21 Mar 2024

Revolutionizing Virtual Desktops: The Brilliance of MSIX App Attach

Revolutionizing Virtual Desktops: The Brilliance of MSIX App Attach

In the realm of Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS), even the most skilled IT managers grapple with application management and deployment complexities. 

So picture this—seamlessly integrating applications into your virtual desktops as effortlessly as connecting a USB device, but without clutter or complications. 

That’s what MSIX app attach does. 

MSIX app attach sets new standards in software utilization and deployment efficiency. Read on to learn more about MSIX app attach, its history, its benefits, and its limitations. 

A History of Traditional Application Deployment 

Traditional application deployment has long been a thorn in the side of IT management and end-users, characterized by a model fraught with inefficiencies and systemic problems.  

Historically, deploying software meant individually installing applications on each device. This process not only consumed considerable time and resources, it introduced a myriad of compatibility issues. Manual deployment, unchanged since the advent of personal computing, inherently lacks scalability and flexibility, turning application deployment into a logistical nightmare. 

This is a huge weakness. 

If a thousand users need access to an application, that application must be installed and configured on a thousand devices. Over the years we have gotten better at the distribution and installation of apps. 

By introducing tools such as Microsoft SCCM and Intune, file formats such as MSI and App-V, it became much easier to install applications for users—easier than walking around offices with CD-ROMs and clicking “next.”  

But the challenges didn't stop at installation.  

Maintenance and updates compounded the issue, with IT managers often facing the daunting task of ensuring that every application on every device was up to date. 

Installing apps on user devices led to all sorts of localized issues like:  

  • Compatibility 
  • DLL hell,” aka conflicting software causing chaos 
  • Increasing deployment and maintenance costs 
  • Headaches to IT managers 
  • Diminished end user experience from Winrot 

These persistent problems highlight a glaring need for innovation in application deployment. The traditional methods were clearly unsustainable in an era where agility and speed are paramount.  

As enterprises sought to streamline operations and enhance user experience, the demand for more efficient, scalable, and less disruptive deployment solutions became evident.  

This need for innovation inevitably paved the way for revolutionary approaches like MSIX app attach, promising to redefine how we deliver and maintain applications across enterprises. 

What is MSIX App Attach? 

MSIX app attach is Microsoft’s entry into dynamic application deployment. It’s sometimes referred to as application layering and used for distributing applications to virtual desktops.  

MSIX app attach is a key part of Microsoft’s new DaaS offering Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD). It may be the most dramatic change to application deployment since the launch of the personal computer in 1981. 

The Benefits of MSIX App Attach 

MSIX app attach’s innovative technology redefines application management within virtual workspace environments, offering a suite of advantages that cater to both IT administrators and end-users alike.  

By decoupling applications from the operating system, MSIX app attach streamlines the deployment process. This significantly reduces the administrative overhead and complexities traditionally associated with application updates and maintenance. 

Here are some of the advantages of using MSIX app attach: 

  • Minimizes dependency on gold OS images: applications are independent of the OS image, significantly reducing the effort needed to update and maintain standardized OS configurations.
  • Ensures application accessibility: MSIX app attach's approach to decoupling applications from the operating system ensures they are always current and available on demand. This leads to simpler, more stable operating systems focused on core functionalities, reducing compatibility and update challenges. Essentially, it enables any application to run on any operating system image running in AVD, broadening accessibility and flexibility.
  • Streamlines application management: simplifying Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) allows for seamless updates and maintenance without affecting the OS
  • Enhances user experience: delivers applications on-demand, ensuring immediate access for users when needed, without the necessity of permanent installation
  • Improves system performance: minimizes the impact on virtual desktop performance by avoiding the installation of applications directly on the OS, leading to faster login times and more efficient use of resources. Removing locally installed apps is better for overall performance on the image
  • Increases Security: leveraging containerization, MSIX app attach separates use data, the operating system, and other applications. MSIX containers use Windows security features such as Windows Defender to prevent potential breaches and malware.
  • Cost-effective scalability: facilitates the rapid scaling of application delivery across an organization, reducing storage and operational costs through centralized application management
  • Flexible deployment: supports single and multisession images, offering versatile application delivery options that accommodate diverse enterprise needs 

As AVD rollouts continue across the enterprise IT space, customers will take advantage of the creative and innovative ways this technology quickly enables their business with the best user experience and dramatically decreased management for IT. 

MSIX App Attach vs. App Attach in Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD) 

Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD) introduces two cutting-edge features aimed at enhancing the way applications are deployed in virtual environments: MSIX app attach and the newly introduced app attach (preview).  

