Running Internet Explorer 6 beyond Windows XP

Browsers are the user workspace of the future. The issue with “traditional” applications are many and complex covering topics like deployment, updates, security and management. If you can move all of that headache to a centralized service and have users access that by firing up their device’s web browser then your troubles will be over.  But an issue with web-based applications is, as with any application, the capabilities of the service grow to accommodate new functions and additional requirements. Applications may move to be hosted in “the cloud”, but there is will always be a need to ensure that the end device has an environment to run that web service in a secure, consistent and productive way. Browsers may well be the workspace of the future – but that future will still browsers to be updated, managed and maintained.

It is likely your business is moving to a post Windows XP environment. Perhaps you are updating  traditional desktops or migrating to virtual desktop environment on Windows 7, or even a presentation virtualization environment based on Windows 2008 R2. Moving operating systems, means moving browser version. Microsoft would say this is a “Good Thing” – as they consider Internet Explorer (IE) 8 to be their best browser yet although to be fair, they’re hardly likely to say IE8 is bloated and overly complex.

There are still a good number of companies who have found that they cannot standardize on one browser for all users en masse without impacting on business functions.  One application, or even a critical component of one application may not work if the browser for IE8 or IE7. At the same time, as users become more web aware, there is the demand of users to have more than just one browser available.

Can you support multiple browsers in your environment? How can you run IE6 in a Windows 7 or Windows 2008 environment? Will moving to a VDI infrastructure allow you to look back while moving forward and indeed, is the lack of support for different browsers – specifically different versions of IE – simply a temporary issue, resolved by focusing on changing the web delivery services so that they support the most recent browser? Ultimately, is one browser enough?

You can have any browser you like as long as its this one

Users are becoming less inclined to use the default browser that comes with the operating system. As more companies and home users use web-based applications speed, usability and performance of the browser become more important. If you live in web applications for most of your day, you’re likely to get a big efficiency boost from, say, Javascript performance. Javascript is central to how many web applications work. Google Chrome, in particular has been consistently top of most Javascript benchmark tests. Yet, Chrome does not support ActiveX. Here we have a problem – despite all browsers showing the Google homepage, not all browsers offer the same performance or functionality. A valid response to someone who asks “which browser should I use?” is to ask “what do you need to do on-line?”.

Your business likely has users whose productivity would be improved from being able to choose from a range of web browsers rather than being confined a single choice. At the very least they’d stop bugging you to do it. Such a requirement was traditionally one an IT department could not deliver on. With desktop and application virtualization this need no longer be the case.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
Said George Santayana. While he wasn’t talking about browser deployment (I’ve checked) he has a valid point to make.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is the lead among web surfers in the US and Europe according to statistics from Statcounter ( . In North America Internet Explorer is the most prevalent browser, and IE8 is the most common version. If majority of users have IE8, why should you be concerned about support for different browser versions? Looking over the past months use of IE6 and IE7 has been reducing. True, but many companies still need to support older versions: to access services that can not be accessed using the latest browser. And as Mr Santayana would attest, what happens when IE9 comes along? What will your migration process be then?

Being able to support different browser versions is more than simply moving beyond IE6..or IE7. Traditionally, a desktop environment has been bound by not being able to respond effectively to business change. Being able to deliver multiple browsers gives your business an advantage in a number of ways:

  • Allows users to work with browser that improves their productivity.
  • Enables validation and testing of new services to help manage change effectively – either for your users or customers.
  • Gives business opportunity to validate their on-line message will be consistent across their customer base on the Internet.

Reasons to be Careful
Introducing different browser from different providers can be relatively straightforward. However, different versions of browsers from the same version can be more problematic. Bear in mind that Microsoft are explicit about what they support. Running multiple versions of Internet Explorer on single operating system is unsupported.

For clarity (from the article)-

Running multiple versions of Internet Explorer on a single instance of Windows is an unsupported solutionMicrosoft strongly discourages the usage of such solutions that repackage the executable components of Internet Explorer into a separate installation.  Executing multiple versions of Internet Explorer from such packages on a single instance of Windows will result in an unsupportable configuration by Microsoft Customer Support Services.

This statement includes utilizing solutions that incorporate application level virtualization for running multiple versions of Internet Explorer on a single operating system instance.

Microsoft supports solutions that do virtualized usage of multiple versions of Internet Explorer through a separate operating system installation only.   This means one Internet Explorer version installed per operating system.

Strong words indeed. Yet, is this not a disingenuous stance? In order to deliver multiple versions of IE (say for testing and validation or for development) you have to  support multiple operating system environments.  Even with virtualization, this is a complex environment to configure: multiple IE versions means you will have desktops running multiple desktops.

Is “lack of support” so critical to your situation? If you’re supporting legacy applications for older browsers then already out of support. The focus here is not just on Microsoft’s ability to support that environment, but the ability to allow a business to continue to operate and remove  downtime. Not just for legacy applications, but for future applications to come.

Ultimately, is the risk of encountering an issue outweighed by the benefit of having users being as productive as possible. We have to ask – should Microsoft grow up and offer proper support for their customers to allow them to effectively migrate between browser versions?

