Profiling Applications: VMware User Environment Manager Operational Tutorial

VMware User Environment Manager 9.1 and later VMware App Volumes 2.12 and later

Overview of Profiling Applications

Overview of Profiling Applications

Successful management of applications across physical, virtual, and cloud devices is becoming increasingly important. Whether your organization fits neatly into one of those silos or spans all three, the challenge is finding tools designed to work well for any one platform, and seamlessly across them all. VMware User Environment Manager™ is one of those tools. With a little savvy, you can provide a superior experience for your end users while simplifying profile management.

Introduction to Application Profiler

Personalization, or management of user-specific application settings, is one of many features included with User Environment Manager. This feature enables end users to roam between disparate devices while preserving custom application settings. IT benefits from simplified application installations while delivering necessary configuration settings based on any number of environmental conditions.

If you are new to User Environment Manager, be sure to visit the following sites:

On these sites, you will learn about a variety of features and benefits, such as dynamic policy configuration across physical, virtual, and cloud desktops. Although an overview of User Environment Manager is outside the scope of this tutorial, one fundamental concept bears repeating because it is sometimes overlooked or misunderstood. User Environment Manager takes a whitelist approach to managing the user profile. Given this design approach, IT must specify which applications and settings will be managed. Although it does mean a little more work up front, this solution prevents excessive profile growth and profile corruption, enables user settings to roam across Windows versions, and provides IT with granular control to manage as much or as little of the user experience as needed.

Preserving user-specific application settings and applying or enforcing specific default application settings are key features of User Environment Manager. Both of these concepts are illustrated in a blog post titled VMware User Environment Manager, Part 2: Complementing Mandatory Profiles with VMware User Environment Manager, which demonstrates the power and flexibility of combining User Environment Manager with Microsoft Mandatory Profiles. VMware provides application management templates for commonly used software packages. Additional templates can be downloaded from the VMware Marketplace or the Community Forum. You can create your own templates with an included tool called Application Profiler.

Application Profiler is a standalone tool that helps you determine where in the file system or registry an application is storing its user settings. The output from Application Profiler is a configuration file that can be used to preserve and roam application settings for your end users. Optionally, you can record a default set of application settings, and apply or enforce these defaults for your users based on a variety of conditions.

For more information or to get started with the Application Profiler tool, see the VMware User Environment Manager Application Profiler Administration Guide.

The Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle, commonly referred to as the 80/20 rule, states that 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. The Pareto Principle is often applicable with regards to application management in that a small number of applications tend to cause the vast majority of challenges for IT.

While the Application Profiler tool is easy to use, and most applications can be profiled with little more effort than a simple installation, there are exceptions. The aforementioned VMware Marketplace and Community Forum are great places to look when you are having trouble profiling an application, but what if you cannot find the particular application template you need?

Know Thine App

Because Windows is an open platform, application developers have a great deal of flexibility in the way they design applications to behave. While guidelines and best practices have been established over the years, we still occasionally find an application that writes a log file to C:\Temp!

Understanding the behavior of an application, not just during installation, but as the application is opened, modified, updated, and so on, is critical to successfully managing the application lifecycle. There are a number of tools available, such as the Sysinternals Suite, to help you understand how an application behaves. These are powerful tools, but as you can see, they are plentiful and can be time-consuming and cumbersome to use.

The User Environment Manager Application Profiler tool is purpose-built to help you easily understand how an application behaves. With real-time application analysis capabilities, Application Profiler automatically generates configuration files that enable application management.

What to Expect from This Operational Tutorial

The purpose of this tutorial is to enable you, the IT administrator, to successfully profile and manage any applications you choose. Multiple applications are profiled in this tutorial, and each was chosen to demonstrate specific techniques in the profiling process.

Going back to the Pareto Principle, most applications are simple to profile using the steps detailed in the VMware User Environment Manager Application Profiler Administration Guide. Because of this, applications known to require some troubleshooting have been chosen for this tutorial. You will get a chance to see the symptoms of applications that do not initially profile correctly, and the process used to resolve the problem. You can then take these practices and apply them to applications in your environment.

