Corporate IT continues to have the requirement to support multiple versions of IE given the dependence of legacy web applications on an older version of IE. Symantec Workspace Virtualization provides a solution for running multiple versions of IE simultaneously “side-by-side” on a single Windows XP desktop. This article describes the rationale for supporting multiple versions of IE and how to get started virtualizing IE6, IE7 and IE8 to run side-by-side on Windows XP. Wondering about running IE6 on Windows 7? Read on.
The Internet Explorer (IE) web browser still commands a 64.55% market share (as of April 2010) among popular web browsers (according to Statowl ) . All versions of IE continue to be used with IE6 still garnering approximately 17%, IE7 33% and IE8 coming in at 50% of the overall market share of IE usage on the internet today. IE has become more standards based with each release, however, there are many web-based applications that are developed to a specific version of IE. This presents a challenge to corporations as they strive to use the more secure, current versions of IE but must also support legacy web applications that are tied to an older version of IE.
The challenge faced by Corporate IT was highlighted in a recent article entitled “Like it or Not, Internet Explorer 6 Lives on in Corporate IT”. The report mentioned in this article demonstrated that IE6 is still the forth-most used browser in corporate IT. The challenge is that only one version of IE can be installed natively on the Windows operating system at a time. This puts corporate IT in the difficult position of trying to support web applications targeted to the most current release of IE (IE8), while at the same time continuing to support legacy applications targeted to older versions of the IE browser. The solution to this problem seems straightforward. Simply ask the owners of the legacy web applications to upgrade them to work with the current version of IE!
Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done for a variety of reasons. Cost of a web application re-write, lost time and workforce changes are a few of the prominent reasons that legacy web applications are not upgraded to work with current versions of IE.
Whatever the reason, the challenge remains that multiple versions of IE are required to support the spectrum of web-based applications required by corporate IT.
Symantec Workspace Virtualization (SWV) provides a solution to this problem by allowing IE6, IE7 and IE8 to be virtualized and run “side-by-side” on the same Windows XP system.
SWV enables multiple versions of IE to run “side-by-side” by isolating each instance of the browser to run within its own virtualized “layer” of containment. SWV provides the capability to configure the degree to which the virtual layers (i.e. virtualized applications) are isolated from each other and the base operating system. This isolation allows the instances of IE to run side-by-side virtualized and also together with a version of IE installed on the base operating system. They can be configured to share browser extensions and plug-ins, or locked down to the degree where they only have visibility into their own virtual layer of containment. If desired, the virtualized instances of IE can simply share the browser plug-ins (ie. Flash, Adobe Reader, etc) installed to the IE browser in the base operating system. Functionality such as “drag and drop” between browsers and printing, “just work” without any additional configuration required.
The isolation provided by SWV of the virtual IE layers from the base operating system also protects the OS from being compromised by browser exploits. Any changes made to the system during a browsing session can be immediately discarded by “resetting” the virtual layer to its original "pristine" state. If a user unwittingly downloads a plug-in, ActiveX control or some other exploit that attempts to do damage to the OS, these changes are contained within a “writeable” area within the virtual layer. The original state of the virtual application is left untouched in a “read-only” area within the virtualized layer. If the browser begins to behave erratically or exhibits signs that an exploit may have taken place the virtual layer can simply be “reset”. Resetting the layer removes the “writeable” area and reverts the virtual application to its original "pristine" state. It is even possible to reset the layer from a remote location. If a user calls the help desk with a complaint that their browser is not functioning properly, the help desk technician can issue a reset to the virtual layer and within a few seconds the virtual browser is reverted to its original working order.
Users often download files from the Internet and install them without recognizing the potential for damage to their systems. The virtual layer containment also protects the system from downloaded files by capturing all activity related to installing downloaded files using a virtualized version of IE. Again, a simple reset will remove all downloaded files and modifications made to the system during the browsing session or subsequent installations of downloaded files.
SWV provides the benefits of running an application natively (visibility across applications, printing, file associations, shared plug-ins, etc) on the OS while at the same time protecting the system from potential exploits.
We’ve been discussing the benefits of virtualizing multiple versions of IE for corporate IT, however, developers of web applications stand to benefit from this as well. Web Developers are often asked to test their web applications against multiple versions of IE (usually IE6, IE7 and IE8). Imagine the convenience of loading all of these versions together on the same desktop! Testing becomes a simple as dragging and dropping the URL address from one IE instance to the next.
Getting started with virtualizing IE on Windows XP consists of three easy steps:
- Install SWV 6.1 SP1 (or higher) on a Windows XP system.
- Install the SWV Layer Definition Tool on the Windows XP system.
- Running a script to create an instance of virtual IE6, IE7 and IE8 on the system.
Download SWV from the existing customer download site (http://go.symantec.com/sevdownloads) or the Symantec Trialware site (https://www4.symantec.com/Vrt/offer?a_id=55183)
Creation of User account is required to download the software.
Select to download “Symantec Workspace Virtualization 6.1 SP1...”. The download will include an evaluation license key that is required as part of the installation.
Invoke the contained installation file to install SWV on the system. Select to install the SWV Administration Tool as it will be used later.
