, whereas ThinApp is included in all Horizon bundles. App Volumes uses a combination of virtual disk images (VMDK files) and a guest disk/registry filter driver to make applications appear to be installed inside the virtual machine (VM).
The App Volumes agent places a group of applications in a secure container, which lives on top of the host OS. Admins can also choose to include a Writable Volume, which allows employees to carry over user-installed applications, local profile settings, files and other data. The desktop OS sees a single, combined file system and registry, and all the applications running on the desktop see this same view.
The disk images for VDI, which VMware refers to as AppStacks, reside on data stores accessible to the VMware ESXi servers. This keeps the application access on the storage stack, rather than relying on the VMs. To ensure good performance, VDI shops should place VMware App Volumes files on a high-speed data store or even use solid-state storage, if possible.
Differences between the technologies
ThinApp's defining feature is application isolation, which is especially useful if admins have applications that cannot coexist or will not install together. ThinApp is also useful for application deployment beyond VDI.
The central feature for App Volumes is the unified view. The App Volumes components overlay the desktop, and applications behave exactly as if they were natively installed. App Volumes can also allow user settings to carry over from desktop to desktop, without roaming profiles. In addition, App Volumes can enable user-installed applications, which are often a nightmare otherwise.
These additional capabilities make App Volumes a powerful tool, particularly to enable Horizon View floating-assignment desktop pools, which admins can set to delete and refresh with each use. Floating-assignment desktop pools are convenient for situations where several employees access the same pool of virtual desktops. App Volumes allows users to have the experience of a persistent desktop by delivering their applications, files, user profile and another other Writable Volume data each time they log in.
Where ThinApp and App Volumes intersect
ThinApp and App Volumes were both designed to allow admins to easily deploy applications to multiple desktops. With these technologies, you can even deliver applications to nonpersistent desktops and still retain user settings. Both products allow admins to create a much smaller desktop image that doesn't contain many applications. Similarly, ThinApp and App Volumes each allow VDI shops to maintain fewer desktop images by removing apps from the base image. Instead, admins can deliver applications based on user group membership or even to specific named users.
ThinApp and App Volumes also employ a similar application capture method. They each use a clean VM with a minimal application set, and look for any file system and registry changes made during the install process. Both technologies require careful management of the components used during application capture to guarantee the best app performance for users. Organizations with an App Volumes license also have a license for ThinApp, and this isn't an either-or situation. VDI admins can use both VMware app virtualization tools in cooperation with each other. For example, it is simple to use App Volumes to deliver ThinApp packages. Or, an admin may prefer to use App Volumes to distribute applications to desktops and ThinApp for the smaller number of applications that require isolation.
VMware adding App Volumes to the Horizon suite vastly simplifies app distribution for VDI. It is also great to not need to use ThinApp just to simplify a base image, because App Volumes is a much simpler way to achieve the same result. Although these two VMware products do overlap to an extent, they also go well together.
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