May 10, 2010

RemoteApp Mgr

Windows Server 2008 introduced a series of programs called RemoteApp that appear as if they are running on a local computer, even though they are accessed remotely. With Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7, these programs can be grouped along with entire virtual desktop sessions, and both can appear in the local Start menu of your desktops. It is a pretty neat trick.

The result is that it’s easier for IT administrators to deploy and maintain remote apps. You can make changes to the apps in one place and the changes are transmitted to the various end-user desktops that are allowed to see them. RemoteApp also makes managing software licenses more cost effective, since you can have tighter control over who uses what software programs when. Finally, it makes it a more natural experience for end users; they can use the Windows search to find these remote apps, and they don’t have to do anything different to launch them compared to their locally-installed apps that are on their desktops.

RemoteApp isn’t unique: Citrix has been selling something similar for years. What is unique, though, is RemoteApp’s level of integration with the underlying Windows 7 OS, and how it can offer something similar for relatively low cost, too. (We’ll get to the licensing issues in a moment.)

To pull this off, you first need to update your Windows 2008 Server to the R2 version, which really means doing a re-install of a new server OS. Then you need to add some additional Microsoft software to your R2 Server, which will look like the following when you have everything set up.

RemoteApp Mgr

The best place to gain an understanding what is involved is to look over the Remote Desktop Services section of Microsoft’s Technet Web site, which shows sample step-by-step installation and deployment instructions for a four-PC test network, as well as more complete information about what is involved with the other Remote Desktop services offered by Microsoft. Why four PCs? We’ll get to that in a moment.

What is New?

RemoteApp is an update of Terminal Services RemoteApp in prior Windows versions. In Remote Desktop Services in Windows Server R2, you can filter the list of RemoteApp programs that are available to a user account when logged on to RD Web Access. Prior to Windows Server R2, all RemoteApp programs were shown to every user that logged on to RD Web Access, regardless of whether they had permission to run the program.

With the R2 version, user accounts can be assigned to a unique personal virtual desktop or they can be redirected to a pool of virtual desktops and bring up one that is dynamically assigned. That wasn’t possible with the earlier Windows Server 2008 version.

Prior to R2, when a user connected to a RemoteApp program by using RD Web Access, the user was prompted for their login credentials twice — one to authenticate the user to the RD Web Access server and the other to authenticate the user to the RD Session Host server hosting the RemoteApp program. With R2, you only have to login once to establish the connection, provided that you are using the v7 version of Remote Desktop Connection, the version that ships with Windows 7.

Finally, the Web Access portion has been redesigned for Windows Server R2 as well. Instead of presenting RemoteApp programs in the form of a Web page, this feed presents them as XML documents that can be manipulated with software, making this feature more flexible and programmable. You can even set up remote apps via Group Policy objects on fully managed PCs.

The Parts List

All this remote goodness requires that your company get and set up several Microsoft technologies.

If you don’t have a working version of at least one Windows Server 2008 R2 (Enterprise, Standard or Datacenter editions), download a 180-day trial version here. Don’t use the Itanium version; it won’t support these features.

Next, you have to install Remote Desktop Session Host, formerly the Terminal Server role service, along with some other services. This sets up your R2 server to host the applications that you want to share across your network. A number of additional pieces of software are required to support RemoteApp, and are described in this document linked above.

There are a few security issues. Because of the way the remote services works, Microsoft recommends that you install RemoteApp on a separate R2 Server from your domain controller; otherwise you are granting remote access to outsiders that can then take control over your domain. You also need to ensure that your SSL certificate for your R2 servers are installed correctly, since the Remote Desktop Connection connects via https protocols.

In order to get this working properly, you must purchase valid licenses for all of your remote desktops and install a Remote Desktop license server to keep track of them. You have a three-month grace period for testing purposes to try things out.

When you are done with all the bits and pieces on the server side, you will see something like the screenshot below, taken from the R2 Server manager, indicating the various roles and services involved:

RD Role Services

Once you get all this running, of course the final piece of the puzzle is to try this out on one or more Windows 7 computers using Remote Desktop Connection. While some things work with earlier versions of Windows or RDC, having apps installed on the Start menu isn’t one of them. This is the easy part of the setup, and once you get connected you will see your remote apps listed in a separate program group in the Start menu, as promised.

Expect that getting all the parts assembled together will take several days, depending on your familiarity with the older versions of Terminal Services and the current state of your test systems. Microsoft recommends four separate PCs for the exercise: one R2 server running Active Directory and managing the domain, one R2 server running various remote desktop services, one R2 licensing server, and one Windows 7 test client system.

If you are looking to tighten your control over your applications software licensing, or for ways to distribute your apps to a wide desktop audience of Windows 7 users without having to install them on individual PCs, then consider RemoteApp.

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