Is Unidesk layering a ThinApp alternative? This is a question we get asked all the time. Like many answers to questions in IT, it depends on your use case and what you are trying to accomplish.
If you're looking for an easier and more powerful way to deliver applications in VDI, and you'd rather the applications appear as if they are locally installed instead of isolated, then yes.
If you're looking to isolate a subset of your apps in their own "bubbles" so they don't conflict with each other, then no.
A closer look at the two approaches will help you understand when app layering can and cannot be a ThinApp alternative.
VMware ThinApp is a first-generation application virtualization technology that packages applications into executable (.exe) files that can then be run on any desktop - physical or virtual.
Conflict Avoidance - ThinApp isolates or "bubbles" applications in a self-contained executable file. Because the app is isolated from all other applications and the Windows operating system, it means you can run different versions of the same application side-by-side without conflict. Have a requirement for IE6 and IE10 to run on the same desktop? Simple - install IE10 natively and ThinApp IE6.
Lack of Interoperability - While isolating applications is great if you need to run the same version of an application side-by-side (ie IE6 and IE10), it causes problems when you have applications that need to communicate with one another. Examples include web browsers such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Google Chrome that have to interoperate with plugins; Microsoft Word and Outlook and their numerous plugins; healthcare EMRs; core banking applications, etc. The only way to make these applications work with each other is to bubble them together in the same ThinApp package or try to poke holes in the bubbles so they can cross-communicate. But this makes the packaging and patching process much more difficult.
Limited Application Compatibility - Because a ThinApp package is an executable file that needs to run after Windows boots, applications with services or drivers cannot be deployed with ThinApp. Anti-virus, printer drivers, and other Ring 0 apps fall into this category. In general, the more complex the application, the less likely it can be virtualized with ThinApp. Customers report that 30-60% of their apps may not play well with ThinApp - see this Indiana county government as an example.
Complexity - The bubbling process requires a great deal of institutional knowledge, IT expertise, and time, adding significant administrative overhead to VDI deployments.
Manual Delivery - Since a ThinApp package is nothing more than an .exe file, the burden of delivering this file falls on IT to add a shortcut to the user's desktop, add it to the Start menu, and copy it to the desktop or a network drive. There is no automated way to deploy, revoke, version, or audit ThinApp packages (although you can use Unidesk layering for ThinApp package delivery - a good example of how these technologies can work together).
Desktop Layering (with Unidesk)
Layering is a new approach to application delivery in VDI that was invented by Unidesk. Each application "layer" is a collection of files and registry keys that are abstracted using the application's standard installation process and stored as a virtual disk. Unidesk layering actually spans the entire desktop - not just apps - enabling you to build virtual desktops out of any combination of Windows OS layers, application layers, and a Personalization layer. Unidesk intelligently merges all assigned layers into a composite C: drive. The result is a virtual desktop that acts and behaves exactly like a physical desktop.
Broad Application Compatibility - Unidesk technology starts above the hypervisor and is running at the millisecond Windows boots, enabling any application to be layered. Even system services, boot time drivers, and other Ring 0 apps can be layered and delivered with Unidesk.
Application Interoperability - All layers are merged through file system and registry virtualization and presented to Windows as a logical C: drive. As a result, every layer appears as if it was locally installed. Applications appear in the C:/Windows folder and show up in Add and Remove Programs, and Registry keys are all visible in regedit. As a result, applications can freely communicate with each other as needed.
Simple - With layering, application packaging is quick and easy - just run the standard application setup procedure. No pre-scans, post-scans, scripting workarounds, or worrying about putting applications that need to communicate in the same bubble. Any app can be its own layer, and will interoperate with any other app.
Automated Delivery - Assign an app layer to any number of desktop VMs with point and click. Unidesk takes care of the delivery. No manual copies are needed. Layers can be versioned, patched forward, patched backward to undo mistakes, removed entirely, and audited.
Lack of Isolation - Layered apps are locally installed, not isolated, so layering is not good for when you want to avoid application conflict. If running two versions of the same application side-by-side on the same desktop is required (e.g. IE6 and IE10) and they won't run on a physical desktop due to conflict, then they won't run on a layered desktop either. In this case, use a tool like ThinApp to virtualize one of the applications, and then deliver the ThinApp package in a Unidesk layer.
Gartner compares application virtualization and application layering in its detailed research note "Selecting the Right Application Delivery Model for VDI." The conversation on the Gartner blog and the many IT professionals who shared their experience in the Comments confirm that layering is a ThinApp alternative if you are looking for an easy way to package, update, patch, deploy, and manage all of your applications in VDI and have the apps appear as if they are locally installed.
If you are looking to run two versions of the same application side-by-side on a physical or virtual desktop and they would conflict with each other if they were both natively installed, then VMware ThinApp is the right solution.
If you have both requirements - easy to manage VDI with full application interoperability and running two versions of the same application without conflict - then use Unidesk and VMware ThinApp together. Unidesk can deliver the majority of your apps locally, as well as the ThinApp packages for the few apps that need to be isolated.