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How farsighted is Microsoft's Azure RemoteApp?

Preview offers a glimpse

Microsoft is stepping on more vendor toes. At the TechEd North America 2014 keynote in May, the company announced the preview release of Azure RemoteApp, which appears to be a direct competitor – at least in part – to Citrix's virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solution.

Running an application on any device sounds like it should be easy to accomplish, but it requires an all-encompassing solution from a reliable vendor, as well as rapidly deploying ways for all devices to access them.

The introduction of the iPad highlighted this requirement. IT staff (including your correspondent) were introduced to the new user expectation: "Give me what I want to do my work, and give it to me on whatever shiny device I turn up at the office with."

This started to happen frequently and from the higher-ups. Defining what they actually wanted was less clear. Sometimes it was a specific application and at other times it was just a certain function that the application on their desktop had but that didn't exist in the new platform's version.

Special treatment

There have been a few attempts to solve this problem. Many vendors saw dollar signs and created specialist apps for each device: iOS (potentially having both an iPhone and then a more expensive iPad version), then Android and now Windows Phone. Add BlackBerry if you are still clinging to it.

If the applications had no direct cost, you would often instead be slugged for a mobility licence, as well as having to build more servers for remote access.

The other method was VDI. Citrix is a leader in this area and eventually created apps to remotely connect to servers for iOS, Android and Windows Phone to match the original desktop connector.

Citrix was rather slow to release the receiver application on some platforms though – for example, Windows Phone 8 was released in October 2012 but the Citrix Receiver didn't turn up in the Windows Store until August 2013.

That is a long time to wait, convincing end-users that they need to find their own untested solutions but with the expectation that the IT department still supports them.

The VDI method is an easier solution overall for IT departments because users have a similar experience regardless of device and very little device configuration is required.

When users try to use a fat finger instead the experience is less than ideal

One of the bigger negatives of this is the requirement to have all the resource power centralised, which means either more servers or beefier ones. Of course, when users try to use an application designed for use with a mouse and keyboard with a fat finger instead, the experience is less than ideal.

Microsoft was fairly quiet in this space. It was able to lean on Citrix and let it do the heavy lifting on top of its Terminal Services, but that is now changing. I wonder how Citrix feels about this announcement.

Microsoft Azure RemoteApp has been launched in preview mode. You can try it right now.

Azure RemoteApp lets you remote-desktop straight to a configured application, rather like what the Citrix Receiver has been doing for a while now. So why should you care?

RemoteApp for Windows client

There are a few key differences with Citrix's XenApp or XenDesktop solution. Azure RemoteApp firstly requires Azure Active Directory to be set up if you want users to use their AD credentials from your on-premise AD environment.

Azure AD syncs with on-premises AD via DirSync or Active Directory Federation Service. Once that is set up, you need to host the application on Azure.

This is done either by creating the virtual machine on Azure (even easier if you need something like Word 2013, which is an inbuilt option to set up with a few clicks) or creating the virtual machine yourself with the application you want to use, then uploading the virtual machine to Azure.

Those hurdles make it more difficult than a few “next, next, finish” wizards, but then Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop isn't the easiest of setups to do either.

Only the front end of the application needs to be in Azure though; back-end parts such as databases can still be on-premises as long as your Azure virtual machine has access to it through a VPN.

Coming soon

Not all platforms are supported yet. Windows is supported via the Microsoft RemoteApp app, and iOS/Android devices have received an update to the Remote Desktop app. Mac, Windows Phone and Windows RT apps are still to be released.

How does this differ to what we have already been doing on premises? For starters, if before you wanted to provide a virtual machine environment yourself you had to buy servers to accommodate peak loads.

Say it is a billing application and your billing is done on monthly cycles. Most of the time nobody uses the application, but come the last day of the month everyone jumps on to get their billing done before the first of the next month.

Azure lets you scale up and down to requirements so you pay for what you use instead of paying upfront for power you usually don't need.

During this preview time, Azure RemoteApp is free to try (for up to 20 users), with full licensing details still to come from Microsoft.

Without even doing anything on Azure, you can try Word 2013, PowerPoint 2013 and Excel 2013 from Microsoft setting up these demos.

At this stage Microsoft's solution seems to be a value add to get people using Azure – this time with some potential cost savings. ®

Adam Fowler is an IT operations manager based in Adelaide.

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