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Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades

Serdar Yegulalp, Contributing Editor | 6/25/2013 | 11 comments

Serdar Yegulalp
I hate installing software. I especially hate re-installing software after a migration or an upgrade. So does almost everyone I know, which is why I've learned how to avoid it whenever possible.

Before I built the giant black HAL 900 of a computer that's currently sitting under my desk, I had my previous computer -- a stock Dell XPS model -- for about four and a half years. As you can guess, I don't tend to change computers often. When I get moved in somewhere, I like to stay there -- and what's more, I like to make the process of moving in as painless as possible.

When I first migrated to the Dell XPS, I had several dozen applications scattered all over the place. Some were major commercial apps that had to be installed from the original media (Microsoft Office). Some needed to be installed from their respective downloadable installers (Skype, Firefox). And some were just programs that sat quietly in a directory somewhere and didn't need to be installed. I just had to copy the folder in question to the new computer and run it from there. If only all Windows apps could work like that!

I'm savvy enough to know that isn't always feasible, though. Many programs register handlers or system services, making a self-contained deployment all but impossible. I'd settled for more or less sucking it up until the day I discovered how to have a good percentage of the programs I use on a daily basis deployed in a self-contained way: by using PortableApps.

The idea behind PortableApps is ingenious. It's a combination application directory and program launcher, through which you can obtain specially packaged versions of a lot of common free-to-use and free-to-modify programs. The whole thing sits in a single directory, or can be run from a flash drive. You can move it to another computer or another drive by simply closing the running programs and copying the folder.

There are other useful things about PortableApps, both for users and administrators:

  • The suite automatically updates all programs each time it's launched, or on demand.
  • New apps are added to the suite constantly. Many of them are major-name apps.
  • The programs themselves are just about indistinguishable from their full-install counterparts, except for a splash screen that appears on launch (and even that can be suppressed with a simple option).
  • User data is stored with the suite. In addition, the way PortableApps packages applications, the app itself and the user data for the app are stored in separate subdirectories. The app can thus be upgraded without affecting user data in any way, and user data can be moved to another instance of PortableApps by simply copying files.

The single biggest drawback to PortableApps is the lack of management hooks. It's been written mainly for end users, rather than for deployments in a corporate environment, so things like centrally managing the applications available to the users (e.g., whitelisting or blacklisting) isn't really possible without some major hacking. But for an environment where there's a high turnover in the machines being used, or where you want as little fuss as possible when dealing with applications, it's just about right.

Related posts:

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RPatrick   Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades   6/30/2013 1:22:55 PM
Re: Back to portable
"Apps used to be portable. Under MSDOS you simply copied a folder from one place to another and the app just worked"

 

Also known as the good old days.  :)
Toby   Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades   6/29/2013 12:21:58 PM
Back to portable
Good topic. Apps used to be portable. Under MSDOS you simply copied a folder from one place to another and the app just worked. If it relied on runtime C libraries in DLLs stored in the windows fodlers then you had to ensure these were present. Things got broke when Win NT hit the scene and all things started using the registry...after that nothing could be moved anymore. I like this new product and will explore it.
JosephMoody   Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades   6/27/2013 2:58:00 PM
Re: Portability is always good
SaneIT - USB drives like yours are why I run AppLocker in whitelist mode for our domain computers! :) AppLocker in whitelist mode allow me to say that only programs in Windows, Program Files, or other approved locations can run.

Still, very smart idea by keeping your apps portable!
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JosephMoody   Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades   6/27/2013 2:55:06 PM
Re: Portability is always good
Hey Trek,

 

In my very limited testing, CPU usage seems to be slightly lower but memory usage appears higher. If I had to guess, the app has to load the portable app into memory instead of pulling what is needed off of the hard drive.
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SaneIT   Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades   6/27/2013 1:10:05 PM
Re: Portability is always good
I love them too, I have USB sticks with several portable apps on them that I use to bring apps into the data center when I need them.  No need to install them on a server for a one time use or have a whole list of applications in an image that will only be used once in a great while but you'll end up updating in the rare case that you do use them.  With the apps on a USB stick I keep them updated in one place and they go everywhere with me.
Susan Fogarty   Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades   6/27/2013 12:31:41 PM
Re: Other Options
Joseph, thanks for the other suggestions -- they are good to know about. And there is also Windows To Go, as Michael noted, but it is a bit restrictive (which you can read about in the blog posted yesterday). These other options are more on the quick-and-dirty idea :)
michaelsumastre   Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades   6/27/2013 12:27:08 PM
Windows to Go?
Portableapps clearly is a good idea that could get more traction if it weren't for the fact that Windows to Go is available (the article here was a nice read too). The latter can only be created through the Enterprise version which means it was clearly built with serious controls in mind. Windows to Go can also be a good way to let end users try out the OS for the first time. Another advantage is the ability to install more apps as compared to the limited library of Portableapps. The major edge of Portableapps is the assumption that companies are still upgrading to the new OS (or still sticking to Windows XP or 7), making it a solution that is more accessible right now.
Trek   Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades   6/27/2013 1:28:47 AM
Re: Portability is always good
This is one of those ideas, that other inventors think "Duh, why didn't I think of that?"  It seems to obvivious, of course now that it's here. 

I wonder what impact the app has on CPU.
Zaius   Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades   6/26/2013 10:25:26 PM
Re: Portability is always good
I also like portable stuffs. The porability gets rid of many complications. 
JosephMoody   Keep Apps Portable for Painless Upgrades   6/26/2013 10:38:35 AM
Other Options
We use APP-V and ThinApp in our environment. Both are great for portability and migrations. For some computers, we let users stream the virtualized/portable apps directly from a server. Other times, we deploy the app traditionally. Finally, we let some users take apps offline (if licensing permits).
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