What is Virtualization? | Nutanix

What is Application Virtualisation?

December 1, 2023 | min

What is application virtualisation?

Application virtualisation is the process of isolating an application from the underlying hardware on which it is stored. Virtualising an application enables employees in an organisation to use the application from nearly any device and location, as long as they have an internet connection. Users are not required to physically install the application on their devices, yet they can still interact with it almost as if it were locally installed.

There are two ways to create a virtual application: through application virtualisation and desktop virtualisation. In desktop virtualisation, also known as virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), applications run on servers in an organisation’s datacenter and users’ entire desktops, including operating systems, are accessed remotely via a range of devices. These applications can be considered “virtual” because they aren’t actually installed on each user’s physical device. Also, the virtualised desktops, along with the applications, are typically stored on virtual machines that are controlled by a hypervisor.

Application virtualisation also makes it possible to access applications remotely on any device. Hovewer, unlike VDI, application virtualisation exclusevly virtualises an application, not the surrounding operating system and other components. These virtualised apps are essentially streamed to user devices. Where VDI virtualises both applications and operating systems, application virtualisation just virtualises the application itself.


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How does application virtualisation work

In simple terms, application virtualisation "tricks" a typical application into acting as if it's connected to a remote device's operating system when it isn't. What makes it work is a layer of virtualisation between the application and the OS of the user's remote device. The virtualisation layer acts as a piece of the runtime environment and diverts files and registry log modifications to a separate executable file instead of dispersing that data across the underlying OS. The executable file is stored on the host server as an image, which means end-user devices are not at risk of vulnerabilities or other security issues because the application’s data isn't stored there.

Since the data is kept in a single file, doesn’t affect the OS it’s running on, and remains "invisible" to the other applications and systems on the user’s remote device, application virtualisation can be used on a range of devices - and applications that were incompatible with each other can now run on the same device.

When a user works within a virtualised application, any changes they make to new data they input are saved back at the hosting server’s location where the actual application resides. The remote delivery of the application allows IT to maintain and manage applications in a single, centralised location and also simplifies the processes of patching and updating because they only have to update the application once and when users access it, they’ll be accessing the latest version.

Although application virtualisation and desktop virtualisation are frequently mentioned interchangeably, they are not the same thing. As previously mentioned, desktop virtualisation through VDI delivers a flexible and more complete remote desktop user experience. Virtualising specific applications instead of entire desktop environments can be more cost-effective for organisations with significant demand for a single application. Application virtualisation can also be a component of a more comprehensive desktop virtualisation process.

Benefits of application virtualisation

There are many benefits of application virtualisation:

  • Simple installation and deployment – An application is only installed once on the host server and then deployed remotely through the distribution of an .exe file to user devices.

  • Easy, centralized management – IT can oversee many applications for thousands of users from a single centralized location.

  • Increased flexibility and scalability – Save time and effort by avoiding the repetitive installation of applications on hundreds or thousands of end devices. As new employees are onboarded, they simply need to be given remote access to already installed apps.

  • Mobility support – Virtualised applications support mobility and portability. In fact, some devices can’t handle a full remote desktop environment, but nearly every device can handle a virtualised application.

  • Reduced potential for system crashes – Virtualised applications can run alongside apps they might not naturally be compatible with. Additionally, any technical issues associated with a virtualised application can be addressed by IT from the centralised server location.

  • Enhanced security through isolation – Applications running in a virtual environment are isolated from each other, meaning that if one application is compromised through attack or malfunction, the others aren’t automatically compromised as well. Furthermore, in the event of a lost or stolen device, the application data remains secure since it is not stored on the devices but rather on the host server.

  • Better control over access – IT can effectively manage application access by promptly revoking permissions for users who are no longer authorized or have left the company. This can be achieved without the need to uninstall the actual software from the user's device.

  • Fast, easy access to critical apps on the go – Remote users can get immediate access to the apps required for their jobs, eliminating the need for installation wait times or lengthy load times.

  • Simpler compliance to regulations – As data isn’t stored on devices, organisations can maintain compliance with security and privacy regulations such as Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI-DSS).

  • Ability to run legacy apps alongside today’s advanced appsVirtualisation enables organisations to run legacy applications even when they may not be compatible with more modern applications. This is important for many organisations, especially those in highly regulated industries such as finance and healthcare, that still heavily rely on legacy applications.

  • Fast, intuitive incident resolution – IT can easily roll back an application to a previous state in case of data corruption or a system infiltration by an attacker. This simplifies the response to incidents and ensures the continuity of operations after an attack.

  • Reduced performance issues – When devices get “bloated” with too many applications, performance can significantly decline. By keeping applications stored on a host server and delivering them remotely, users’ devices won’t experience slowdowns or crashes due to an excess of apps.

Who benefits from app virtualisation?

