Hands up who has departments that depend on Zoho Invoice, Eclipse Manager or Diagram Painte? Okay I’ve picked some of the more random business applications available in the Microsoft Store for Business, but I’ve not had to leave the home page to do so. Other than the Microsoft applications and a couple of offerings from Citrix there isn’t much there you’d recognise. Because of this the Windows App Store has not so far been a focus for enterprise organisations, but could that be changing?
Microsoft’s attempt to modernise how we install and deliver Windows applications has failed to impress. Continuum was meant to deliver universal applications to run across the entire Microsoft ecosystem, but as good an idea as it was, the developers never came and, so, neither did the apps. That led to the end of Windows phone, while doing nothing to improve the dearth of business content in the Microsoft Store. Terry Myerson, Vice President of Operating Systems at Microsoft in 2015 said “tool kits will allow developers to bring their code for iOS, Android, the Web, .NET, and Win32 to the Windows Store with minimal code modifications. Our goal is to make Windows 10 the most attractive development platform ever”. Apple and Google have their own app stores though and the benefits of moving away from ‘how we’d always done it’ weren’t compelling enough. Windows Desktop Bridge was the last initiative to invigorate the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) and so the Microsoft App Store. This time the focus was on migrating 32-bit MSI (so just Windows) packages to APPX (Universal) ones. However, to gain all the benefits of UWP additional development is required and that is a barrier to organisations adopting it. In 2017 Microsoft released the MSIX package format to replace MSI, APPV and APPX extensions and get around this problem. MSIX has all the features of UWP with more container security options and extra application customisations. To further aid the adoption of the new standard, Microsoft open sourced the entire project on GitHub. MSIX is still in its infancy and has only just gained support in Windows 10 1809. The current format does not support driver installation, Windows service installation or modification, kernel or Explorer modification. Having said that the promise is very much in line with the messaging around Modern Management and the continued consumerisation of the Windows desktop. The abstraction of applications from the OS increases the ease at which feature updates can be deployed and offers the self-service experience users now expect.
The previous lack of a cohesive application strategy has held back the promise of a Windows App Store resulting in the chicken and egg problem: if Microsoft can entice software developers to take up the MSIX format people will use the app store, if people use the app store software developers will develop apps for it. The concept is a seismic shift away from how we Windows applications are delivered. but then Windows 10 demands we consider applications in an entirely different way. As we change the way we manage Windows, so ISVs are having to change the way they develop software to keep up with the moving target that Microsoft is presenting. This ability to distribute software across the globe, through a store, with their latest supported versions immediately available to users as soon as they update Windows is hugely appealing for all concerned.
Whatever platforms and initiatives Microsoft invent they are completely beholden to the developer community and the behaviour of users. A consistent message will go a long way to helping them. The hope is obviously to replicate the consumer experience we take for granted with application update notifications. However, other platforms may not have 30 years of legacy applications to contend with. Business-critical, internally developed applications needing extensive user testing before release, will always be treated differently but ‘Evergreen’ is changing application testing. You aren’t going to test 3,000 apps every six months, so which ones do you really care about? Which will you test proactively and which reactively? The drive to modernise applications continues at pace but plenty of legacy remains that could be adapted to be delivered from a Windows App Store. For now though, we’ll have to wait and see what the uptake of MSIX is, both with the software vendors and internal packagers.
Based on the organisations I speak to, we’ve reached roughly a 50/50 split between SaaS and traditional ones. If we assume that the easy ones get transformed first we’re now into the long Microsoft tail of applications we still have to deploy out to colleagues. To do this we need new solutions and MSIX seems to enable this. Does MSIX spell the end of App-V? Probably. Does this mean the reality of a Business App Store is upon us? Possibly. The demand for, and expectation of, a Windows App Store is certainly there, we just need the applications. Of course, you could be one of the 16 people worldwide who use Zoho Invoice in which case you’re already living the dream.
Until this year, every year since 2008 has been ‘the year of VDI’. The one where virtual desktop growth would increase exponentially and everything else would be the exception. I did my first virtual desktop project in 2010 (not for Computacenter I hasten to add). I’ll tell you now it was not a great success. Actually, that’s not fair, it did work, there were just some caveats. We explained to the users not to look at web pages with lots of pictures, or view videos (obviously) and to expect some typing delays during busy periods – that sort of thing. I’m sure you can imagine the conversations we had. My efforts to explain how clever it all was were wasted.
That was a while ago. The technology caught up and virtual desktop user experience improved to be at least on a par with their physical counterpart. So why has VDI remained at 10% of the desktop estate for the majority of organisations? Why does no-one talk about the year of VDI anymore and what is the future?
The problem with VDI remains its complexity. Complexity to design, deliver and support. Where mobility and flexibility are important the easiest and most cost-effective solution has been to give users laptops. This left 10% of users for whom virtual desktops made a real difference. These individuals usually worked in areas where focus of return on investment was about enabling ways of working that traditional desktops couldn’t, such as securing access to data from third parties and contractors; where task workers with limited application sets are required (call centres); or to provide the ability to return to a known good state quickly and easily (developers and testers).
Now it’s beginning to feel like VDI numbers are declining or at best have stabilised. The rise of Apple and Google in the enterprise and applications increasingly moving to SaaS (browser-based solutions) means we are no longer so reliant on a Windows operating system. Content management and contextual security has also removed some of the security concerns that previously made the case for VDI.
