CloudVolumes, Mirage and ThinApp: when to use what?

Just last week VMware bought a company called CloudVolumes. CloudVolumes is a solution that uses a technique called layering to deploy application in real-time. After the news broke many customers asked what will happen to Mirage, isn’t that layering as well? And what about ThinApp? Do I need ThinApp anymore?

First of all we need to take a step back and have a look on how these products actually work.

Mirage

VMware Mirage, formerly called Wanova, was developed with physical machines in mind. Mirage completely operates inside the Windows operating system and uses core Windows technologies like VSS. Besides deploying operating system and applications, called base layer and application layers, Mirage supports additional functions like backup and recovery of end points and also Windows migration scenarios. A huge benefit of Mirage, especially in distributed environments with WAN connections, branch offices and roaming users, are the optimisation techniques included. Mirage uses file- and block-level deduplication as well as compression to reduce the amount of data transferred between the Mirage servers and end points as much as possible.

Of course Mirage will work with virtual machines and VDI environments (using full clones) because it operates purely inside the Windows operating system and therefore doesn’t care if it is run on a physical machine, a virtual desktop on top of VMware Workstation/Fusion or even a Hyper-V virtual machine. Mirage also introduced some optimisations especially for VDI environments, for example, disabling compression and block-level deduplication as well as possibility to limit concurrent operations. But still the way Mirage works isn’t really optimised for VDI environments because for each layer update a reboot is required, each deployment operation is done inside each individual desktop including the file dedupe calculation and non-persistent desktops / linked-clones are not supported. In addition VMware doesn’t support back up/recovery scenarios in virtual environments, even though it is technically possible.

While Mirage can be used in virtual desktop environments and it makes absolutely sense for some use cases, e.g. persistent full clone desktops and containerised desktops, there are some use cases where it doesn’t fit quite right and there is a better way – introducing CloudVolumes.

CloudVolumes

CloudVolumes works very different in comparison to Mirage. It uses hypervisor technologies to optimise the delivery of layers, in CloudVolume terms a layer is referred to as a CloudVolume. Because CloudVolumes uses hypervisor technologies out of the box it only works with virtual machines running on top of VMware vSphere.

A layer, or a CloudVolume, is basically a VMDK containing the application executables, registry and all supporting application data. When the application layer is deployed to a virtual desktop or user the VMDK is mounted to the corresponding virtual machine and the CloudVolume agent running inside Windows is integrating the mounted VMDK so that is not represented as an additional drive but instead integrated in the native file system and registry. For example, if you deploy Mozilla Firefox using a CloudVolume it is not represented as E:Mozilla Firefoxfirefox.exe because it is integrated in the native file system and looks like a natively installed application which is located at C:Program FileMozilla Firefoxfirefox.exe.

Because the VMDK is read-only the same VMDK can be used for a virtually unlimited number of virtual desktop. Another huge benefit is that layers can be assigned on demand without the need of a reboot.

In addition CloudVolumes supports non-persistent and persistent desktop as well as full and linked clones.

ThinApp

CloudVolumes as well as Mirage are technologies to deploy application. Simply put they are both just a way of transporting application files and registry to a Windows desktop. While ThinApp can also be used as delivery mechanism, especially in combination with Workspace portal, the true power of ThinApp is the ability to isolate an application.

An application deployed using Mirage or CloudVolumes behaves like a natively installed application. It has full access to all installed applications and operating system components and vice versa. This fact makes it simple to deploy applications and gives us a very high success rate when deploying applications this way but it also has the same limitations as any other deployment mechanism that is not application virtualization. You will not be able to run multiple version of an application (e.g. run older version of Internet Explorer in parallel to the latest one) and you won’t be able to prevent DLL conflicts, just to give you two examples.

With ThinApp, because it adds a layer of virtualization, you will be able to run applications isolated from each other and from the operating system. This allows running applications independent from other native installed and virtualized applications and therefore prevent conflicts. It also makes the virtualized applications, to a certain degree, independent from the underlying operating system.

When to use what?

First of all lets discuss when to use Mirage and when to use CloudVolumes. Currently it totally depends on the use case.

When it comes to managing physical end points and containerised desktops Mirage is the way to go. The features Mirage offers, e.g. distribute layers in a highly optimised fashion (file- and block-level dedupe, compression) and backup / recovery functionalities, are huge benefits and must have features in these environments.

In VDI environments, especially in environments in which linked-clones are used, CloudVolumes is the perfect fit. It allows us, in a best case scenario, to use just one golden master and add all user and department specific application using layers. In addition adding an application to a desktop is simply put just a mount of a VMDK the overhead from a performance point of view is negligible especially in comparison to Mirage.

What about full clone, persistent VDI environments? In this case Mirage as well as CloudVolumes offer great functionality and need to be evaluated. But what if I tell you that CloudVolumes enables you to have a persistent desktop experience on top of a non-persistent linked-clone using CloudVolumes. CloudVolumes allows users to install their own applications. All changes are dynamically redirected to a user-specific writable CloudVolume. This volume is automatically mounted when a user logs on to a non-persistent desktop. This makes CloudVolumes a rather nice fitting solution for persistent desktop environments because you can still efficiently manage your master image using linked-clones (View composer) and add user/department specific application using CloudVolumes and optionally even support user-installed application using writable CloudVolumes.

Last but not least there is server-based computing. While Mirage does not support managing server-based operating systems this can be done with CloudVolumes today.

Did I forget ThinApp? No, I didn’t. ThinApp can and should be used complementary on top Mirage and/or CloudVolumes. If you require the benefits of isolating an application, e.g. running an old version Java for a specific application, you can just add this package to a Mirage application layer or a CloudVolume. Because, as I already said, CloudVolumes and Mirage are both just a way to deliver an application, and an application virtualized using ThinApp is still an application that needs to be delivered.

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