VMware ThinApp 4

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ThinApp, previously known as Thinstall, offers a more streamlined and portable approach to new software roll-outs and development. Software developers and administrators of large numbers of workstations and or mobile workers are bound to benefit greatly from this software.

Design and Features
VMware is known universally for its virtual machines upon which whole operating systems and suites of applications can be installed. This allows multiple operating systems to be simulated on a single machine thus allowing a handy environment for software development or as workspaces for users of thin clients.

As useful as virtual machines are, they have their limitations. Firstly, using an application in a virtual machine can be clunky. The application must communicate with the virtual machine, which must communicate with the host OS which must then communicate with the host machine. Hardware has to be powerful enough to prevent the additional processing layers causing undue frustration to users. Secondly, there is the fact that the virtual machine requires software (eg, VMware Server or Workstation) in order to be usable.

ThinApp, previously known as Thinstall, offers a more streamlined and portable approach to new software roll-outs and development.

Consider the following scenario: you're on a business trip and find yourself in a position where you must use a machine belonging to another organisation — perhaps even at an internet cafe.

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You can plug in a USB memory device, but this would normally give access only to your data and not the applications needed to work with the data. The problem is that, even if you have the applications with you, they need to be installed before they can be run and chances are you won't have permission from the owner of the computer to do this. True? Perhaps not.

Before you left the office the IT department packaged all the software you needed on a USB key using ThinApp. Your application can now be run on almost any Windows machine you come across without installing.

This trick has a number of interesting implications. At install time, applications may create registry entries and rely on third-party packages such as Java or multimedia codecs. ThinApp must recognise all these dependencies and package all relevant items with the main application; it must also ensure that the program seeks within the package for these items rather than looking in traditional locations. It will do no good for the program to seek registry keys in the host OS.

This trick alone boggles the mind. In an application suite, such as Microsoft Office (and associated third-party plug-ins), there are several applications that need to communicate directly with each other. For example: it may be necessary to export a spreadsheet to Word or a document to PDF. ThinApp can allow for links to be created between packed components to facilitate such essential links.

Probably the most serious implication — at least from the point of view of the vendors of the applications being thus packaged — is the potential to bypass licensing restrictions. If the package can be copied and used anywhere without installation then perhaps the way is open for hassle free software pirating? VMware is certainly aware that licence abuse is a risk.

One of the options for packaging is to specify who is allowed to use the application and to this end ThinApp can include a list of Active Directory groups authorised to use the package. Obviously this will not fully assuage the doubts of software vendors — and it does not ensure that administrators will actually do the right thing and include such restrictions when packaging applications.

A Citrix Presentation Server could also be used to precisely control numbers of instances of the program which are running on a network. In fact companies that want application virtualisation for use on the office network might also wish to compare this product with Citrix XenApp.

ThinApp is designed to be compatible with Windows operating systems from 2000 through to Vista. It is compatible with centralised information stores such as OMD, CMDB and LDAP and happily integrates with Citrix Presentation servers. It does not support 64-bit applications, 16-bit applications running on 64-bit operating systems, or Windows CE.

It is possible that users may find other applications that are incompatible with this system. So far we are aware of two applications that have incompatibility issues with VMware virtual machines — both of these were Internet Content Filters and not the kind of thing that are likely to be used in a virtual environment.

Test Procedure
We considered the ease of use of this product and attempted to use an application packed with ThinApp under three Windows operating systems. When testing ThinApp, we needed to install HyperCam which is a screen recording application.

A virtual Windows 2000 Pro machine was set up under VMware Workstation. A clean virtual machine is recommended by VMware since this limits interference from previously installed applications. This prevents problems arising due to the application not installing files or registry entries which are already present — which means that ThinApp won't recognise these file dependencies.

The ThinApp software was then executed. (This was run from the virtual machine, but be aware that VMware recommends running it from a network share to reduce the possibility of conflicts.) ThinApp's Setup Capture program first takes a snapshot of the operating system and then requests that the user proceed with installing the application needing to be packed. Another snapshot of the system is then taken. Additional configuration options can then be set, such as indicating other programs that need to link to the application and specifying Active Directory users. Having gathered all necessary information a new version of the HyperCam executable file was generated.

The new file operated correctly on Windows 2000, XP and Vista. In each case video of screen activity was generated and played back without problems. There were no apparent performance issues when comparing the packed application to the application installed in the normal manner.

The software is simple to install and it is quite straightforward to use. Software developers and administrators of large numbers of workstations and/or mobile workers are bound to benefit greatly from this software.

There are many ways in which an organisation can benefit from this software. IT administrators would do well to check out the VMware website and investigate the full range of features. Trial versions can also be downloaded.

The full package starts from AU$8,234.05. This includes a copy of VMware Workstation which enables you to operate virtual machines suitable for hosting the packaging process. Also included are the ThinApp software 12 months support and 50 client licences. Additional client licences cost US$47.19. More advanced support up to three years are also available. Two- and five-day training courses are also offered by VMware.

ThinApp has the potential to smooth transitions to new software versions, OS versions and new applications.