The one thing missing from VMware’s virtualisation line-up has always been a tool to virtualise applications – but no longer. Its new ThinApp product fills that gap, making it possible to build virtual applications which run in their own self-contained environments. They don’t need to be installed, there’s no agent required and they have no impact on anything else running on the same PC.
It’s Windows only, of course, but any version can be used from NT onwards and, once created, virtual applications run on almost any other. Buyers also get a copy of VMware Workstation, designed to be used to host a freshly installed, “clean”, virtual machine for use when building virtual applications.
To start, you use the ThinApp Setup Capture tool to take a “before” snapshot of the VM. You then install and configure the application to be captured before taking an “after” snapshot of the changes made. ThinApp then analyses the differences and builds a packaged executable and an optional .MSI file to both run and distribute the virtual app.
Once built, ThinApp applications can be run from hard disk, network shares or removable storage including CD/DVD and USB data keys. No changes are made to the host PC when they run, with things like registry entries, DLL dependencies and so on all virtualised by the ThinApp package. From the application’s viewpoint, therefore, it appears to be fully installed, with any runtime settings stored in a so-called sandbox either locally or, optionally, on a network share.
We tested using the open source Mozilla Firefox browser and found the process quick and easy. Moreover, when you run a virtual application it starts working as soon as enough code has been loaded rather than waiting for the whole package. And that can be a real plus over a slow network, with no need for a server to manage the process when streaming applications this way.
Most 32-bit Windows applications can be virtualised although there are some that can’t, such as those that need special device drivers and others, like virus scanners, which work at a low level. We were able to virtualise proprietary applications too, including Word and other Office components, although these need to be licensed and activated in the usual way and the restrictions on distribution still apply.
Another advantage is the ability to run applications that would otherwise require administrator rights for installation. Indeed, users can be left to install applications themselves, even download and run them from an intranet or public website: it’s that easy.
Originally developed by a company called Thinstall, VMware has both re-branded and extended the ThinApp application since it acquired the company in January 2008. Most notably, two new features have been added: Application Sync to enable virtual applications to be patched and updated, and Application Link to allow virtual packages to communicate with each other. Unfortunately these options aren’t so easy to configure, requiring manual coding in places.
It’s not a cheap solution by any means, requiring a significant upfront investment to get started. But it is easy to use and likely to repay that investment quickly. Moreover, once you’ve bought the 50-user starter suite containing the tools need to build virtual applications, additional licences to use them can be bought for around £17 + VAT each.
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