Application virtualisation delivers benefits to many people across an organisation:

End users

End users of virtualised applications enjoy the freedom to use their preferred devices and the flexibility to work wherever and whenever they choose, with convinient remote access to the business-critical systems necessary for their jobs. With remote, virtualised apps, employees can switch devices at will and don’t have to worry about security issues or installation or maintenance hassles. They benefit from the advantages of remote application access without the downside of having to manage them.

IT admins

Application virtualisation reduces the application deployment and management burden for IT. Instead of installing software on hundreds or thousands of devices and subsequently ensuring timely patching and upgrades, IT can simply deploy applications on a host server and make it remotely available to authorized users when needed. This approach establishes a single, centralized location for applications, enabling more efficient management and maintenance. Some studies have shown that application virtualisation can lead to a reduction in support tickets, as users don’t have software to worry about on their devices. Implementing security and configuring policies is easier and more streamlined in a centralized location as well. Additionally, decommissioning apps or adjusting employee access permissions can also be done easily.


Application virtualisation provides significant benefits to software and app developers by enhancing resource accessibility.  IT can virtualise multiple applications and environments on the same system, allowing teams to test their software on various OS versions or systems and make improvements as needed. Virtualisation enables developers to securely access and test potentially contaminated or corrupted files since the virtualisation layer separates the application from the OS, preventing contamination from infiltrating the entire system.


Thanks to application virtualisation, organisations can implement BYOD initiatives simply and securely, eliminating the need to provide corporate-owned devices for employee use, which can help keep costs down. There are also cost reductions in IT workloads since IT teams no longer have to spend most of their time installing and managing software on many individual devices. Streamlined IT management can result in real savings for an organisation, allowing the company to accomplish more with a smaller staff and lower capital expenditures for multiple copies of software. Additionally, organisations can benefit from providing employees with easy, secure access to apps whenever they need them, ensuring a productive and efficient workforce, ultimately impacting the company's bottom line positively.


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Challenges of application virtualisation

Just like any technology, application virtualisation isn’t the answer for every use case or company need. There can be some challenges, which include:

  • Graphics-intensive apps might be glitchy – Latency in these types of applications can cause some stuttering during the rendering process.

  • Device drivers could affect use of peripherals – Any application that requires a device driver that is OS-specific could make it difficult to use equipment such as printers or scanners.

  • Dependency on solid network – To use a virtualised application, you need access to a reliable internet connection. This can be a challenge for workers who are typically out in remote areas without coverage, etc.

  • Network monitoring software – Virtualised applications can cause problems with this software, making it more difficult for the system to identify and address performance issues.

  • Offline access – A virtualised app should be accessible offline. Without this capability, it may not be as useful to remote workers who don't always have reliable coverage.

How does app virtualisation differ from traditional application installation?

Before virtualisation became widely adopted across industries, organisations had to manually install applications on each user's device. Two or three decades ago, that might not have been the same challenge as today because organisations were using fewer applications. Today, however, where hundreds of millions of applications are developed annually, managing and maintaining all these applications would be an overwhelming task for an organisation without the use of virtualisation and/or cloud-based services.

Local installation and management of applications would be too time-consuming for IT today. The only feasible way for an organisation to handle the multitude of applications is by virtualising them and providing remote accessibility. Application virtualisation enables fast, easy delivery of critical applications to virtually any endpoint preferred by an employee. Managing and updating these applications is much faster and more streamlined for IT, as they only have to manage and update once at the host server, rather than dealing with thousands of individual device updates.

Manually installing software also affects the end-user experience. Even if the installation is self-service, end-users must invest time in downloading and installing the application on their device. And most people have several devices they might want to work from, such as a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. Application virtualisation simplifies and streamlines app access for end-users, eliminating the need for installation, downloads, or the management and updating of applications.

Application virtualisation vs server virtualisation vs desktop virtualisation

While similar in that they all entail virtualisation, application virtualisation differs from server virtualisation and desktop virtualisation in some key ways. 

Server virtualisation 

Server virtualisation is the most common type of virtualisation today. It allows organisations to create multiple virtual machines on a single physical server, which are clustered into groups. This helps IT make the most of the organisation’s available computing, network, and storage resources and can simplify and streamline recovery if a server malfunctions. It also enables VMs to run previously incompatible operating systems on the same machine without issues.

Application virtualisation 

Application virtualisation entails making an application available to remote users over a virtualised layer that keeps the application separated from the end user’s device OS and hardware. The application is stored on a host server in a datacenter or a third-party hosting company and all actions taken by users in that application are actually executed on the host server. Similar to server virtualisation, application virtualisation allows users to operate previously incompatible apps on different OSes, such as running Microsoft Excel on Linux via an Opera browser.

Desktop virtualisation 

Desktop virtualisation entails virtualising the entire desktop environment, which includes the OS, applications, databases, and other components. Regardless of what device they user, employees will have the same desktop layout and features across all devices because the desktop environment is saved on a host server. 