Audience

This tutorial is designed for a User Environment Manager administrator with at least a basic understanding of the Application Profiler tool. If you are new to Application Profiler, review the guide listed previously before continuing.

Applying and Troubleshooting Predefined Settings

Applying and Troubleshooting Predefined Settings

Configuring a specific toolbar layout, setting a region-specific language, disabling automatic updates—these are just a few of many reasons IT might want to configure predefined application settings. Unfortunately, this is not always a simple task. Software vendors store configuration data in a variety of locations, and various packaging and deployment technologies have their own methods for customizing application settings.

VMware User Environment Manager provides an easy and consistent way to apply and enforce predefined settings for all your Windows applications. For this tutorial, we used the Application Profiler tool to capture these settings.

VLC Media Player as the Profiled Application

For this exercise, we profile a popular video playback application called VLC Media Player, capture specific application settings, and configure these settings as predefined settings, to be applied when an end user launches the application. We also explore troubleshooting techniques as needed.

 

Machine Configuration for Profiling and Deployment

Installing Application Profiler and performing the initial profiling process is outside the scope of this tutorial. It is well documented in the VMware User Environment Manager Application Profiler Administration Guide. To get an evaluation environment up and running quickly, see the Quick-Start Tutorial for VMware User Environment Manager.

This tutorial focuses on the advanced scenario of troubleshooting a profiled application.

The following section describes the configuration used to profile VLC. For a comprehensive list of supported operating systems for Application Profiler, see the VMware User Environment Manager Application Profiler Administration Guide.

Application Packaging and Profiling Machine Configuration (Profiling VM)

The application packaging and profiling machine (also called the profiling VM) was configured with the following:

  • Windows 10 Anniversary Update (AU) VM.
  • VMware App Volumes™ Agent version 2.12.
  • VMware User Environment Manager Application Profiler version 9.1.
  • The svc-profiler domain account has local administrative privileges.

The App Volumes Agent is an optional component, and is part of the VMware End-User-Computing JMP Solution. This agent was included so the same VM could be used to build an App Volumes AppStack for application deployment and to profile the application for personalization with User Environment Manager. If you would like to learn more, or include App Volumes in your environment, refer to the Reviewer's Guide for VMware App Volumes.

End-User Machine Configuration

The end-user machine in this example had the following configuration:

  • Windows 10 AU instant-clone VM.
  • VMware App Volumes Agent version 2.12.
  • VMware User Environment Manager FlexEngine version 9.1.
  • The jspencer user account is a standard end-user domain account.

Profiling the VLC Media Player Application

VLC Media Player version 2.2.4 was captured to an App Volumes AppStack using all default installation options. The AppStack was then used to deliver VLC to the profiling VM. During the User Environment Manager application-profiling process, the ViewPlaylist setting was selected for the default view.

Note: Playlist is the item selected. Docked Playlist is a default setting, independent of Playlist.

 

Upon completion of the profiling process, we saw that the configuration change was written to the file system, in the %AppData%\vlc folder.

 

Selecting Config File with Predefined Settings from Application Profiler produced four files:

  • INI - User Environment Manager configuration file containing the import and export locations. This file defines the parameters for User Environment Manager to manage the application.
  • ICO - Icon used by User Environment Manager Management Console and the Self-Support Tool.
  • FLAG - Flag file for FlexEngine, when DirectFlex is enabled (default).
  • ZIP - File containing predefined user settings.

We recommend modifying the Default Save Path setting so that saved files are automatically added to User Environment Manager.

 

While you may be tempted to open and edit the ZIP file directly from Windows Explorer, it is critical that the Edit Profile Archive button be used instead. User Environment Manager uses the standard ZIP file format to prevent the creation of proprietary file formats, but the writes to and reads from the ZIP files are optimized for performance. Using tools outside of User Environment Manager to edit these ZIP files makes them unreadable by FlexEngine (the User Environment Manager agent).

 

By editing the profile archive, we can browse the contents and make changes as needed.

 

Notice that VLC uses an INI file to record the user settings. When View > Playlist was selected during application profiling, playlist-visible=true was recorded in the INI. However, there are a number of additional settings that were automatically recorded in the INI.

