The rise of VHD-Based Profiles. And the marketeers.


I decided to write this post due to the fact I am getting tired of marketing people in general, always attempting to sell you something you may not need and worse than that, trying to spread fear all over the industry about other solutions. Before going ahead, let me make one thing clear: I truly believe every product out there in the EUC does have a reason to exist, beyond making money. They do address a particular need and certainly have their value and merit.

Now, leaving the marketing bullshit behind, that does not mean any of these products are the silver bullet, the one solution that will solve all your problems, with zero side effects. If you ask any vendor what the drawbacks are with their product and they have no answer to that, please, do yourself a favor and run away. Every single product has drawbacks and issues. Period. The key thing is understand these and how you can minimize or eliminate them (with potentially another product to complement the first one).

With that in mind, let’s have a quick chat about VHD-Based profiles, what seems to be the hotcake these days. If you are not aware of, Microsoft introduced User Profile Disks (UPDs) back in 2012 with Windows Server 2012. Yes, not even R2. That means whatever this is, it is SIX DAMN YEARS OLD. Got that? Six years in computer years is like 120 human years. Just to put in perspective (I do know you talk about dog years at home, so let me help you making things simpler) how damn old this is.

The idea behind UPD is very simple. The C:\Users\%USERNAME% folder gets pointed to a Virtual Hard Disk (VHD), a single file, sitting somewhere. How big can it be? No idea on the limits but I have used them set at 20, 40 GB without issues. That means every user will get a file that can grow up to whatever it was set to (i.e. 20GB) and that file will get mounted and linked to the user’s own C:\Users\%USERNAME% folder.

Right off the bat you can see that if you have let’s say 40 users connected to your RDS Session Host (XenApp for Citrix people), each user will have a profile folder with 20GB. That means 800GB for user data. Note the C: drive on the server is usually 60-100GB in size. This is possible as it is just a mount point. You are not using disk space off the C: drive but you are still able to have users with profiles that could be potentially bigger than the server drive itself. Nothing magical here and more than that and one more time, SIX years old. But marketing people want to make you believe they are now selling magical software that can magically make your local drive grow like Godzilla. Nope.

As it is a single file, when the user logs in, there is no need to download anything to the server drive. The mount point is established and you are done. Does not matter if the UPD has 2GB or 200GB. Logon time will be the same and as it is just a mount, it will be much quicker than using traditional solutions (i.e. roaming profiles). Here we have the marketing geniuses again, trying to make you believe you are buying an amazing technology that makes your logons much faster now that you are riding on Unicorns. I can make logons faster too and I do not even work at marketing, or have unicorns, just for the record.

Back in December I presented at the Citrix User Group in Israel, exactly about this topic. I showed it live on stage, two completely different solutions (Citrix XenApp and Parallels RAS) up and running, where the same user had UPD enabled. When he logged in to Citrix and did whatever he wanted and logged off, once he logged back in but now through Parallels, all the stuff he had done on XenApp was there on RAS. To add a nice twist to the whole thing, I had the Parallels environment on Azure. That means I was replicating UPDs ON THE FLY, LIVE, between an on-premises solution running Citrix and a cloud-based one running Parallels, for all my users. As you guessed, yes, a completely agnostic solution that does NOT care which product you have and where it is running. And the best part of all this, FREE. Yes, this is part of the Windows Server feature set. No matter if using VMware Horizon, Citrix XenApp or XenDesktop, Microsoft RDS or Parallels RAS, this works out-of-the-box and with all of them.

That said, is UPD perfect? Not at all. It has its limitations (i.e. cannot be mounted twice) like anything else. But it is certainly a powerful solution that is worth investigating and testing. Thing is, many companies realized that a long time ago and now sell their own solutions that in a nutshell use the EXACT same principle. Mount the user profile to a VHD and name it profile container, profile disk or whatever they want to call it. Are they better than UPD? For certain use cases, of course they are! FSLogix for example allows you to mount the VHD multiple times and does use its own filter drive that allows apps like OneDrive for Business to work under RDS. If you do need something like that, sure, take a look at FSLogix (as far as I know, Liquidware Labs does have a similar product, that addresses similar issues – may not address the SAME issues).

The lesson here is simple. UPD, profile containers, VHD-based profiles or whatever you want to call this, is not a new thing. It has been around for a long time. It is not something new or magical as many of these vendors try to make you believe. And what pisses me off the most is the simple fact they try to make you and the industry believe that UPD should never be used, that it sucks and so on, what goes completely against what I think that is always to use the RIGHT TOOL for the RIGHT JOB. Some vendors like FSLogix even got pissed at me with the whole UPD story. Seriously.

For the companies out there, stick to honest marketing and sales and educate your customers and the industry properly, clearly showing what can be achieved with the out-of-the-box solutions and what you bring on top of that.

For you, readers, at the end of the day, it is up to you to decide which tool you need and if you feel like using a screwdriver to put down some nails, go for it. After all, as my wife says, “Why do you have a Lamborghini to do your groceries?” and to that, I have no answer. But do not make the same mistake as I made and make sure you get a hammer to handle some nails.

Cheers.

CR

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