What Is a Virtual App? A Quick Guide

Virtual applications, or virtual apps for short, are becoming increasingly popular as organizations look for ways to securely equip their remote users with the tools they need to stay productive—regardless of device or location. From the healthcare administrator using a Chromebook in their home office to the financial services employee using a Windows-based PC from home to the college student on an iOS mobile device in a coffee shop, virtual apps can be a right-sized solution to the growing IT challenge of providing remote access to essential software.

At the same time, it’s not always immediately clear how virtual applications compare with and differ from virtual desktops. What advantages does each approach bring? Is it better to have a full-featured virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) rather than an application virtualization solution? Does the remote device’s operating system play a bigger role in one versus the other? And are there granular differences among virtual apps and virtual desktops that are worth noting?

Defining virtual apps

The best place for us to start is by defining what exactly a virtual app is and how virtual apps are utilized.

In a nutshell, a virtual application is one that runs on a computer without actually being installed on the device itself. Generally, these virtual applications are installed and hosted on a server located either on-premises, in a data center, and/or in the cloud. End users can then run those applications remotely simply by accessing the apps through their browser. This is typically done through some kind of SaaS platform or software client that enables users to view and interact with the virtualized applications.

In this way, organizations are able to provide end users with specific functionality on an app-by-app and user-by-user basis. Crucially, the virtual app doesn’t have to be native to the device’s operating system. For example, Windows software titles can be delivered to Chromebooks.

Application virtualization can take several forms. Microsoft App-V creates a kind of “bubble” experience that allows server-based apps to run in their own self-contained virtual environment on client PCs. Citrix Virtual Apps (formerly XenApp) allows users to access Windows applications hosted on an on-premises data center or a cloud service, such as AWS, via the Citrix Receiver client. VMware ThinApp, by contrast, repackages conventional applications as portable virtual apps. This “fools” the app into thinking it has full operating system access when it’s actually running in a limited virtual environment.

What a virtual app is NOT

Unfortunately, some confusion still surrounds terms like virtual application or application streaming because they’re often used interchangeably between very different approaches. Therefore it can be just as helpful to define what doesn’t quite constitute a virtual app.

A virtual app is not one that’s simply hosted on a remote server. Some kind of application delivery mechanism has to be at work, and more importantly, one that involves a level of abstraction known as the virtual environment. Playing a browser-based game on your iOS or Android mobile device doesn’t count as application virtualization.

Also, as we’ll discuss in a moment, an application that runs in a virtual desktop environment doesn’t really qualify as a virtual app. This is because you’re virtualizing the entire operating system, not the application itself.

The difference between virtual apps and virtual desktops

Although they both have “virtual” in their name, there are some crucial differences between virtual apps and virtual desktops.

One of the most upfront differences is pricing. VDI is downright expensive—and not just on account of licensing. The “I” stands for “infrastructure,” you’ll recall, which means a whole host of supporting hardware and software to handle the heavy compute workloads, plus the staff to deploy and manage it all.

Furthermore, that complexity contributes to more than just cost. End users who just need access to one or two applications wind up saddled with an entire virtual environment and all the cumbersome login and connection protocols it requires. These same protocols can jeopardize security, as RDP and VPNs can introduce serious vulnerabilities.

And then there’s the less obvious matter of vendor lock-in. When it comes to functionality, tech giants are notorious for removing features from their remote desktop solutions. But end users become so deeply embedded in a certain workflow, and it’s so costly and resource-intensive to train them in a new user experience (not to mention all the additional sunk costs in IT infrastructure), that it’s tempting to stick with VDI despite the diminishing returns.

As a result, many organizations are shifting away from VDI and toward the strategic adoption of virtual application delivery (VAD). Contrary to some lingering misconceptions about how application virtualization works, VAD doesn’t rely on a complete virtual desktop platform to provide access to individual apps. Instead, end users can securely access only the apps they need, and with VAD solutions like Cameyo, they can do so from any endpoint device. This creates a more right-sized, user-friendly and budget-sensitive alternative to VDI.

Benefits of virtual apps

Virtual applications have several inherent advantages over VDI. In the words of customers who’ve implemented virtual apps though Cameyo’s virtual application delivery (VAD) platform, these solutions are:

  • Simpler: “To be honest, Cameyo was so simple to set up that I was skeptical at first. After just three hours, when we had it completely set up and our critical apps published, that skepticism quickly turned into a sense of awe.” — Adam Nerell, Head of IT, Klarahill
  • More secure: “Cameyo not only saved us a ton of money compared to VMware, but it is incredibly easy to manage, and is more secure. This works better than anything we’ve ever had, and Cameyo is now going to play a key role in our long-term plans for moving everything to the cloud.” — John Cerio, Network Administrator, Baldwinsville Central School District
  • Cost-effective: “Cameyo brings dramatic cost savings compared to virtual desktop products based on the amount of time it saved us in deployment, time saved in ongoing management, and the fact that everything is included – we don’t need to tack on additional third-party tools.” — Christian Ahlin, Group Head of IT, Nordward.
  • And provide a better user experience: “With Cameyo, our users don’t have to do anything. There’s nothing to install on their employees’ devices and there’s nothing to manage. It couldn’t be simpler, and for three years now Cameyo has provided an amazing experience for our users.” — Henrique Netzka, CEO, Tático ERP.

Cameyo’s virtual app delivery (VAD) approach

Cameyo’s virtual application delivery platform enables remote end users to securely access business- and education-critical apps from anywhere. It doesn’t matter if their endpoint device is running iOS, Android, ChromeOS, Windows, Linux or macOS. They don’t even need to download a dedicated VD client from an app store. As long as their device has an HTML5-capable browser, they can enjoy the full functionality of their desktop software—including the Adobe Creative Cloud suite.

If this guide has indicated that virtual apps might be right for your use case, sign up for your free trial of Cameyo and discover the simplicity and ease of use that our virtual application delivery platform has to offer. We’re also happy to expand on the info in this guide in the form of a personal demo. Schedule one today and we’ll walk you through some of Cameyo’s key differentiators. And, of course, you can always browse our growing list of case studies to see what other customers have to say about what sets VAD apart from virtual desktops as well as other application virtualization solutions.