Virtualization to the Rescue?
Running different versions of IE may not be supported, but it is possible. If you have deployed Windows 7 it is still possible for you to deliver Internet Explorer 6 to your users. You’ve two options:

  1. Virtualize the desktop with a different browser
  2. Virtualize the browser within the desktop

Virtualize the desktop

Essentially – create different operating environments each running a particular browser version. You could provide access to a Windows XP environment running IE6, and a Windows 7 running IE8. You’re likely expecting that delivering such an environment would need a significant investment in servers to host these virtual desktop instances, and then time and effort to manage and maintain that environment.  Bear in mind, not all desktop virtualization solutions require creating desktop instances on in the data center and there is software to help you manage your virtual host images.

You can deliver, and manage, multiple environments to run directly on the user’s devices. Products such as Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) which we discussed back in July; the MokaFive Suite or VirtualComputer’s NxTop all allow centralized management without the need for extensive server deployments. An issue here is that the device now needs to support multiple operating systems – so you will need to consider upgrading or replacing that end device.

An additional option may be to utilize the original desktop device to provide a legacy environment. For example, you deliver Windows 7 using a desktop virtualization solution, but the device continues to host Windows XP. RES Software recently announced their Virtual Desktop Extender (VDX) technology had been awarded a US Patent. VDX technology uses ICA and RDP protocols to allow the local applications that end users rely to be merged with a remote desktop into a single user workspace, removing the need to switch between two sessions and thereby increasing end user productivity. Bear in mind that the VDX technology is not a module in its own right: it is feature of RES Software’s PowerFuse workspace management product.

These solutions allow you to mix versions of browsers – and indeed even versions of IE. Yet, they also require you to manage multiple and different environments – it is not just the browser that needs to be managed, but the operating system itself. As time moves forward will new browsers require new dedicated operating system environments? Here, UniDesk’s patented layering technology could be utilized to support different application types – including different browsers such as IE. Although this solution may not be for everyone, with the current UniDesk release you will need to have a VMware View virtualised desktop service.

RES’s VDX Technology and Unidesk’s layering aside, what will the user experience be switching between operating environments – are your productivity gains in being able to deliver different browser instances lost in changing between operating system environments and, how are you going to go about managing those multiple environments and then switching between them – and indeed ensuring that the right browser is available for the task at hand?

Virtualize the applications?

Perhaps a reason for Microsoft’s stance on not supporting application virtualization for IE is the fact that App-V, Microsoft’s application virtualization offering, does not yet support virtualizing Internet Explorer. You may suggest this seems sensible, otherwise how can Microsoft move you on from IE6? But as we’ve mentioned – being able to support older browsers, especially IE, is not a function that will cease when you move to IE8 – its likely you’ll begin again when IE9 is released. While Microsoft’s App-V has this limitation, other vendors do not.

Symantec Workspace Virtualization (SWV) enables multiple versions of IE to run within the user’s operating system by isolating each instance of the browser to run within its own virtualized layer. SWV provides the capability to configure the degree to which the virtual layers are isolated from each other and the base operating system. The instances of IE can be configured to share browser extensions and plug-ins, or restricted so that they only have visibility into their own virtual layer of containment. Symantec supplemented this functionality and recently announced their Browser Selection Object, which gives you the facility to load specific web sites using a specific version of an Internet Explorer browser.

Symantec are not alone. VMware’s ThinApp has similar functionality – with the latest 4.6 release now supporting the facility to deploy IE6 within Windows 7 (x32 and x64) and including ThinDirect which ensures that when a user clicks on a hyperlink, an appropriate web browser opens the URL. Other vendors that support virtualizing IE browers – especially on Windows 7 – include Endeavours Technologies, InstallFree and Spoon. Of these, Spoon has an interesting proposition is that the agent component can be self installed by a user so needs very little infrastructure change, the deployment packages are already created and can be deployed not only to your users, but to potentially to customers as well.

Using Application virtualization to help you in managing browser deployment provides for greater flexibility than using different operating systems. While Microsoft’s App-V does not support delivering multiple IE browsers – there are a number of alternatives. There is a risk to consider as Microsoft does not support such a deployment mechanism, but will they maintain that stance if users demand the functionality as their business users demand it and application virtualization adoption grows.

The question is not “can it be done”, but “what way is best for you”

It is a growing requirement for users to have access to different browsers as they take their personal web experience from the home to the office. One browser is now rarely acceptable. Supporting different browsers is not simply about giving users choice,  it allows you to keep users working while services catch up. There are a number of options for supporting different browsers – those that Microsoft currently say are supported rely on you deploying multiple environments. Deploying Desktop or Presentation Virtualization for instance – or using solutions such as Med-V, MokaFive or NxTop. It is likely that without products from the likes of RES and UniDesk such solutions would be cumbersome to manage.

Arguably the more appropriate and feature rich option would be to treat the browser as an application rather than a part of the operating system. Application virtualization means that browsers can be delivered for use side-by-side. While Microsoft’s App-v cannot help deploying versions of IE vendors such as Endeavours Technologies, InstallBridge, Spoon, Symantec and VMware all have solutions that can be utilized to deliver different browsers, including versions of IE.

When your user asked “which browser should I use?” the question was “what do you need to do on-line?”. In answer to “what solution should I pick for deploying different browsers” the answer lies with what is best for your environment – ideally with a strong dose of getting Microsoft to re-think their support policy.