“The year of application management” continues, and this article is part of a series profiling Application Management products. It's a really hot space that is shifting the way we think about managing apps away from the classic methods like SCCM and App-V to more modern approaches that make installing and provisioning apps easier across multiple platforms. There are a number of companies involved (those with links are ones that we've covered as part of this series), and today we're focusing on Unidesk.
- Liquidware Labs
- Unidesk (That's this article!)
- VMware AppVolumes
Last week I had a call with an old friend, Unidesk’s Ron Oglesby, to talk about how Unidesk fits into the discussion around modern application management. We’ve been adding them to the list of other products as we’ve profiled each one over the past few months, but Unidesk is different. Though the end result is the same (managing applications without SCCM, App-V or baking them into the base image), Unidesk does it as part of their overall layering solution, so I want to begin there.
Unidesk is the reason I hesitate to call these new ways of managing applications “Application Layering” like so many others. Call it a soapbox issue if you want, but “Layering” conveys that we’re using the layer cake approach to assembling Windows desktops, and what AppVolumes, Ceedo, CloudHouse, FSLogix, Liquidware, and others are doing is certainly not assembling a desktop from a number of layers. Each has a different approach, but none of them are what I would call layering.
I will admit to using “Application Layering” in the past just to test it out. It feels dirty. It’s not as bad as saying “on premise,” because even typing that right here makes my skin crawl, but it’s close. I’m going with Application Management from here on out.
We’ve written about Unidesk’s layering platform in greater detail recently, talking about how they’ve added a platform interface module that allows them to branch out from vSphere. They added Hyper-V support afterwards, and they now have two Azure-based offerings: an Azure IaaS-based solution that’s available today and an Azure RemoteApp-based solution that’s coming in the next month or so.
The Azure IaaS-based product takes the Unidesk layering model and applies it directly to Azure virtual machines. That means you can assemble an OS layer, app layers, user personalization layers, and so on in Azure the same way that you’d do it on premises.
The Azure RemoteApp-based product is a little more limited based on how Azure RemoteApp works. You’ll recall there are two ways to use Azure RemoteApp: cloud-only and hybrid. The cloud-only model leverages servers that Microsoft creates, manages, and updates. They own the entire stack, and your users have to work within that without third party applications. Hybrid, on the other hand, is a virtual machine that you assemble offline, then upload into Azure. Microsoft then takes care of scaling it up or down to meet demand, but you’re responsible for updates. Unidesk has built something to help with that.
With Unidesk’s Azure RemoteApp solution, you can use your on premises Unidesk environment to build RDSH virtual machines from layers, package them as a VHD, and upload them to Azure RemoteApp. It means that you get to keep using the same workflow to build your on premises and cloud RDSH servers.
On to the applications
When it comes to applications, Unidesk’s approach is to create layers for each application, then add them together with the other layers at boot. Their approach allows you to put a single application into a layer rather than bundling certain applications that depend on each other together. For example, in other products like AppVolumes (not trying to pick on them, but it’s a good example), you can’t install Office in one stack and Visio in another and expect them to work together (a process called cross-layer merging). You end up having to create one stack with just Office for users that only need Office, then another stack with Office + Visio for users that need both, then one with Office + Project for users that need that set of apps, then one with Office + Visio + Project for those users that are absolutely addicted to flow and Gantt charts.
Unidesk’s approach to layering applications together can determine the dependencies of each application layer to ensure that they play well together. Sometimes this happens in realtime as the layers are assembled into a VM. Other times this happens in an out-of-band capacity as the applications are being packaged. In that scenario, the packager is aware of the other application layers that have already been created, and if the application you’re packaging has a dependency in a layer that already exists, it can mount that layer during installation. The packager also watches what is being installed, so if it sees something like a filter driver or lower-level service (like a VDA) that needs to be present at boot, it can redirect them from the application layer to the appropriate lower-level layer.
It’s all very sophisticated, and it has to be because layering is really complex. If you talk to Ron, you’ll get a good idea of the complexity and the level of effort it’s taken them to put together such a complete package. In spite of that, there’s one specific drawback: it only works on virtual machines.
I was pretty sure I’d get laughed off the phone call, but I summoned up the courage to ask him about any plans to work out some sort of physical desktop solution. I was surprised when Ron told me they hadn’t ruled out physical as a possibility.
Currently, the only thing even close to layering on physical PCs is VMware Mirage, which they acquired from Wanova. Ron rather famously wrote an article about how Mirage is not layering, so if Unidesk is thinking about it, it probably won’t be like anything we’ve seen before.
I’m always impressed with Unidesk, so I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next. In Q4, Unidesk is going to release their 4.0 product, about which they’ve yet to share anything publicly. The only thing I’ve seen so far about it is this tweet from Shane Kleinert:
So…I guess get ready for a bombshell announcement sometime before the end of the year! I can’t wait to see it.