User environment virtualization leaves roaming profiles in the dust

As users connect to more devices than ever, user environment virtualization is a blossoming trend in the desktop virtualization market.

Tech WatchWhether an organization uses physical or virtual desktops, one of the biggest challenges administrators face is user experience management. One way to manage the end user's experience is through user environment virtualization, a growing trend in the desktop virtualization market.

User experience management involves managing aspects of the operating system and applications that are unique to each user. For example, this might include a user's Internet Explorer favorites list or their custom dictionary for Microsoft Office.

Paying close attention to the end user's experience is key to the success of a desktop virtualization environment. Let us look at how user environment virtualization is changing the management of that experience.

How user experience management is evolving

Most of the user-specific operating system and application configuration data is stored in the user's profile. Organizations in which users work from multiple devices have traditionally used Windows roaming profiles to ensure that the user profile and other settings follow the user from one device to another, even back in all-physical environments.

Roaming profiles have been the standard mechanism for ensuring a consistent user experience for over a decade, but they do not always meet the demands of the modern workplace. One of the biggest reasons they may no longer adequately address an organization's needs has to do with the widespread adoption of virtual desktops.

This technology bridges the gap between physical desktops, virtual desktops and Remote Desktop Services (RDS) RemoteApps.

Normally, Microsoft's desktop virtualization uses virtual desktop pools. When a user initiates a virtual desktop session, he is connected to one virtual desktop in the pool. When the user logs out, any changes he has made are rolled back and the virtual desktop returns to a pristine condition.

Many organizations do not bother using roaming profiles if they have dedicated, personal virtual desktops. Dedicated virtual desktops, where a virtual desktop is assigned to a specific user, retain that user's settings. Administrators don't see the need for roaming profiles because the users access the same virtual desktop no matter where they log in.

Roaming profiles can also add a lot of overhead to the VDI environment. When a user logs in, all the data in the user's profile has to be copied from the profile directory to the virtual desktop. When the user logs out, that data has to be copied back to the profile directory. Depending on what a user has stored in his or her profile, it can grow quite large. Copying the profile every time becomes a time-consuming process that generates a lot of disk I/O.

Folder redirection can address the problem of large user profiles. Still, some applications produce large amounts of configuration data that is stored within the user profile.

New kid on the block: User environment virtualization

An alternative to roaming profiles is user environment virtualization. Microsoft's flavor of this relatively new technology, dubbed User Experience Virtualization (UE-V), virtualizes the end user experience so OS and application-level user settings such as Windows wallpaper and browser favorites follow a user from one device to another.

If UE-V sounds a lot like roaming profiles, it is no coincidence. Microsoft UE-V is designed to work as a next-generation replacement for roaming profiles. It makes sure that users have a consistent experience regardless of the type of Windows session they are using. In fact, user environment virtualization technology lets users have an identical experience whether they are using a Windows 7 or Windows 8 desktop, RDS virtual desktop or even an RDS RemoteApp.

What Microsoft UE-V brings to the table

Although UE-V has some similarities to roaming profiles, it is different architecturally. The user's application and OS settings are stored in a settings store, which is usually placed on a file server.

In addition, User Experience Virtualization uses an agent. The agent must be installed on each physical or virtual desktop on which the administrator wants to deliver a consistent end user experience. The agent watches for changes to the OS or application configuration and then synchronizes those changes with the settings store. Changes synchronize any time the user logs on or off, locks or unlocks the desktop, or when they connect to or disconnect from an RDS session. (Application configuration changes only synchronize when the user opens or closes an application.)

Microsoft User Experience Virtualization also has a component known as the UE-V Settings Location Template. This template is an XML file that keeps track of the location of the registry settings and files that contain the user's personal settings. UE-V contains built-in templates for Windows 7, Windows 8 and Office 2010, plus a tool that administrators can use to generate templates for other applications.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about UE-V is that the templates make it possible to virtualize the end-user experience on a per-application basis. You can create policies that synchronize user settings for some applications, but not others.

Because the user experience is maintained at the application level, it means that User Experience Virtualization works really well with RDS RemoteApps. If a user launches a RemoteApp, all their custom settings for that app will be present, just as they would be if the user had launched the app from a virtual or physical desktop.

Microsoft User Experience Virtualization also allows for application configuration rollback. For example, if a user accidentally visits a malicious website that alters Internet Explorer settings, it is possible to roll back Internet Explorer to a previous state without altering the OS or any of their other applications in the process.

User environment virtualization is tremendously beneficial for organizations in which users work from a variety of platforms. This technology bridges the gap between physical desktops, virtual desktops and RDS RemoteApps. A user can have identical environments on a physical desktop in the office and a virtual desktop when traveling. Although admins need to install agents on physical and virtual desktops to use Microsoft UE-V, the long-term benefits of providing a consistent experience and being able to roll back applications far outweigh the hassles.

Next Steps

Microsoft brings roaming profiles into the virtualization era

Deleting user profiles in a VDI environment

User environment management smackdown

Dig Deeper on Virtual desktop delivery tools

Enterprise Desktop
Cloud Computing