With AppSense, making sense of managing the virtual desktop user experience

As more enterprises turn to virtual desktop infrastructure to save money and leverage the infrastructure they already have, managing the user experience has become critical.But how do you maintain standardization across large organizations while keeping the user happy at each log on?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

As more enterprises turn to virtual desktop infrastructure to save money and leverage the infrastructure they already have, managing the user experience has become critical.

But how do you maintain standardization across large organizations while keeping the user happy at each log on?

AppSense might have the answer. The U.K.-based company goes beyond profile management to offer non-persistent, leveraged corporate OS and apps on demand from a central location.

By viewing the desktop in three separate layers -- the OS, the applications and user environment management --  AppSense tries to allow IT to standardize the corporate desktop and automate the delivery of the user’s working environment, without restricting a user's choice of screensaver, wallpaper, font size and so forth.

Its technology is used by some of the world's biggest corporations, including JPMorgan Chase, Lowe's, United Airlines, Wachovia, Walmart, ESPN and CB Richard Ellis.

I spoke with AppSense's VP of Strategy, Martin Ingram, about what his company is doing now in the VDI space.

ZDNet: Tell me a little about your company's mission.

Martin Ingram: A year ago, I would have said nobody's competing in this space. We've been investing in these kinds of technologies since 2003. We saw it coming way before the market starting biting on it.

We've been an established business for nearly a decade, managing the user aspects of client computing.

The model that VMWare and Citrix are taking to market is standardizing the applications and replacing everything else. We make the dreams of Citrix and VMWare come true. That's why we're endorsed by them -- we make their ambitions for desktop virtualization come to fruition.

We're very much a large-deal organization -- big companies and clients, those with more than $250,000 per transaction. A large number of people that were early into this market were early into our products. Large financials, healthcare, government.

What we're about is providing a manageable solution for the PC. It's not about letting users move their images around -- it's coming up with a solution that decreases the management costs of delivering PCs.

That means we have to do things in such a way that they're highly reliable and manageable from within the organization.

You get the combination of economies of scale and good management. That's really where we excel. Giving organizations fine management. You can get granular, you can roll stuff back, you can get visibility of problems never before possible.

ZDNet: Give me an example of a typical problem and how your approach manages it.

MI: One constant problem is that an application suddenly seizes. One key reason that can happen is that settings data has been corrupted, either from the outside or by the application itself.

The user had an application that used to work, and now it doesn't.

In the past, the only way to fix it was for the administrator to spend hours trying to fix it or blow away all the user's settings.

For us, we can just go back to a point in time to when the application was operable. IT is in and out of the problem real fast.

You're delivering users what they want.

We lift off the user environment -- a server on VDI or a laptop or physical PC -- we lift that data off and manage it. We can roll out settings as we choose. We're taking snapshots so that we can take it back to any period. We store this stuff per user and per application.

With the cloud, there are some real nice attractive aspects to just buy services for people and put them together.

In an e-mail, you expect to get an attachment and have it open. It knows where it needs to find the stuff it needs. It's all that stuff that ties it together.

One of the key aspects to what we do is the ability to allow some users to install their own applications, because otherwise they go when the user logs out. In the first half of 2010, we're looking at the capability for user-installed applications.

ZDNet: How do you deal with the move toward mobile computing?

MI: Laptops are going to be critical for desktop virtualization. For us, we already support laptops for everything we do. But what we're going to see is a whole wave of desktop virtualization coming through and introduce the same management technologies.

I split the mobile market into two categories. The pretty full one is where the mobile device acts as a viewer into a service. The empty one is where corporate apps start running on the devices. We haven't seen that yet, not even on the iPhone.

As we get corporate applications on there, we'll need to manage them. At the moment, there are too many hardware platforms to manage. I expect that market will get more real as we get hypervisors for those devices.

ZDNet: Having been in this space for so long, what has AppSense learned?

MI: Most people centered on user settings and user applications. But what people are going to bite on next is user policy. It encompasses things the organization wants to do to adjust to different uses across the business: temporary files, different licenses, different document files.

People haven't realized that they're going to need the strength of that. It's similar to what people have done in the packaging part of the business -- two different versions of [Microsoft] Word for different uses. User policy lets you dynamically tailor things for different groups in the business.

User data is not something we do right now, and it's not something users need right now. As we move to client virtualization -- laptops -- you'll need to be able to ensure that real data, docs and spreadsheets, are preserved. We see that as a future requirement. To manage that data between any of the sessions that a user might access.

What we've done with PCs is brought together apps, data storage, real data all in one place. That's kind of simple but really hard to manage. It's breaking these things into components.

As we get further from that, the OSes and applications could be delivered pretty much from anywhere. They could be cloud services. So you need to manage user stuff. You need it to be consistent and set up and configured.

Ultimately, I see the user environment as what pulls all those services together and makes it do the right stuff for the user. Anything that abstracts the user from the components.

Doing this stuff is hard. It's really quite difficult to get the Windows operating system to do what you want it to do.

We've been stomping our toes on these problems for the better part of a decade. We know where the nails in the floorboards are.

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