 

When configuring predefined application settings, you might notice that user settings that are stored in an INI file might result in different behavior than user settings stored in registry keys. We will come back to predefined settings later in this tutorial.

Next, we ran the application-profiling process again for VLC. This time, View > Playlist was selected, and Tools > Preferences Menus Language was configured for French.

When the profiling process was complete, we saw that the configuration changes were written to the file system, in the %AppData%\vlc folder, and to the registry, in HKCU\Software\VideoLAN.

 

Editing the profile archive this time, we can see both the AppData and Registry folders.

 

Though not a common practice, this version of VLC Media Player stores the language setting in the registry, while storing a variety of other user settings in an INI file.

 

Configuring and Applying Predefined Settings

To configure and apply the predefined settings, we use the User Environment Manager Management Console.

The VMware User Environment Manager Administration Guide provides a detailed description of the four types of predefined settings you can choose from. For our purposes, we configured VLC Media Player predefined settings to Partially Enforced Settings. Partially enforced settings are applied after the user profile archive has been imported. This effectively merges the user's personal settings with the partially enforced settings. In case of a conflict, the partially enforced settings win and overwrite the user's personal settings.

 

To test our configuration, we logged in to an instant-clone desktop in as jspencer. The same App Volumes AppStack that was used to deliver VLC to the application-packaging VM was used to dynamically deliver VLC to the VM at login time. When VLC Player was launched for the first time, the menus were in French, and the interface was configured for Playlist view, as expected.

 

While logged in as jspencer, the following settings were modified.

  • The Playlist view was disabled.
  • The language was changed to American English.
  • All check boxes on this preferences page were cleared.

 

Based on the way the Partially Enforced Settings option is designed to behave, we expected the following behavior the next time VLC was opened by jspencer:

  • The menus should be in French and the Playlist view should be enabled. This is because both settings were configured during application profiling, and applied as partially enforced predefined settings.
  • The check boxes cleared on the preferences page should remain cleared. This is because these settings are not specified by the predefined settings, and are therefore user settings that are stored in the user profile archive.

After closing and re-opening the application, we saw that all of the changes were discarded, including the check boxes on the preferences page. This is not what we expected!

 

But why did this happen?

We are seeing the result of an application storing its user settings in an INI file. To understand this, let us look at the workflow when a user logs in to a Windows desktop with User Environment Manager enabled.

  1. User logs in.
  2. User profile archive, including any custom user settings, is imported to Windows.
  3. Predefined application settings are imported to Windows.

User Environment Manager behaves differently during Step 3, depending on whether the application settings are stored in the registry or in an INI file.

User Environment Manager can parse individual registry settings. You might think of this as merging only the specified, predefined registry keys to the Windows registry. In our test case, only the language setting is forced on the end user by the predefined application settings registry import. Any other user settings that happen to get recorded in HKCU\Software\VideoLAN are preserved for the end user. This enables IT to enforce specific application settings, while granting the end user flexibility to customize and preserve any other settings.

When applications store configuration data in files (INI, XML, or others), User Environment Manager can only overwrite the entire file. In our test case, the Playlist view predefined setting is stored in an INI file. That file is part of the predefined applications settings that are applied after the user profile archive is imported. The user jspencer made several changes (cleared check boxes) to the preferences page, which were stored in that same INI file. Going back to the previous workflow, the problem becomes apparent.

  1. User logs in.
  2. User profile archive, including the INI file customized per the user settings, is imported to Windows.
  3. Predefined application settings, including a copy of the INI file created during the application-profiling process, overwrites the INI file imported in Step 2.

Another Issue with Text Files

Even though the user jspencer might be logged in to the end-user VM, if we examine the VLC application settings INI file, we see a value that includes the user name of the account (svc-profiler) that was used during the application-profiling process.

 

The intended behavior is for this line to be populated with the user name of the currently logged-in user, which is jspencer in this case.

User Environment Manager supports using placeholders to accommodate variables in text files.