Installing the SWV Layer Definition Tool
Download the SWV Layer Definition Tool from Symantec Connect download site:
This tool adds the capability to create virtual layers from a layer definition file (LDF). Once installed, a command-line driven tool named “swvldf.exe” is available for use from the command prompt.
Installing the Virtual IE Applications (Layers)
The final step will make use of SWV and the SWVLDF.exe tool to create the virtual IE6, IE7 and IE8 layers. There is a separate LDF file for each version of IE. In order to install all versions of IE, the corresponding LDF file will need to be downloaded, extracted and the contained script executed (.bat file) in order for the virtual IE layer to be created.
The IE LDF files and associated executable scripts are available from the following links:
IE6 for Windows XP: http://www.symantec.com/connect/downloads/internet-explorer-6-windows-xp-layer-definition-file
IE7 for Windows XP: http://www.symantec.com/connect/downloads/internet-explorer-7-windows-xp-layer-definition-file
IE8 for Windows XP: http://www.symantec.com/connect/downloads/internet-explorer-8-windows-xp-layer-definition-file
Some have asked, why not just make the IE packages available for download rather than requiring that the virtual IE packages be from LDF files? The answer is simple. Symantec does not have rights to package and distribute files owned by another vender. Use of LDF’s and the SWVLDF.EXE tool allows customers who are licensed to use the software in their environment to create the virtual packages for themselves. This mechanism also provides a way to create 100% reproducible packages without requiring customers to capture the install of the application in their environment. This is particularly useful for IE as it is problematic to attempt to capture IE installations. Attempting to capture an IE install will fail because of an existing IE installation already installed in the base operating system.
An LDF contains all the information required for SWVLDF.exe to download all required files from public websites, extract the contents and place them in a virtualized layer.
For more information on the process of using the SWVLDF tool please see the article “Virtualizing Internet Explorer Using the SWV Layer Definition Tool“.
Please be aware that it can take some time to create these virtual IE layers given that files must be downloaded and extracted as part of the process of creating the virtual application layer. Especially in the case of virtualizing IE6 as it requires that Windows XP SP3 & SP2 be downloaded and extracted to obtain the appropriate files.
If a download fails for some reason or if the required file is already downloaded and available in your environment the SWVLDF tool can be instructed to skip downloading the file by placing the required file in a directory named “downloads” that exists in the same directory as the LDF file to be processed. Information about what files are required for each version of IE is found at the download links for the LDFs provided above.
After the IE Layer Definition Files have been applied, the virtual layers appear in the SWV Admin tool. Right click each “layer” and select the “Activate” action from the pop up context menu. As each layer is activated a corresponding icon will appear on the system desktop. IE is ready to be run.
What About IE6 on Windows 7?
The statistics concerning the continued use of IE6 in the corporate environment presents a challenge for those that plan to migrate to Windows 7 in the near future. IE6 is not natively supported on Windows 7 so what is to be done about supporting legacy web applications that are tied to IE6? Microsoft’s answer is to use the “Windows XP Mode” included in Windows 7. This approach brings its own set of challenges. The Windows XP Mode technology consists of loading a Windows XP virtual OS image using the Virtual PC technology. The drawbacks of this approach are:
- Performance and increased system resources requirement. Loading an entire Windows XP virtual machine imposes a considerable performance hit just to access legacy web applications. The requirement to run a Virtual PC may also impose additional hardware cost as memory and storage may need to be upgraded to support this environment.
- Corporate IT must support two desktop environments: Windows 7 and the virtual instance of Windows XP running on Windows 7. Installation of IE plug-ins and extensions must be managed for Windows 7 and the Windows XP, the same is true of software updates, etc. This automatically doubles the number of desktop workstations Corporate IT must support. This is not an appealing proposition for a Corporate IT staff that already has more on their plate than they can handle.
Fortunately, Symantec will soon deliver a virtual IE6 layer that will run natively on Windows 7 (32 and 64 bit) that will not have these drawbacks. The configurable isolation characteristics of SWV will even allow browser extensions (i.e. plugin-is) such as Adobe Flash, Adobe Reader and Java installed to the base operating system to be shared by the virtual IE6 layer. Other native functions such as printing and drag and drop will also be supported.
A public beta for interested customers is targeted for mid to late summer of 2010.
(If this is of interest to you, please make it known in the comments section provided at the end of this article!).
This is great news for those that are concerned about how legacy web application support may impact a migration to Windows 7. Symantec Workspace Virtualization will make supporting legacy web applications that are tied to IE6 as easy as importing and activating any other virtual application layer! Add to that the system protections provided by its inherent isolation characteristics and it is clear that SWV is an indispensible tool in Corporate IT’s Windows 7 migration toolkit.
Older versions of IE are not going away any time soon. Browser market share reports continue to demonstrate that there are a significant number of web sites, both inside and outside the enterprise, that require the use of older versions of IE to function properly. Symantec Workspace Virtualization makes it possible to run multiple versions of IE on the same Windows system “side-by-side”. In the near future (mid to late summer 2010) a virtual IE6 layer will be made available for Windows 7 which will allow Corporate IT to move forward with plans to migrate to Windows 7 and continue to provide support for their legacy web applications.