While both features revolutionize application management by allowing dynamic attachment of applications to user sessions without local installation, they each come with unique capabilities and improvements. 

MSIX App Attach: The Established Standard 

MSIX app attach, now generally available, leverages the MSIX packaging format to deliver applications to the desktop sessions. 

It simplifies the administrative and user experience but operates within certain constraints: 

  • Application visibility and assignment: all desktop users view MSIX app attach applications within the desktop application group, controlled by assignment to application groups 
  • Host pool limitation: confine applications to run on the added host pool, requiring separate packages for deployment across multiple host pools 
  • Update process: updating an application necessitates deleting and recreating the package, ideally during a maintenance window 
  • Version constraints: concurrent running of different versions of the same application on a single session host is not supported 
  • Telemetry: facilitate usage and health monitoring through Azure Log Analytics 

App Attach: A Preview to Enhanced Flexibility 

The preview version of app attach introduces several enhancements aimed at further improving administrative and user experiences: 

  • Granular permission control: apply permissions per application per user for more refined control over application access during remote sessions. This ensures desktop users only see the applications specifically assigned to them. 
  • Cross-host pool deployment: utilize a single application package across multiple host pools, enhancing flexibility 
  • Seamless application updates: deploy new application versions without the need for a maintenance window, using a new disk image 
  • Concurrent versions: users can run two versions of the same application simultaneously on the same session host 
  • Telemetry: like MSIX app attach, telemetry data is accessible through Azure Log Analytics, ensuring consistent monitoring capabilities 

While both MSIX app attach and app attach offer significant advantages in managing virtual application deployments, the choice between them hinges on specific organizational needs and deployment scenarios.  

As AVD continues to evolve, these features exemplify Microsoft's commitment to enhancing virtual desktop experiences, offering organizations powerful tools to streamline application deployment, improve security, and reduce operational overhead. 

The Two Pillars of MSIX App Attach Success 

Now that we know what app attach is and its advantages, how can we ensure its use is successful? 

Two technological concepts bear discussion to understand why MSIX app attach is such a breakthrough: Application Layering and MSIX Package Format.  

We’ll explain each one in detail. Let’s get into it. 

1. Application Layering 

The rise of VDI required a new way of delivering apps to virtual desktops while maintaining a consistent user experience. 

Originally introduced by Citrix, application layering creates a “flattened” image made by an application installer to a separate file in VHD or similar format. This makes it possible to layer files on top of each other and on top of the base VHD image that contains the OS. It allows the virtual machine to use a single “disk” made up of several transparent layers.  

This is very similar to layering transparencies over each other, where each layer adds more details creating a composite image. This makes it easy to add an application to an image by simply adding another layer.  

Administrators can also “uninstall” an application if an issue is present by simply removing that specific app layer (see diagram below). 

 A visual representation of basic application layering from Rimo3.

2. MSIX Package Format 

The second technology making MSIX app attach possible is Microsoft’s MSIX package format 

Launched in 2018, it has many unique and important features like application containerization. Initially introduced with App-V, application containerization allows applications to be decoupled from the OS by running in a “sandboxed” environment. This allows users to easily add and remove applications from a system—even if they are still installed.  

Crucially, the MSIX container provides everything an application needs. 

So how does MSIX app attach put all this together?  

MSIX app attach provides a functionality similar to app layering, but better. Some readers may be familiar with the concept of shared network drives, MSIX app attach works in a similar way.  

The application image is not “layered” on top of the device, it is “attached” to the device through the creation of a virtual disk drive. This contains a flattened version of the application in MSIX format, hence why MSIX is required for MSIX app attach.  

After attaching, applications look and feel as if they were locally installed to the user and the operating system, which a user can instantly add and remove. 

MSIX App Attach File Formats and Package Types 

For MSIX App Attach, the primary application package type and file format utilized is the MSIX package itself.  

MSIX is a Windows application package format that encapsulates applications in a container, supporting both modern and traditional Windows application formats. 

