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Browsium Offers IE 6 Web App Continuity Solution

IT organizations struggling with upgrading their Internet Explorer 6-based Web apps may be interested in a new tool released today by Browsium Inc.

The product, called UniBrows, is an add-on to Internet Explorer 8 that lets users run IE 6-based Web sites or IE 6-based Web applications through a tab in the IE 8 browser. UniBrows is designed to let organizations continue to run those apps until they are ready to upgrade. The product works with Windows 7 or Windows XP operating systems running IE 8. The company, a one-year-old startup based in Redmond, is also planning to make a version that will run IE 9, which Microsoft released yesterday.

UniBrows essentially freezes Web apps to run in their last known good state. That state can include all of the same components that worked, such as the original ActiveX and JavaScript addons, and it will use the IE 6 rendering engine, according to Browsium's description of the product. UniBrows users can run IE 6-based apps alongside IE 8-based ones using different tabs in the browser.

"What we do is we take an approach we call 'Web application continuity,' which means let's freeze the Web app platform for each app in a known good state," said Gary Schare, president and chief operating officer at Browsium, in a telephone interview. "So if this one app needs IE 6 and Flash 9, then great, that's what we are going to use there; for everything else, we'll use IE 8 and Flash 10.x from Adobe," he explained.

Schare is a 14-year Microsoft veteran who worked at Microsoft's Windows Division. He headed the product management team for Internet Explorer for four years leading up to the launch of IE 7. From his point of view, IT pros are focused on new apps and aren't too keen about rewriting the old IE 6-based ones, some of which were written nearly 10 years ago. It's a problem that keeps enterprises stuck on IE 6.

"Our mission, put simply, is we want to enable IT to adopt new technologies when they want and need to, and not be beholden to the upgrade schedules and inevitable breakages that come from platform component upgrades," Schare said. "So when Microsoft ships a new OS or browser, or Adobe ships a new version of Flash, or Oracle ships a new version of Java, those things tend to wreak havoc with enterprise apps, and they tend to either have to pay a lot to fix them or they have to ignore the upgrades and miss out on good business value and good security value."

Browsium's estimate is that there are "about 200 million seats of IE 6 still in use today." And even though Microsoft recently announced its own countdown site to encourage people to stop using IE 6, Schare contends that the use of the browser won't go away, at least at the enterprise level. That situation can hold organizations back.

"If you are stuck on IE 6, there are a lot of things you can't deploy for your company, including the new version of SharePoint, which Microsoft says isn't even tested with IE 6," Schare said.

Schare said he's received feedback from customers that Microsoft has not provided cost-effective solutions to ease browser migration pains. He added that the course for customers was set long ago after Microsoft decided to abandon IE 6.

"So what's Microsoft's stance been? Their stance has been very consistent for years, and I was there at the time the stance was developed," he said. "No. 1, it's rewrite your Web apps, do it as fast as you can and pay for it yourself." Customers have told Browsium that it can cost as much as $5 million to rewrite a single Web app, Schare added.

The other idea from Microsoft is to use desktop virtualization as a way to solve problems with IE 6-dependent Web apps. Microsoft even recommends using virtualization to test different browser versions. Schare compared that approach to "cracking an egg with a sledgehammer." He isn't against virtualization per se, but added that "to virtualize an OS just to make a browser work doesn't make a lot of sense."

The Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization solution, now at version 2.0, is available to organizations with Software Assurance licensing in place. Schare said one customer told him it would cost $10 million for their organization to use MED-V. He noted that those who use Microsoft's virtualization products are also constrained to use Microsoft's Windows licensing too.

UniBrows works by tapping into the original Dynamic Link Library (DLL) components from Microsoft that were used with IE 6. A UniBrows "client prep tool" downloads the components from the Microsoft Download Center and picks out DLLs to run the IE 6 client system. The prep tool also creates MSIs for distribution.

"Basically, what we do is we park the IE 6 DLLs in the program files directory and invoke them as needed," Schare explained. "We just use them [old IE 6 DLLs] as is. But because we park them outside, they're never exposed to the native system. They're not available to other apps; they're only available to UniBrows."

IE-6 Web apps were often broken as Microsoft added security enhancement with IE 7 and IE 8, Schare explained. UniBrows uses the original IE 6 security model to run apps. However, even though IE 6 is notorious for its security holes, Schare maintains that IT can maintain control.

"Because we are running it in IE 8, you do get some of the security benefits of being in the IE browser -- some of the address bar spoofing and a number of different security enhancements that have come along," he explained. "You get those kinds of things for free, but the actual renderer itself is IE 6. Now that said, we are isolating that engine to only the sites that IT says they should be exposed to, so as long as those sites are under IT's control, which they typically are, then you have virtually no attack surface."

UniBrows is currently available to organizations with 5,000 to 50,000 PCs at a "$5,000 base license fee plus $5 per seat," according to Browsium. The subscription includes all updates through the annual period. A free 60-day trial is also available, which can be accessed at the Browsium Web site.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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