Editing the profile archive allows us to modify the text file manually. In this case, the user name jspencer is replaced with the system variable %username%. See the VMware User Environment Manager Administration Guide for proper syntax and usage.

 

Now when jspencer runs the application, the user name is properly reflected in the INI file.

 

Conclusion

The following is a brief summary of the application-profiling concepts and practices covered in this section, which you can apply to your own applications.

  • Always use the Application Profiler or the User Environment Manager tools to edit a profile archive ZIP file.
  • Applications might store user settings in the registry, in files, or both. Taking the time to fully understand the way your application behaves (know thine app) will ensure successful application profiling.
  • When applications store user settings in an INI file, the intended behavior of partially enforced predefined settings might change.
  • When applications store user settings in a file, values from the profiling VM or profiling user account might be preserved in the predefined application settings. Placeholders enable the use of system variables to address this possibility.

Built-in and Custom Exclusions

Using Built-in and Custom Exclusions

Windows applications tend to write registry and file system data in a variety of locations. A portion of the data is relevant to persisting the user experience from session to session, and that of course is what we are interested in when profiling an application to provide personalization. Most applications also create files we may not want to persist, such as temp, log, and crash dump files. Depending on the application and how it is used, these files may quickly grow in size, negatively impacting the user experience.

The VMware User Environment Manager Application Profiler includes a number of built-in exclusions for both the registry and the file system. In most cases these defaults suffice, and applications profile quite easily. There are, however, applications, such as Chrome, that write user-specific configuration data to locations that are excluded by default. In this tutorial, you will see which locations are excluded by default, how to make exceptions when needed, and how to create your own exclusions to keep user profile archives small.

It is worth mentioning that you can download a custom Flex configuration template, already optimized for Chrome, from the VMware Marketplace, along with a variety of other templates. See the User Environment Manager 9.5 Deploying Templates from VMware Marketplace Feature Walk-through video for more information.

The rest of this tutorial is aimed at showing the logic and process to create a configuration file for Chrome.

Google Chrome as the Profiled Application

In this tutorial, we use Google Chrome to demonstrate Application Profiler exclusions, including when, why, and how to use them.

Machine Configuration for Profiling and Deployment

Installing Application Profiler and performing the initial profiling process is outside the scope of this tutorial. It is well documented in the VMware User Environment Manager Application Profiler Administration Guide. To get an evaluation environment up and running quickly, see the Quick-Start Tutorial for VMware User Environment Manager.

This tutorial focuses on the advanced scenario of troubleshooting and customizing a profiled application using exclusions.

The following section describes the configuration used to profile Chrome. For a comprehensive list of supported operating systems for Application Profiler, see the VMware User Environment Manager Application Profiler Administration Guide.

Application Packaging and Profiling Machine Configuration (Profiling VM)

The application packaging and profiling machine (also called the profiling VM) is configured with the following:

  • Windows 10 Anniversary Update (AU) VM.
  • VMware App Volumes Agent version 2.12.
  • VMware User Environment Manager Application Profiler version 9.1.
  • The svc-profiler domain account has local administrative privileges.

The App Volumes Agent is an optional component, and is part of the VMware End-User-Computing JMP solution. This agent was included so the same VM could be used to build an App Volumes AppStack for application deployment and to profile the application for personalization with User Environment Manager. If you would like to learn more, or include App Volumes in your environment, refer to the Reviewer's Guide for VMware App Volumes.

End-User Machine Configuration

The end-user machine in this example has the following configuration:

  • Windows 10 AU instant-clone VM.
  • VMware App Volumes Agent version 2.12.
  • VMware User Environment Manager FlexEngine version 9.1.
  • The jspencer user account is a standard end-user domain account.

Profiling the Google Chrome Application

Google Chrome version 57.0.2987.133 was captured to an App Volumes AppStack using all default installation options. The AppStack was then used to deliver Chrome to the profiling VM.

The following steps were taken during the User Environment Manager application-profiling process:

  1. Launch Chrome.
  2. Browse to vmware.com and create a bookmark for the site.
  3. Configure Chrome to display the bookmarks bar.
  4. Stop (close) Chrome.

