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VMware ThinApp Factory to mass produce virtual apps

ThinApp Factory radically changes the way applications are packaged. Here's a first look at the product that VMware plans to deliver and how it will help IT admins.

VMware's ThinApp Factory drastically changes the application packaging process by automating the entire procedure. The "factory" approach to packaging applications for virtualization won't apply to all apps, though.

I've been learning as much as possible about VMware's next-generation end-user computing technologies as part of my work on the final chapter of a book on View 5.0 and ThinApp 4.7 that I'm co-authoring with fellow vExpert, Barry Commbs. Information is thin on ThinApp Factory because it is still an alpha product, but from the various contacts I have within VMware and from a session I attended at the recent Melbourne VMUG, I've been able to formulate some thoughts on it.

In part, ThinApp Factory is intended to address the need for a ThinApp application management and distribution system. The overall goal is to apply a "mass production" approach to packaging and virtualizing applications.

How ThinApp Factory works
Today, administrators have to interact with a ThinApp Setup Capture wizard that takes a before and after snapshot of the operating system state. In the process, it spits out a virtualized app -- a ThinApp. It is more or less left up to the administrator to encode any special setting in a package.ini file before building the ThinApp, and the admin has to work out how to get these ThinApps into the hands of their end users.

ThinApp Factory radically changes that process. The ThinApp Factory ships as a virtual appliance that you import into vCenter or VMware Workstation. It automatically creates clean virtual machines (VMs) that run either Windows XP or Windows 7 from .ISO image supplied by the administrator. These VMs are setup with VM-based snapshots that can be reverted to a clean state after each capture process.

Here's how it works: you setup either a CIFS share or JSON feed to contain just the setup programs from various vendors. ThinApp Factory scans these shared locations looking for new applications. It can be configured to start converting them to a ThinApp automatically or wait for the administrator to initiate the build process.

In the future, VMware hopes different ISVs will allow their customers to sign up to JSON feeds so that when a new version of the ISV software is available, the ThinApp Factory will download and ThinApp the application automatically.

ThinApp Factory also has its own "ThinApp Store" (Horizon Application Manager) where end users can access ThinApped applications. Horizon App Manager also handles logons for both private corporate apps and public SaaS-based applications. (Currently, there is no authentication around the store, so use will be limited to internal corporate use only -- and probably to free applications that don't consume licenses.)

ThinApp Factory limitations
The word "Factory" in this product is an analogy for how managing applications for ThinApp might pan out.

When you think of a factory, you imagine a highly automated system that is designed to mass produce the same range of products. The aim is to reduce manufacturing work and packaging errors.

To achieve these economies of scale, you must start with a design of a product that can be processed this way. Factories don't allow for bespoke, handcrafted items. That's how cars used to be produced (by coach builders) before Henry Ford created the first automobiles for the masses. Is it possible that software applications produced by many different vendors will be receptive to being processed this way?

A high percentage of application providers will probably let their apps be packaged in this way -- especially if they conform to the usual Microsoft MSI standards -- but I expect that a significant number of apps will still need handcrafting by administrators.

So, ThinApp Factory won't be a silver bullet for all your application packaging needs, but it will take the legwork out of the process so administrators can focus on troublesome applications.

Mike Laverick
is a former VMware instructor with 17 years of experience in technologies such as Novell, Windows, Citrix and VMware. Since 2003, has been involved with the VMware community. Laverick is a VMware forum moderator and member of the London VMware User Group. He is also the man behind the virtualization website and blog RTFM Education, where he publishes free guides and utilities for VMware customers. Laverick received the VMware vExpert award in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Since joining TechTarget as a contributor, Laverick has also found the time run a weekly podcast called the Chinwag and the Vendorwag. Laverick helped found the Irish and Scottish VMware user groups and now speaks regularly at larger regional events organized by the global VMware user group in North America, EMEA and APAC. Laverick published several books on VMware Virtual Infrastructure 3, vSphere4, Site Recovery Manager and View.

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