Yesterday AppSense CTO Harry Labana announced that AppSense is getting closer to releasing their "Strata" product for managing user-installed apps (UIA) in locked-down and layered environments. This is something they first talked about at BriForum last year, and while Strata won't be available until 2012, Harry did announce that it would be free.
This comes on the heels of Liquidware Labs' "FlexApp" announcement at VMworld in Las Vegas a few months ago where they'll add a UIA capability to their Profile Unity product. (Here's a demo of it shot by the Dutch VMUG.) We also have UIA capabilities in many of the existing "layering," products, including Moka5, Wanova, Virtual Computer, Unidesk, Citrix RingCube, and probably a few others I'm forgetting.
But I wonder: Will user-installed apps ever become a major thing? Will these products ever become mainstream? My sense has been that they won't, so let's dig into that today.
What is "user-installed apps" (UIA)?
The term user-installed app is used to describe an application that a user installs on his or her laptop or desktop as opposed to an application that's installed by the corporate IT department. In the traditional desktop world, UIA wasn't even a topic of conversation because users were generally able to install whatever they wanted. Corporate IT would provide the base computer with the corporate apps, and users could go nuts after that.
But when it comes to desktop virtualization, UIA is a big deal. A lot of people use desktop virtualization to simplify the management or their desktops. Unfortunately though, the term "simplify the management" usually means "lock down the desktops." While this is fine (and certainly simplifies things), it means that users aren't able to install their own applications anymore. But since we're talking about virtualizing the users entire desktop, that can be a big problem.
So what do you do? Do you "simplify" the desktop by locking it down (thereby making your life easier), or do you let the users install their own apps (making their life easier)?
Enter the user-installed apps solutions
The vendors selling UIA solutions are attempting to provide a solution that's the best of both worlds. They want to allow users to install their own applications into a locked down environment, but as the applications are being installed, they're sort of transparently redirected to a personal area for the user instead of being written to the locked-down system area. Then when the user logs into a different locked down system the next day, the UIA tool can reconnect the user to their personal area which contains their applications, and it appears that the user has everything they need despite the system being completely locked down!
The raw technology that makes this happen is pretty stable. It's not that hard to watch what an application installer does and to redirect anything it writes (files, system changes, registry keys) to an user-specific location without the app knowing. (I'm sure the various vendors will disagree and say that they do it better, etc., but my point is the actual virtualization technology to make this happen is not the problem.)
The problem is that the layering solutions (and, by extension, the UIA solutions) don't work with every app. This is something that's widely acknowledged in the industry. Layering is great, UIA is great, but neither work with every application. Some people think that's ok, because the more apps the users can install on their own, the less IT has to worry about. Others think the limitations are show-stopping, because if the new layered, UIA, virtual desktop can't work for all apps, then that means you have to find some other way to deliver those last few apps. And if you're doing that, why are you using desktop virtualization in the first place? (We've written a lot about layering over the years. If you want some more background on the concept in general, check out Gabe's What is layering and why does it matter?)
Does UIA even matter?
With all the arguments and conversations about UIA over the past few years, some people are beginning to wonder if this is even a conversation worth having? And I've always thought that a "simple" way to support UIA was to just give each user their own "unlocked" VM.
Other people have pointed out that many of the new "applications" that users install are simple enough that that these UIA or layering tools should work fine. Sure, there may be some apps here and there that don't work, but so what? If UIA means that users can install TweetDeck and AIM and the GoToMeeting plug-ins, then shouldn't that be good enough?
What do you think about UIA? And if AppSense makes Strata free, does that end this conversation? We just use Strata if we need it, and ignore UIA if we don't?