At this point we would expect the Application Profiler to detect Chrome being stopped, and prompt us to complete the profiling process. This was not the case, which was an indication that the Application Profiler still saw one or more running processes related to Chrome. Windows Task Manager did not indicate that Chrome was running because there were no running processes named chrome.exe.

Clicking the Stop Analysis button on the Application Profiler window brought up a list of running child processes from the application (Chrome) being profiled.

Notice there are two unique process IDs (PIDs) for chrome.exe. Yet, we still did not see chrome.exe listed in Windows Task Manager. During the application-profiling process, if Application Profiler does not detect the application stop event, the cause is typically related to child processes. Depending on the application, one of two methods for troubleshooting will commonly solve the problem. We look at each of these in the following section.

When Application Profiler Does Not Detect an Application Stop Event

When you stop an application and the Application Profiler does not detect the event, the most common cause is that the primary executable spawned one or more child processes, which are still running. This is often the case when an application creates a taskbar icon, or continues to run some service in the background of Windows.

When this occurs, click the Stop Analysis button and check the Windows Task Manager to see if there is a match for the process name and PID displayed. If a match is found, attempt to locate the running component and shut it down gracefully. In the case of a taskbar icon, you might right-click and choose to exit the application. Closing all child processes gracefully (rather than ending the processes forcibly using Task Manager) ensures that all user data that might be written to the registry or file system can be written, and can therefore be properly analyzed by Application Profiler.

Chrome is a somewhat unique application in that it often spawns child processes that do not notify Windows when they close. This results in Application Profiler reporting process names and PIDs that are not detected by Windows Task Manager, as seen in the previous screenshot. Because of this, it is necessary to force Application Profiler to stop, even though it indicates the child processes are still running, in order to continue the application-profiling process. Doing so has other implications to DirectFlex, which we cover later in this tutorial.

For now, we continue with the application-profiling process by clicking the Yes button in the Analysis Session Is Running window. This button stops the profiling session, despite the extra chrome.exe processes.

Using File Exclusions for the Chrome Application

On completion of the application analysis, we see a single registry tree to be included in the Chrome configuration file.

If we complete the application-profiling process and start providing personalization for Chrome with this configuration file, we find bookmarks are not preserved for our end users. This should not be the case because we specifically created a bookmark during the application-profiling process. Additional features in the Application Profiler can be used to determine why this is happening.

We selected the Manage Exclusions option within Application Profiler to bring up a list of default exclusions for the file system or registry.

Clicking the Settings tab and deselecting the Enable File Exclusions check box disables the default file exclusions list in real time, and displays the files and folders that were previously excluded. In this case, the updated Flex Config File output window indicated there were files created or modified in %LocalAppData%\Google. In addition, we saw an extensive list of files in %LocalAppData%\Temp (and other locations not displayed in the screenshot) that Chrome modified during the profiling process. These files and folders were excluded by default by Application Profiler because it is uncommon for applications to write user configuration data to these locations.

Browsing to %LocalAppData% on the local file system of the profiling VM, we saw that Chrome created the folder User Data to store a variety of user configuration information.

Chrome essentially creates several databases, and stores inside of them user configuration settings such as bookmarks. Because of this, it is necessary to include %LocalAppData%\Google\Chrome in the Flex configuration file. To do this, we manually added the IncludeFolderTrees section to the original Flex configuration file. Note that the Enable File Exclusions button was selected because we do not want to include all of the files that had been automatically excluded.

Completing the profiling process and using this configuration file do succeed in providing personalization for Chrome and persisting bookmarks and other user configuration settings between sessions. However, although we fixed the personalization problem, we also, unfortunately, created a new problem that might not be apparent right away.

Combating User Profile Archive Growth

Importing and exporting user profile archive files to provide personalization of applications is a foundational feature of User Environment Manager. These operations can be done at login and logout, or at application start and stop when using DirectFlex. Application configuration is typically done using registry settings or simple configuration files such as INI or XML. Because these settings require little space on disk, only small amounts of data are being transferred during import and export, resulting in excellent performance for end users.

