Product Reviews

Test-Driving VMware's ThinApp

The Application Sync and Application Link features combined with an easy-to-follow interface make ThinApp a winner for both VMware and its customers.

ThinApp 4.0 takes VMware Inc. into the application virtualization world. ThinApp works by creating snapshots of applications to allow for easy installation across different versions of Windows operating systems, without the need to worry about different requirements for installation. This is achieved by providing a sandbox environment, where applications are isolated from the host OS.

Generally, ThinApp has three primary uses. First, it can be used to migrate proprietary or custom applications to new versions of Windows.

Second, it can provide an easy way to package complicated application installations. And third, it can be used by developers looking to create OS-independent applications. But there are many other uses as well.

Easy Installation
ThinApp installation is fairly straightforward and well-documented. Setup creates the Setup Capture component executable, which is then used to create a baseline as well as to decode the changes made by the different application installations after they have completed.

Info

To test a widely used real-world program, I chose Microsoft Word 2007. ThinApp allows you to create custom packages so that you can send out only the components of an application that are needed. It also allows you to ensure that only what's licensed is being installed, because the process doesn't allow end users to make modifications.

Here's the process I followed: First, I got the VMware workstation 6.0.4 software included with the ThinApp 4.0 package up and running. Next, I created a new Windows XP image. In order for ThinApp to be able to correctly identify what changes an application has made (such as files or registry keys), it takes a snapshot before and after application installation using the Setup Capture component. The first takes about 10 seconds on your clean PC, and the second varies depending on the size of the application installed. I found both completed quite quickly. It's recommended that you have a fresh install of your OS of choice so as to not cause conflicts.

VMware has defined two ways to start the Setup Capture program. The suggested way to install ThinApp is to put it on another machine, then share out the files to run on a clean PC. The second is to install the ThinApp package on the client PC itself. I tried both methods, and neither gave me any issues when creating the packages later on. I won't go through all the steps taken for the setup process, but as I previously mentioned, the instructions on the VMware ThinApp blog are easy to follow.

Suffice it to say, following the steps and creating snapshots within VMware Workstation provides an easy way to determine whether your package will have any issues. The Word 2007 ThinApp package I created installed very quickly on the Windows XP image-even faster than the normal installation.

Once the package has been created, it's as easy as sending users a link to a network share. With the option to create an .MSI file (if Active Directory is in place) you can create a Software Deployment GPO. It also has the option to specify which users and groups are able to install this package.

I found working with ThinApp very easy and quickly started to use it to deploy all sorts of programs. The interface is easy to follow, and you'll be finding new uses for it constantly. One that comes to mind is for applications that include site licenses in which you can create a package and make it easily available to all users.

Operation
Performance-wise, the XP image that I used as my clean PC had the default specs for an XP image in VMware Workstation 6, which was 8GB hard drive and 256MB of RAM. This can be run effortlessly by an administrator on a workstation or laptop. I was impressed that it ran without a hitch.

ThinApp also enhances security. Because it's running in a sandbox environment, any changes that need to be made to a program you've created using ThinApp are limited to the sandbox. Modifications are not made to the host OS. Another great feature is that applications can be run locally, on a network share or even on a USB drive. This could allow a user to easily take an application with him instead of lugging a laptop.

ThinApp runs all processes associated with the packaged application. This allows it to run in real time on the host, which I found to be an immense improvement over running the application in a virtualized OS. Doing this cuts back on the resources required to run the ThinApp package to that of the application being installed on the actual host OS.

ThinApp is clientless and installs some required files within each package (less than 400K). Updating these packages has also been made easy thanks to an integrated feature called Application Sync, which allows applications to be updated to the latest service packs and security features.

Another feature, Application Link, allows you to link applications. For example, imagine you're rolling out the latest version of software for your developers and a must-have plug-in becomes available. The two can be linked, allowing the plug-in to provide access to the original applications without the need to repackage.

Pros and Cons of VMware ThinApp

Pros

  • Easy-to-follow interface takes the guesswork out of creating new packages
  • Updates/new features are seamless with Application Sync and Application Link
  • Resource-friendly and has support for everything from Windows NT to Windows Vista

Cons

  • With the price range starting at more than $6,000, probably out of reach for most small to midsize businesses

–K.D.

Bottom Line
All things being equal, this program is a great addition to the VMware line, although it's geared more toward larger companies. The basic package, VMware ThinApp 4 Suite + Gold with one year of support, costs $6,050 (see "Pros and Cons of VMware ThinApp"). If you're tasked with a difficult application deployment or a complex migration, the benefits of ThinApp will definitely outweigh the price. If you're looking for a cost-effective way to simply deploy applications, then there are other solutions available that might be more suitable.

About the Author

Kevin Da Silva provides system admin support for a midsize enterprise software consulting company. He has MCSE certification and is a Microsoft Certified Small Business Specialist.

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