Application virtualization comparison: XenApp vs. ThinApp vs. App-V

App streaming and virtualization tools differ when it comes to portability, offline capabilities and more. Get to know application presentation tools from Citrix, VMware and Microsoft.

When it comes to virtual desktop infrastructure, administrators have a lot of choices. You may have wondered about the differences between VDI software options, remote display protocols or all the licenses out there. In this series, we tackle some of the biggest head-scratchers facing VDI admins to help you get things straight.

There are so many application virtualization and streaming tools out there, you need to know how to tell them apart.

Application virtualization separates the app from the OS, allowing IT to deliver applications in the most efficient way possible. These are just a few of the other benefits: You don't have to install apps. They are easier to patch and upgrade. And you can run multiple versions on the same OS. Plus, in the age of bring your own device, application streaming allows IT to deliver apps to many kinds of endpoints.

Some of the major application delivery tools are VMware ThinApp, Citrix XenApp and Microsoft App-V. Of course, each product integrates best with its own vendor's offerings, so if you run VMware Horizon View, for instance, ThinApp might be your top choice.

In this application virtualization comparison, we break down the different features, capabilities and support these tools offer. Plus, get to know some other application presentation and delivery options from vendors aside from the big three. Let's get this straight:

Citrix XenApp

ThinApp and App-V only provide app virtualization, but XenApp is an overall application delivery system. In May 2013, Citrix killed its App Streaming feature because the changes in Windows Server 12 and Windows 8 were so widespread that it would have had to rewrite XenApp in order to keep the streaming feature. 

However, the company also combined XenApp and XenDesktop and simplified the management consoles to provide a more streamlined management system for both VDI and application presentation. It also provides a bulk app publishing feature to simplify app delivery to large numbers of similar users. 

Series: Let's get this straight

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Comparing remote display protocols

XenApp is useful for IT shops that have a wide variety of applications -- old and new -- and want to virtualize apps that ThinApp and App-V don't support. It also offers offline capabilities that make it easy to access apps from devices anywhere, anytime. It is pretty much confined to its own environment, making it difficult to port around, however. Still, Citrix added support for Microsoft application virtualization -- App-V -- in XenApp 6.0.

What's new in Citrix XenApp?
Citrix XenApp 6.5 reduced application launch times through the Instant App Access feature. Improvements to the HDX protocol also allow apps to be run in higher-latency environments. Plus, XenApp 6.5 includes a Mobility Pack that improves application delivery to mobile devices. In the latest XenApp 7.6, the company added user logon technology that presents apps in a more local feel, improved graphics performance, and increased security with FIPS compliance and its name on the Common Criteria evaluation list.

What you need to know about upgrading XenApp
Support for XenApp 4.5 ended in March 2013, and support for version 6.0 ended on July 15th, 2013, only three months later -- giving IT shops very little time to migrate. With the latest version, Citrix provides guidance for upgrading to XenApp 7.6. Since XenApp is based on Remote Desktop Session Host, admins also need to be aware of Windows Server end-of-life dates. Not all applications are compatible with all Windows Server versions, either.

These caveats make things especially difficult when licensing and running XenApp compared to other application delivery tools. Some administrators also note the XenApp has a lot of management overhead, even with the simplified consoles. 

VMware ThinApp

VMware ThinApp offers a few capabilities that XenApp and App-V do not. For instance, it's the most portable of the application virtualization tools. You can run ThinApp applications from almost anywhere because users don't need to install software or device drivers. Plus, they don't need admin rights to access applications from remote locations, such as an airport lounge.

Still, some administrators say VMware ThinApp is more cumbersome to deploy. It's also trickier to manage applications because it doesn't come with a centralized management platform. If you're experimenting with the cloud and mobility, you should also know that ThinApp 4.7 integrates with VMware's Horizon Application Manager.

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Q&A: Application streaming and remote delivery

Application virtualization guide

Pros and cons of application virtualization technology

Everything you need to know about VMware ThinApp
VMware ThinApp 4.6 integrates with View 4.5 and above, but not all administrators need to deliver virtualized applications to virtual desktops. There's a lot to know about how to license, manage and deploy ThinApps -- particularly if you're using them in a View environment.

ThinApp Factory mass-produces virtualized apps
A new endeavor by VMware, ThinApp Factory automates the application packaging process. This virtual appliance, which plugs into vCenter or VMware Workstation, takes the encoding and distribution out of administrators' hands.

What's new in ThinApp
ThinApp 5.0 added support for 64-bit applications, plus the ability to support Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer. Version 5.1 offers enhanced package management, making it easier for admins to reconfigure packages dynamically as apps are running. This version also added group policy management templates to allow tinkering with group policy settings in ThinApp applications -- plus support for the latest Internet Explorer and Windows 8.1. 

Microsoft App-V

Like, XenApp-XenDesktop, Microsoft App-V provides centralized management, so admins can limit users' access to certain apps. Microsoft application virtualization is popular in shops moving to Windows 8 because it lets users interact with virtualized Windows apps such as Office. The latest version, App-V 5.0, reduces disk requirements by allowing IT to turn off local application storage. Plus, it has enhanced application diagnostics and monitoring.

VMware user votes for App-V
Although admins like ThinApp's ability to install without an agent, there are some upsides to using an agent-based approach. App-V has an agent component that pushes applications to the user without Active Directory settings, using Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager. This application virtualization tool also allows you to break down application suites (such as Office) and deliver the apps without losing any integration functionality.

What's new in Microsoft App-V 5.0
The latest version of App-V provides a more native application experience to users. IT can also deploy and track apps through Microsoft Silverlight, which means they can access their admin console on the Internet. For mobile workers, App-V 5.0 allows applications to stream over a WAN using Direct Access, and it also integrates with Windows To Go.

Choosing an application virtualization tool

Once you've reviewed the options, you're ready to pick an application virtualization tool. Just remember, the major vendors aren't the only choices.

Alternatives to the major vendors
ThinApp, XenApp and App-V aren't the only options; there are other applications virtualization tools out there. For instance, Spoon Studio is easy to use and integrates with the company's cloud offering. InstallFree is another choice, but it doesn't offer offline functionality. Numecent and Novell ZENworks also offer application delivery options. 

Liquidware Labs' FlexApp for ProfileUnity is another application presentation tool that can be used alongside VMware or Microsoft application virtualization. This app layering tool lets users install their own apps, which can then be managed by IT. Shops can use Liquidware's Department-Installed Applications feature to extend ThinApp or App-V's capabilities to more types of apps. 

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