I’m not suggesting Windows is dead! Yes, device proliferation is a thing, but we will still need to access Windows apps that people lack the desire, or possibly the knowledge, to modernise. What we need is some way of delivering just the application through a client that runs on any OS. We can do that. We’ve been able to do that since 2001 with MetaFrame, earlier if you count WinFrame, so as is often the way, IT solutions previously discounted as ‘old-hat’ has come round again as the solution to all our problems. Things have moved on a bit though.
- Frame gives you the ability to access Windows apps just using a browser
- VMware utilise Windows RDSH through Workspace One to provide a fully integrated solution that can be deployed on premises or public cloud
- Citrix XenApp (the replacement to MetaFrame) can be consumed from the Azure marketplace, any public IaaS platform or on premises
The benefit to the user is the best native experience on the device they have chosen with the ability to access their business applications in a virtually seamless, albeit online-only, manner. The benefit to the organisation is the ability to offer choice while maintaining a simple and secure way of delivering Windows applications. At least it is for the foreseeable future.
I once heard someone say that XenDesktop was a great advertisement for XenApp. When you had a requirement for server-based computing nine times out of ten XenApp was the best answer. The year of VDI never came but server-based computing will be around for a while yet so maybe this year will be the year of the published app. Not that anyone’s going to be stupid enough to prophesy that!
Alright I admit it, I’m jealous. I joined a start-up! I’ve seen Silicon Valley! We were going to change the world, I was going to be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, leave the rat race behind and open a beach bar somewhere. But you’ll have guessed by the fact that I’m writing this blog that that never happened. With hindsight, I would have joined Frame, the (fairly) new face of cloud-hosted application delivery. Their premise is simple; run any Windows application in the cloud and access it via a browser, no plugins required.
Originally called MainFrame2, the company began life enabling ISVs to offer applications as a service. It got off to a good start but its fortunes improved massively when the focus changed to end users and the business was relaunched as Frame. With recent investments from Microsoft Ventures, Bain Capital Ventures and In-Q-Tel growth continues at pace. On top of that they recently signed a major partnership with VMware to become part of their Workspace One offering with App Express.
Frame is essentially an Application-as-a-Service company, built for the cloud in the cloud. You install the applications into a sandbox environment and then, when you are ready, publish them to the Frame Desktop (as above) for users to consume. Your applications are installed onto Windows 2012 servers (the roadmap is for Windows 2016 and 10 soon) with the ability to make use of the GPUs offered by AWS and Azure to handle even the most intensive graphical applications. Those screen images are then delivered by Frame’s encrypted and highly compressed display-protocol to the end user allowing any application to run on almost any computer. Removing the complexity usually associated with virtual desktop computing to a few clicks.
So what are the uses for technology like this? Here are a few examples:
- Think about those expensive CAD and desktop publishing packages. With Frame you can centralise them in the public cloud of your choice, share the licensing costs, utilise cloud storage to make collaboration easy and reduce the need for expensive workstation hardware*
- Consider the education sector and the ability to use inexpensive Chromebooks to access any type of application and then not having to pay for those resources during the holidays
- Mobilise legacy business applications by migrating them to the cloud and using Frame to provide browser-based access without having to install anything on the client
* and not just hardware as Microsoft have brought in a new Windows 10 Pro for Workstation licence that affects any machine that has an Intel Xeon or AMD Opteron processor.
However, Frame is not for everyone or every use case. It’s not going to be a way to deal with legacy applications to aid that Windows 10 migration. If it won’t install on Windows Server 2012 it isn’t going to work. You also need to understand your responsibilities as a customer. Although you don’t need to licence the OS you still need to patch it, supply your own anti-virus client, update those applications and then secure the network access to it. And don’t think you can escape the fun that is Evergreen!
Cost-wise there’s a $ per month, per-user charge based on standard, pro or enterprise levels of functionality. Then an hourly rate based on usage and the resources that your VMs consume. Automation is key to controlling those costs ensuring that machines are not costing you money when they aren’t being used. There are features within the administrative console and the REST API to schedule the number of machines available and for those machines to be powered off when they aren’t required. Calculating the overall cost, like a lot of cloud initiatives, is not an easy one though and may not be necessarily cheaper than your current on premises solution. But there are features and functionality that no on premises solution will ever give you.
The big differentiator for Frame is its simplicity and ease of use. When you need to bring additional services you just plug them in. You need identity services? Frame supports them. You want to use your user profile management tool? No problem. Want to connect to Dropbox, Box or Google Drive? A couple of clicks and it’s setup, appearing as a mapped drive within the Frame explorer. Want to share your session with someone else to work on a document or drawing simply email them a link to the session? Need additional local storage or a database? Just click the utility server option and select your services.
Just as data and business applications are moving to the cloud, it makes sense for client applications to follow them. Another nice thing about Frame is that where companies utilise multiple clouds you have the ability to place your applications in the best location to serve them avoiding any lock-in. Also, as client estates become more diverse and the demand from users to work from anywhere increases so the ability to deliver applications simply through a browser becomes increasingly enticing.
Frame is very cool technology. If you’re currently considering XenApp running in Azure or XenApp Essentials, or considering at how to mobilise those legacy applications, then you need to take a look. There are limitations as to where it fits as a solution but where it is right there are clear benefits. Frame enables powerful applications to be accessed from almost any device. It enables applications to be delivered to an entire business anywhere in the world minutes after installing it once, regardless of the endpoint they are using.
So my dalliance with the world of start-ups was not a great success. For the guys at Frame I can see a much brighter future. The question though is how long will it last before someone swallows them up?