Home > AppCompat, Windows 8 > Windows 8 Application Compatibility–What Are My Options?

Windows 8 Application Compatibility–What Are My Options?

I’ve been doing a bit of work recently with application compatibility, or more commonly known as appcompat for short.

While I have found that there is a heap of documentation on the Microsoft Springboard site for detailing how-to’s on particular topics, one thing I’ve not really been able to put my finger on, is what exactly are the options for IT Pro’s in Windows 8 environments?

First, I would urge you to familiarise yourself with the excellent information that you can find in the appcompat area here. I will next attempt to summarise the whole issue of application compatibility, and why it warrants time spent dealing with it, before I move on to what we can do to deal with any issues that arise.

Setting The Scene

If you are not aware of why this is a massive problem, let me explain.

Suppose you run an enterprise network, such as a high street bank. There’s a good chance you are still running an older operating system on your client computers, with older applications to boot.  So let’s suppose we imagine that a company runs Windows XP with Office 2003 and other business applications on their client computers right now.

The company realises that Windows XP’s days are numbered, with extended support ending in April 2014. This is a big deal to many companies, as they will loose their accreditation, or compliance rating if they are using out-dated, or more importantly, out of support products. For many organisations like banks, this simply won’t do.

So the solution is simple – right? Upgrade to a new operating system and applications. After all, having skipped a couple of versions, they are ripe for a refresh anyway, and they surely have wrung every last drop out of their investment in an operating system they could well have been using since 2001! (Most people wouldn’t dream of owning a car that long, never mind a PC).

Is it a problem?

Yes and no. But mostly yes.

If you are running a PC now with Windows XP, and that era of applications (or even older than that in most cases), then a lot has changed over the years to where we are now. This is not the place to detail all the in’s and out’s, so check out this link for more info why this is a big deal.

Suffice to say, older applications can just simply not work, or need fixing to make work on a modern OS such as Windows 8.  The fact is, a typical organisation will need to assess this, as if an application is found to be incompatible with Windows 8, that could potentially be a show-stopper in the deployment of a new desktop refresh.

Where do I start?

Understand what you have.

I did some work for a UK bank not so long ago, and they found that they had over 12,000 applications in use at that time. The intention was to reduce that to 7,000 (still a big number, but way more manageable!), as part of deploying a new operating system to replace Windows XP.

If you don’t know what you have got installed on your machines, here’s a quick summary of your options in how to find out.

  • Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) Toolkit – a FREE tool that runs without agents on your PCs and gives you centralised reporting on readiness of hardware, but in this context, also tells us what applications (and their versions) are installed on the computers.
  • Asset Inventory Service (AIS)– one of the constituent components of the MDOP suite for software assurance customers.
  • System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) 2012 – much more than just helping to inventory computers. This can help meter software usage as well, and of course can be used to deploy applications and operating systems.
  • Windows Intune – cloud based computer management of computer assets that may or may not be domain-joined. Great for home workers, or field based computers. This is an awesome technology by the way, check it out on the 30 day free trial.

  • ACT Now!
    I mean the Application Compatibility Toolkit.

    This is a fantastic tool that can also report on what applications are installed, but more importantly, will assist the IT Pro in evaluating which applications are critical, are high priority and will help you spend the right time in the right areas. For example, there’s no point spending a week trying to make an application work, if only 3 people in the entire company actually use it.

    This tool will help highlight which applications are known to not work, or have fixes suggested by the community database it taps into.

This brings me to the point of this blog post.

What are my options?

The Options

As of Windows 8, we no longer have XP mode as an option.
It was a stop-gap solution, which frankly, should always have been used as a short-term appcompat solution.  This used to allow us to run a Windows XP virtual machine in Windows 7, thanks to Windows Virtual PC. This is not a supported configuration (neither is MED-V for the same reasons at the time of writing) for Windows 8, so let’s move on to what we CAN use to help resolve appcompat issues.