Chrome uses databases to store its user configuration data, and these databases can grow very quickly. As an example, browsing with Chrome for less than two minutes to sites such as YouTube caused my %LocalAppData%\Google\Chrome\User Data folder to grow to 16 MB. It is common for this directory to grow to hundreds of megabytes over time, which could impact the performance of user profile archive import and export operations.

Although we do not have the space in this tutorial to cover all the testing, we have found that specific directories tend to grow significantly, though they are not really adding value to the personalization process. By creating a few manual exclusions, we can significantly reduce the size of the user profile archives.

One last addition we can make to reduce the size of the user profile archives is to exclude any TMP files. A quick search of %LocalAppData%\Google\Chrome finds a number of these files that will grow over time, but add no value to personalization. Note the wildcard (*) support for exclusions.

With these additions to the Flex configuration file in place, we can now complete the application-profiling process. But before we start providing personalization of Chrome to end users, we need to consider how or if DirectFlex will be used with Chrome.

Configuring DirectFlex for Profiled Applications

Application Profiler by default enables DirectFlex for profiled applications. DirectFlex is a feature of the User Environment Manager Agent (FlexEngine), which imports settings when an application is started and exports user customizations when the application is stopped, rather than at login and logout. When an application is stopped, DirectFlex should detect the stop of the application process and any child processes, and then proceed with the export.

As seen during profiling, Chrome creates several chrome.exe processes as the application is used. DirectFlex tries to keep track of each process, because the export operation should occur when the last chrome.exe process exits. Because Chrome does not notify Windows of all the child processes it creates, DirectFlex might not accurately detect when Chrome is stopped, as seen during the profiling process. This might prevent the export operation from occurring as intended.

In the case of Chrome, there are two recommended methods to solve this problem.

Configure Settings to Be Imported and Exported at Logon and Logoff

The first option is to simply disable DirectFlex for Chrome by deselecting the check box in the User Environment Manager console after application profiling is complete. Note the prompt to answer Enable config processing during logon and logoff? when DirectFlex is disabled.

Configure Settings to Be Imported at Application Launch but Exported at Logoff

The second option is to continue using DirectFlex to import settings when Chrome is started, but to configure User Environment Manager to export the settings on logout, rather than at application stop. This strategy removes the requirement for DirectFlex to determine when Chrome has been stopped. Again, this configuration is made from the User Environment Manager console post-profiling. Select Export at logoff from the Export Moment drop-down menu.

Conclusion

The following is a brief summary of the application-profiling concepts and practices covered in this tutorial, which you can apply to your own applications.

  • When you run the Application Profiler, stopping or closing the application should automatically cause the Application Profiler to complete the analysis phase. If this does not occur, it is an indication that the application has one or more child processes that are still running.
  • If child processes are left running after the application is stopped, the most likely cause is a taskbar icon or background service. Use the Task Manager to determine whether Windows sees application processes, and attempt to gracefully stop them.
  • Default exclusions work for profiling most applications. Toggle exclusions on and off from the Application Profiler to determine if your application is writing information in one of the excluded locations.
  • User profile archives are typically small (less than 1 MB), which is important for providing a good user experience during import and export operations. Watch for archives that grow quickly or very large because they might be storing unnecessary files.
  • Use manual exclusions to prevent storing unnecessary files and folders in user profile archives. Specifically, watch for large files and files or folders with names or extensions such as TMP, LOG, and CACHE.
  • For additional detail on exclusions, see the VMware User Environment Manager Application Profiler Administration Guide.

Summary and Additional Resources

Summary and Additional Resources

Summary

Managing applications with User Environment Manager improves the experience for end users and simplifies application lifecycle management for IT. Profiling applications is a simple process, and most applications will work out of the box. For problematic applications, you can find configuration templates on the VMware Marketplace or the Community Forum. If you cannot find what you are looking for, the skills you learned in this tutorial should help you to create your own templates. Have you already created a configuration template? If so, be sure to share!

About the Author

Josh Spencer is a Senior Technical Marketing Architect in End-User-Computing Technical Marketing, VMware.

Feedback

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