Reports on IE6′s death are often greatly exaggerated. A number of sites do offer statistics for consumer Internet browser share, but enterprise users are another breed and have a different browser use profile: IE6 is still there alive and well in a large swathe of enterprise desktops. This puts a risk on projects that look to move an organisation beyond Windows XP.

To address this, Browsium have built on their experience in providing a solution to IE6 compatibility to launch Browsium Ion. Browsium have designed Ion to enable IE6 and IE7-dependent web applications to run unmodified in an IE8 or IE9 tab.

The end of life for IE6 is tied to Microsoft XP/Server 2003.. the clock ticks to 2014. Can Ion address the compatibility problems for corporates and still stay on the right side of Redmond? Will Browsium Ion get migration projects shackled by a reliance on IE6 going?


IE6 Corporates find kicking the habit hard

I came across this short conversation last week:

The MoD is the UK’s Ministry of Defense. A sizable organisation. I’ll park the discussion as to whether a patched IE6 running on a locked-down desktop environment with controlled access to the Internet offers a less secure environment than a consumer PC, instead – lets focus on “large organisations still use, and will continue to use, IE6″.

A regular reason given for not migrating beyond Windows XP is that “there is still a need to support IE6″. Corporate ERP and CRM and finance systems have a long life-cycle and are core to business function. More importantly a great deal needs to be done when introducing change: ask the desktop management people, the application people, the users, the people who sign off the budget. Changing applications is not simple: either from an application standpoint, or from a desktop environment configuration change. If the choice is between watching YouTube on a lunchtime, and making sure everyone gets paid – the “watch-cats-playing-the-piano” project is the one put on hold.

However, as new applications and business needs come on-stream it will become more pressing to update the corporate standard. The only constant is change: the viability of not moving forward can only last so long.

Virtualizing IE

As we’ve discussed before in Running Internet Explorer 6 beyond Windows XP, virtualisation can assist, but given you have to virtualise the desktop, this itself is an extensive undertaking. More importantly, it means you have to support multiple environments.

In early 2011, Browsium released UniBrows v1.0 with an intent to allow organisations to be able to able to enjoy:

  • Application compatibility with existing IE6-based web applications.
  • Easy deployment and management.
  • Granular control over ActiveX controls and registry settings for all web applications, even modern ones running in IE8.

The goal was to allow migration earlier and with less risk. Browsium continued to enhance UniBrows throughout 2011 but there remained an amount of fear, uncertainty and doubt. Fundamentally, this was because the technology relied on a complex installation method: the process requiring that the client be “built” using components downloaded from Microsoft. In addition, while initial license options focused on a low cost ‘per user’ license model, a ‘base license fee’ was introduced – this had an impact on small implementations as the cost per user was raised especially as the perception was that UniBrows simply offered IE6 layout compatibility.

What’s New in Browsium Ion

There are a number of significant changes:

  • A Standard Client Component: Ion uses only the browser engines built into IE8 and IE9 – it does not include the IE6 engine used in UniBrows. The UniBrows Prep Tool was cumbersome, not only in building the release, but in requiring access to IE6 files that may or may not be available in the future. Ion has a single client .msi installation component that is far easier to deploy and manage than the previous version.
  • Redesigned administration tools:  now more MMC-snap-in-like (although still not an MMC snap-in) you can specify which browser engine, version-specific add-ons, and custom security settings run inside a browser tab. The management interface exposes a good deal more functionality and allows a range of configuration settings for running IE in a corporate environment. It’d be nice to have an integrated help system in the application itself along with a set of tutorials – but I’m sure they’ll come later.
  • IE6 compatibility without requiring the IE6 engine: Perhaps the most important (and a pre-cursor to the standard client) is the fact that Browsium offer IE6 compatibility without the IE6 engine. Instead Browsium are enhancing IE’s built-in quirks mode. Quirks mode is a technique used by web browsers to maintain backward compatibility. Browsium have designed Ion to deliver an enhanced set of Quirks profiles by utilising the Adaptive IE Quirks Profile, Standards Rendering, and a powerful new String Replacement feature that can override HTML, JavaScript, and CSS in real-time without changing server-side code. These features, when combined with Profile settings and management features such as disabling Data Execution Prevention and Java version redirection, have allowed Browsium to eliminate the need for the IE6 engine entirely.

Browsium have indeed worked hard to ensure that fear, uncertainty and doubt as to the compatibility and longevity have been addressed.

More than Just a Gloss of Paint?

The UniBrows interface could be unwieldy. With Browsium Ion gone are the tabs  to be replaced by an application interface. UniBrows admins will notice a number of new options that can be assigned to Profiles. A profile is a set of configuration options (e.g. ‘run in IE6 mode, with Java v1.4′) that can be assigned, via rules, to a range of elements including specific URLs, hosts, domains, or users.