Here are the key points about the package types and file formats relevant to MSIX App Attach: 

  • MSIX package (.msix or .msixbundle): this is the standard file format for packaging applications for MSIX App Attach and App Attach. It enables clean installation and removal of applications, ensuring that the application does not leave behind any residue on the system when it's detached or removed. 
  • MSIX packaging tool: to prepare applications for MSIX App Attach, developers and IT professionals can use the MSIX Packaging Tool. This tool helps convert existing application formats, including MSI (Windows Installer Package), EXE (Executable files), and App-V (Application Virtualization), into the MSIX format. 
  • VHD/VHDX for storage: although not a package format for the application itself, MSIX App Attach requires applications to be stored on either a VHD (Virtual Hard Disk) or VHDX (Virtual Hard Disk v2) file. This virtual disk file then contains the MSIX packaged applications, which are mounted and attached to the user sessions in virtual desktop environments. 
  • Appx and Appx bundle (.appx or .appxbundle): a file format available for app attach only and for single package apps. They are grouped together using a standard ZIP file format.  

By using MSIX as the package format, MSIX App Attach provides numerous benefits, including improved application isolation, easier management, and a better user experience. Now, users can instantly add and remove applications without affecting the underlying operating system or restarting the device. 

5 Ways Organizations Can Use MSIX App Attach 

The introduction of MSIX app attach represents a paradigm shift in how applications are deployed and managed in enterprise environments.  

Designed specifically for the era of Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and cloud computing, this modern approach offers a streamlined, efficient method for delivering applications to users.  

Here, we explore the innovative ways MSIX applications can be attached, leveraging the capabilities of MSIX App Attach. 

1. Direct Integration with Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD) 

MSIX App Attach seamlessly integrates with AVD, Microsoft's comprehensive desktop and app virtualization service.  

This integration allows IT administrators to dynamically attach applications to user sessions without altering the underlying virtual machine image. Store applications externally and attach on demand, significantly reducing the time and complexity of application management. 

2. Utilizing Azure Blob Storage for Scalability 

For organizations leveraging cloud services, MSIX App Attach can utilize Azure Blob Storage to host application packages.  

This approach not only optimizes storage costs but also ensures global scalability and delivery of applications, catering to a distributed workforce with minimal latency and maximum reliability. 

3. Automated Deployment via PowerShell and Azure CLI 

Automation is key in modern IT management, and MSIX App Attach can be automated using PowerShell scripts or Azure Command-Line Interface (CLI) commands.  

This capability enables IT teams to script and automate the attachment process of MSIX packages to virtual desktops, ensuring a consistent and error-free deployment process across the enterprise. 

4. Integration with Management Solutions 

MSIX App Attach is designed to work in concert with enterprise management solutions such as Nerdio Manager for Enterprise (NME). Nerdio uses Powershell behind the scenes to orchestrate the native AVD capabilities 

This integration facilitates a more cohesive management experience, allowing for the centralized deployment and management of applications alongside traditional endpoint management tasks. 

5. On-Demand Application Delivery 

One of the most compelling features of MSIX App Attach is its ability to deliver applications on demand. Applications can exist in storage, and then attach to sessions as needed, without permanent installation.  

This capability not only enhances flexibility and user experience but also optimizes resource utilization by only consuming resources for the applications in use. 

MSIX App Attach Limitations to Be Mindful Of 

While MSIX App Attach heralds significant advancements in application delivery within virtualized environments, it's essential to acknowledge its limitations to fully understand its applicability and scope. 

Awareness of these constraints can help organizations evaluate how MSIX App Attach fits into their IT strategy and infrastructure. 

Some key limitations include: 

  • Compatibility issues: not all applications are immediately compatible with MSIX packaging. Legacy applications, particularly those with complex services with dependencies outside of the package, may require considerable effort to convert and optimize for MSIX App Attach. 
  • Learning curve: IT teams may face a steep learning curve in mastering MSIX packaging and the App Attach mechanism. This includes understanding the nuances of application containerization and virtual disk management. Join the MSIX training with Tim Mangan to keep up with the learning curve.
  • Infrastructure requirements: effective deployment of MSIX App Attach demands a modern AVD infrastructure. Server OS is not supported.
  • Management tools dependency: organizations may need to invest in or upgrade to specific management tools compatible with MSIX and App Attach
  • Performance overhead: while MSIX App Attach aims to improve performance by isolating applications. The initial setup and virtual disk attachment process can introduce overhead, impacting system startup times. 

Understanding these limitations is crucial for organizations considering integrating MSIX App Attach into their application deployment strategy, ensuring they can navigate potential challenges and leverage this technology effectively. 

Simplify VDI with Seamless Application Deployment 

MSIX App Attach is a pivotal innovation simplifying the complexities of application management and deployment within VDI.  

It enhances the efficiency of software utilization and sets a new standard for seamlessly deploying applications without complications.  

As the digital workspace continues to evolve, MSIX App Attach stands out as a beacon of progress, promising a future where IT managers can navigate application deployment with unprecedented ease and agility. 

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