Using application virtualisation software

When it comes to finding the right application virtualisation solution, you have a lot of choices. Not all solutions are created equal. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when choosing a solution and a vendor:

  • Suitability for today’s and future needs – Technology is continually evolving and becoming more advanced. You need a virtualisation solution that not only meets today’s needs but that can also anticipate and support what’s coming tomorrow.

  • Flexibility – As your organisation grows, your application virtualisation solution should scale as well. Look for a solution that is secure and scalable enough and that delivers the flexibility that allows you to run workloads on-premises in your datacenter, in the cloud, or on the edge.

  • Compatibility and integration – Find a solution that works with your existing infrastructure and integrates with your existing applications as well as back-end systems such as file servers, directory services, and user data stores. The goal is seamless remote access across all users and devices.

  • Technical and after-sales support – You’re not just purchasing a solution, you’re also making a decision to partner with a particular vendor. Make sure that relationship is transparent and that the support team is engaged from the start and committed to your success.

  • Ease of use, deployment, and management – Your app virtualisation solution should be intuitive and easy to use and manage. It shouldn’t require specialized IT skills. It should lighten your IT load and make adoption of certain applications easier!

  • Cost – Many factors contribute to total cost of ownership (TCO), but make sure to find a solution that delivers a healthy return on investment (ROI). Be sure to consider hidden cost savings, too, such as the ability to handle bigger workloads with fewer staff, and so on.

  • Security and compliance – You want a virtualisation system that comes with built-in security features that control and monitor access and usage. Other considerations include end-to-end data encryption, multifactor authentication, and intrusion detection and prevention systems.

  • Licensing – Make sure you understand the licensing structure of applications you want to virtualise. You should be permitted to run the app on multiple machines.

Which applications can be virtualised?

Many, if not most, of today’s applications can be virtualised; in fact, experts tend to approach this question by listing the types of apps that can’t be virtualised. Their recommendations include:

  • Any application that requires OS integration or interaction, such as some antivirus software and malware protection

  • Apps with drivers that need to access the OS

  • Applications that have built-in services that begin to operate independently at system startup, for example, or when users log on, such as firewall clients

  • Any application that is part of an OS, such as Windows Media Player or some browsers

  • Applications with shell extensions, such as one that extends a program with added functions

  • Large applications over 4 GB in size

  • Apps with licenses that don’t allow virtualisation

  • Legacy applications with built-in high availability features that might not function correctly if virtualised

What are the hardware and software requirements for app virtualisation?

The quick answer to this question is, “It depends” - on a lot of factors, such as how many employees your organisation has, how many and what type of applications you plan to virtualise. It’s best to consult with the vendor of the application virtualisation solution you choose to see what their recommended hardware and software requirements include. 

Can virtualised applications be used offline?

Your application virtualisation solution should have some sort of offline mode for working in an application. It’s recommended because users might not always be in areas with good internet connections. Make sure your application virtualisation solution provides comprehensive information for working offline so you can pass instructions on to end users. Typically, solutions will require that the application is fully cached before switching over to offline mode. Many solutions also provide some controls that IT admins can use to authorize offline use or set limits on when or where it’s used. 

Can virtualised applications coexist with locally installed ones?

It is possible for an end user to have applications locally installed on their device that run alongside virtualised applications delivered by a remote access server. Features for this capability can vary by solution or vendor, so be sure to ask while considering your solution options. 

What are some real-world use cases for app virtualisation?

There are many common reasons an organisation would choose application virtualisation over another virtualisation strategy, such as VDI. These use cases include:

  • Promotion of BYOD initiatives – App virtualisation enables employees to use their own devices to access and work within critical business applications.

  • Cost management – With virtualised apps, you don’t have to provide corporate devices to users, which saves money. You also don’t have to provision hardware or provide software for every individual device across the organisation. Also, IT burden is reduced, which allows IT teams to accomplish more with fewer people.

  • Application choice – Application virtualisation provides employees access to all the apps they need to get work done, wherever they are and whatever device they want to use.

  • Avoiding migration issues – Employees can use any app on any device, even if their device’s OS wasn’t originally compatible with the application. There’s no need to spend time and effort converting devices to specific OSes.

  • Use of frequently updated internal apps – Virtualisation makes it easy to update apps as often as desired without having to take the time to update hundreds or thousands of devices. The app can be updated frequently, and every time a user opens the app they’ll be accessing the latest version.

  • Secure remote access to sensitive data – Because none of the data accesses in an app is stored on the user’s device, application virtualisation is a great idea for employees that need to access critical apps remotely.

  • Supporting large numbers of employees – Any organisation with thousands of employees that need access to applications should certainly consider application virtualisation. It’s the only way to efficiently provide access while keeping management and maintenance streamlined.


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