Browsium Ion offers more than simply “legacy support for IE6″. Ion can be used to assist in allowing access to sites that require different versions of Java, or different ActiveX versions. This could be considered as providing a  “sandbox” offering to enable different versions by specific URL: however, note that you will have to manage the deployment and availability of the Java version and ActiveX controls outside of Ion – this is not a virtualised environment in that sense.

You also have the facility to override javascript or content and change which applications are launched when a link file extension is selected in a web page.  You can even use Ion to change strings in a web application: so if your corporate standard is to change “zip code” to “zop code” and you don’t have access to the source code, you can make the change using Browsium Ion. As an experiment I modified a rule so that all users visiting a particular web page on the BBC site had their news “re-informed” as to which intelligence agencies were  collaborating.

Configuration settings are created using a Configuration Manager, and typically applied using Active Directory policies. No server-side components are necessary – reducing the complexity of installation and modification.
Browsium Ion works on both a desktop and server OS – and can be used in a Terminal Services/Remote Desktop Services environment (although I had some minor issues with running a browser as a published application).
While the current release is focused on IE, Browsium’s longer term roadmap includes cross-browser compatibility between IE, Firefox and Chrome, giving users the ability to have “any browser in any browser”: a possibility far more likely given that in previous releases given the new architecture.

Availability and Pricing

Browsium Ion is available now and does have 60-day evaluation offering . There is still a base license (@$5000) with Ion per-seat pricing varying by the number of PCs in your organization. Both the Base and Per-Seat Licenses are sold on a yearly subscription, although of course multi-year licenses and even perpetual licenses exist.

For existing UniBrows customers, Ion is available as a free upgrade.

Is the time to Get Going from IE6, now?

Corporate desktop estates are bound into using IE6 for two core reasons.

a) They don’t have the resource to move.

b) They have the resource to move, but have a fear and uncertainty that something core will break when they do.

Browsium’s first incarnation Unibrows allowed for a level of backward compatibility with IE6. However, while the process of configuration was straightforward, the uncertainty and doubt over the long-term viability of using Microsoft components in a client build wasn’t helpful. Moreover, often compatibility problems weren’t about layout per se, but were around changes/improvements in the browser application itself. For example, JavaScript parsing or security hardening (with features like Data Execution Prevention [DEP/NX] enabled by default). In some cases the problem resided in independent platform components, such as the need for a legacy version of the Java Runtime Environment (JRE).

I don’t see Browsium Ion as a UniBrows v2.0, I see it as ‘a next generation’. The Ion release not only allows rendering changes, but has a number of features that can remove the need to replace/upgrade back-end services: a course of action likely less than the on-going price of the license fee for Ion. In addition, incorporating the modifications into a single browser offers a far more intuitive user experience than using multiple desktop instances: users have their desktop environment, with their browser with modifications only required when they visit specific sites.

A difficulty for Browsium going forward will be that other vendors take heed of what has been done and integrate similar features in their own products. This type of functionality would be a logical fit for the likes of AppSense or RES Software to include in their desktop management solutions, or Quest in their Migration tools.

However, IE6/XP is still wide-spread, but I don’t think the prevalence is entirely due to legacy application requirements: it is often down to a reluctance to change when nothing appears to be broken. Many corporates feel that  their applications work just fine thankyouverymuch. A move beyond XP is an activity driven by Microsoft’s reluctance to support the OS beyond 2014, not because it doesn’t work anymore. Here the interesting consideration comes with the Product Manager/Sales reference at the beginning – it is likely a move beyond XP be driven more by application need rather than jumping because Microsoft say so. Or perhaps, what 2014 will bring is a far more robust attitude to risk of out-of-support software.

Will there be longevity what is essentially, an add-on to IE? Ion’s ability to enhance the management of IE offers corporates the ability to maintain a standard corporate browser: allowing a nod to full consumerisation but without the need to fully embrace it. In this respect, Ion will compliment a Microsoft browser solution well; possibly even reducing the need to move away from IE.

Web applications are going to be more prevalent – the ability to customise those applications will remain: which will ask the question “how much will that cost?”.

There is no such thing as a web standard. However, every standard has a deviation. Browsium Ion can be such a regulator. Even Einstein had a fudge factor for the theory of relativity and Browsium’s Ion gives corporate users what will likely be a vital option not just for compatibility for IE6, but to allow for changing configurations and managing web based application access to suit the business, not the application vendor.

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Andrew Wood (144 Posts)

Andrew is a Director of Gilwood CS Ltd, based in the North East of England, which specialises in delivering and optimising server and application virtualisation solutions. With 12 years of experience in developing architectures that deliver server based computing implementations from small-medium size business to global enterprise solutions, his role involves examining emerging technology trends, vendor strategies, development and integration issues, and management best practices.

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