Microsoft User Experience Virtualization. Can’t you find something more important to do?

16 years after it introduced roaming profiles with the launch of Windows NT 4.0 Microsoft has decided to give it another go. In a blog post on Wednesday Karri Alexion-Tiernan (Director of Product Management for Microsoft Desktop Virtualization) announced the public beta of two new technologies, a major update to Microsoft App-V and an all new roaming profile solution User Experience Virtualization (UE-V). Both products will ship as part of a future Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) release.

I will be looking at App-V 5.0 in some more depth next week,  but for now lets look at UE-V.

UE-V takes a significantly different approach to profile management than adopted by roaming profiles. A major improvement over roaming profiles is the way that UE-V delivers user profile settings. In roaming profiles the entire user profile had to be downloaded from a network share at logon time before Windows could be used, which on a slow WAN links could result in excessive logon delays. In contrast  although each user’s template settings are stored in a file share just as they are today. UE-V streams individual templates on-demand, loading Windows settings at logon, and loading individual application specific templates only when an application is launched. Clearly this will increase application launch times, however the overall effect is likely to deliver significantly better performance than conventional roaming profiles. More significantly, application settings are written back to this central store when an application is closed, rather than at the end of a session. It is this change that is likely to deliver the greatest overall benefit as the possibility of user profile corruption will be significantly reduced. another significant benefits that UE-V offers over roaming profiles, is that it is possible to restore settings to default values at the template level rather than the entire profile. In the event that a group of settings become misconfigured or corrupted, it is no longer necessary to delete an entire profile, instead it is possible to restore a single application to default setting significantly reducing the overall impact of any user profile corruption problems. The just in time configuration streaming is only made possible by the installation of a UE-V agent on the endpoint operating system. It is this agent that detects trigger events that force profile synchronization to occur. In addition to log on/log off and application stop/start actions, the agent also detects virtual desktop connector and disconnected events as well as desktop lock and unlock events.

The other major difference between roaming profiles and UE-V is that where roaming profiles copied the entire user profile by default, out of the box UE-V does nothing. Instead user profile settings are only copy after a “UE-V templates” is made defining the user profile settings that will roam. UE-V templates are XML documents that define both file system and registry settings.

The current beta release provides a ready to use templates for the following application and Windows settings:

  • Application Settings
    • Office 2010 (Word, Excel, Outlook, Access, Project, PowerPoint, Visio, SharePoint Workspace, InfoPath)
    • Internet Explorer 9 and 10 (favorites, home page, tabs and toolbars)
    • Windows applications (Calculator, Notepad, Wordpad)
  • Windows Settings
    • Themes (desktop theme including background, color, sounds and screen saver)
    • Ease of access (accessibility and input settings)

Microsoft has not yet made it clear if it will develop any additional templates before UE-V is released or not. Even if it does, ultimate responsibility will lie with individual application owners to ensure that the appropriate template settings are captured. Microsoft provide’s a template generator which goes some way to simplifying the process of creating templates. However, it does require expert knowledge of the application to ensure that all the appropriate settings are captured. Even then, extensive manual editing may be required.

Microsoft is taking some liberties with product naming here. Any virtualization that UE-V might be said to offer is very light, and the  user experience elements that it controls are limited to conventional user profile settings. UE-V is better thought of as an user profile streaming/synchronization solution, which while it is a big step up from roaming profiles offers nothing that hasn’t already been delivered by Citrix (through its Sepago profile manager purchase), RES, VMware (through its RTO acquisition), and AppSense which first released its own profile manager as far back as 1999.

Microsoft appears to be positioning UE-V as a means of synchronizing user profiles across both physical and virtual desktops and mobile devices, but the reality falls some way short. UE-V will be supported on Windows 7, Windows 8 (both client and server) and Windows server 2008 R2. UE-V is a Windows only solution, so there is no possibility of support for Microsoft Office running on Apple OS X, or the rumored Office for iPad, nor does it appear as though support for Windows Server 2003 will be offered. At the same time  given the currently available information for Windows on ARM, it looks as though that too would be beyond reach. Not only that but UE-V does nothing to help Microsoft’s customers migrate from Windows XP to Windows 7, or from Microsoft Office 2007 to Office 2010, meaning that a separate profile migration solution would have to be made available as well. Microsoft has not commented on when UE-V and App-V 5.0 will be released, however as UE-V is targeted to work with both Windows 7 and Windows 8, it may well be that Microsoft is looking to shake your the release for the launch of Windows 8.

As a step up from roaming profiles there is is a lot to like about UE-V, but even so I am struggling to understand why Microsoft is following this path today. Surely there are more pressing matters for Microsoft to address than this. Anybody who has found Microsoft roaming profiles lacking will have already deployed a third-party solution that delivers more today than UE-V ever will. If Microsoft wanted to offer anything of real value to its customers, it should be looking at providing more resources to assist customers migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7, or concentrating its resources to accelerate the development of App-V 5 .0, not wasting its time trying to solve a problem that everybody else solved a decade ago. At the same time, by tying UE-V into MDOP, Microsoft is penalizing those customers who are looking for an improved profile management solution without the additional features that MDOP offers. Isn’t a decent profile management solution a basic requirement for an operating system today. Citrix, VMware and Quest all think that is a basic feature that every desktop virtualization solution should offer, and Microsoft must at lest hold out some hope that its customers will deploy Windows 8 on tablets at some point before they retire Windows 7.  Surely Microsoft doesn’t expect  its customers to sign up for MDOP and Software Assurance before they can have even a basic streaming profile solution to support multiple devices.

An emphasis on partnering with our customers to listen to their feedback was one of the drivers which led to the availability of roaming the users’ settings regardless of how Windows desktops and applications are delivered

— Karri Alexion-Tiernan (Director of Product Management for Microsoft Desktop Virtualization)

Considering that roaming profiles is a 16-year-old technology that has never worked well, for Microsoft to attempt to charge a premium for what is at best a rudimentary profile management solution, suggests that it has not been listening to its customers with quite the degree of attention that it claims.

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