    The following list is in no particular order as it depends on why the incompatibility exists in the first place, or how much time and effort should be put into making it work if an easier/cheaper way around can be found. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to include rationales for each option. I am happy to update this if folks have suggestions, but it should be seen as a starting point, as in some cases more than one option may exist for a given situation.

    Technology What it does When is it appropriate to use it?
    Get a new version or patch from the original vendor Brings the application current to a supported configuration on Windows 8 that allows it to run Simple and quick way of bringing an incompatible app into a supported configuration. Sometimes the low-hanging fruit that IT Pros need.  Always check this first!
    Choose a new app Replaces an incompatible app with one of equivalent functionality that runs on Windows 8 Replace the faulty app with a whole new one.
    Sometimes cheaper than spending time trying to make an existing one work, or where the original vendor has gone out of business or is not interested in patching the older version.

    Maybe there’s a new app in the Windows 8 Store? Smile

    Create a fix Use the ACT tools to create a ‘shim’ or fix(es) to fool the application that it is running on an older OS When an app *almost* works, but needs a helping hand to eliminate runtime errors, such as demanding a particular version of Windows or IE, or insisting on admin rights to function.

    Dozens of fixes are available in ACT. Often used in enterprise environments.

    Light bulbTip: check against the community database with this to save time and effort.

    Remote Desktop Services (RDS) Session Virtualises a desktop session Apps are installed on a server, then run via RDP in the Remote Desktop Connection program included in Windows (also available for MAC users)

    intranet or homeworkers or field based users can run line of business apps without the need for a domain joined computer.

    Also good for older machines that won’t meet the hardware specification for a newer OS

    (can also be accessed via a browser)

    RDS RemoteApp   similar to above, but just the app is presented via RDP, not an entire desktop session.

    Avoids the ‘double desktop’ problem users otherwise may face.

    Great for hybrid scenarios where some apps are run locally, and some from the RDS server.

    (can also be accessed via a browser)

    Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) Presents Hyper-V Windows client virtual machines with RDS Allows older computers to run Windows 8 and newer applications alongside their existing OS that wouldn’t locally support the new apps.

    Users connect to Windows 8 VM’s via RDP.

    Can also be used to provide rapid access to the new environment ahead of a planned deployment later.

    App-V avoids apps being installed locally in the ‘traditional’ way.

    apps are streamed to the desktop and can be cached and run from there

    Apps must be compatible with the underlying Windows OS in the first place. This does not directly solve appcompat issues.

    It can be used, however, in situations like needing to maintain an older version of an app, alongside a newer version, where that would otherwise cause a conflict with both being installed locally. Imagine installing Office 2003 and Office 2010 on the same computer.

    Can be used to allow older add-on’s or plug-in’s to work in conjunction with older apps.

    Can avoid loading code on to a machine in the traditional way.

    Speeds up app deployment.
    Apps can be used before all the code is streamed to the computers for rapid deployment.

    Hyper-V hosts virtual machines that could be legacy operating systems including older applications not really a great option, and not one that Microsoft want you to folllow, not least of which is because of licensing implications. Guest OS’s would need a licence as well as the host.

    Would allow, for example, a Windows XP virtual machine to be installed and incompatible apps loaded onto it.

    A clunky way to solve appcompat problems, and not really dealing with the problem, just postponing it.

    Used in a minority of situations (if at all) as it would be a large overhead on the PC.

Boot Note

Just to add something into the equation I did not say up top, but to get you thinking – also consider the BYOD situation, where users may be using their own computers.  This could also now include Windows RT devices, where x86/x64 applications simply do not run. What if, for instance, a user wishes to use their RT device like a Surface? Well there actually is a RDP client for Windows 8 in the Store that users can pull down. This would give them access to RDS and VDI of course (see above). 

This could well be the way forward for some organisations. They may simply not have apps installed locally any more. I’ll leave you with that thought!

Feel free to comment on ideas/omissions I may have inadvertently missed.

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