A browser is a software application that allows an end user to look at and interact with information over the Internet. Popular browsers include Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari. A browser can be virtualized as a standalone application in a virtual machine (VM) or as a virtual appliance. When a browser has been virtualized as a standalone application, it requires the VM to contain a full version of the operating system. When a browser is virtualized as an appliance, the VM needs just enough operating system (JEOS) to run the browser software.
Virtual browsers may be saved locally, accessed over a proprietary network or accessed over the Internet as a public cloud service. Using a virtual browser can help an end user successfully address browser compatibility issues and protect a computer's underlying operating system from Web-based malware. Virtual browsers an be accessed in either anonymous or authenticated modes. In anonymous mode (also called private or incognito mode) all settings, cookies, bookmarks and history are cleared after a session. In an authenticated mode, personal settings, cookies and history are saved and carry over between sessions because they are tied to a specific end user's account.
In the enterprise, browsers are treated like any other application when it comes to management and delivery. They can be virtualized using application streaming products such as Microsoft App-V, VMware ThinApp or Spoon Browser Studio. Those tools deliver the application to a local computer in an isolated container. Browsers can also be virtualized using remote desktop products. This involves running separate instances of the operating system in a datacenter using dedicated virtual machines -- known as VDI -- or shared servers, as in Remote Desktop Session Host. When using an application virtualization product, the browser application uses the underlying operating system. This method works by delivering (streaming as-needed or simply copying) entire application packages to a client on the computer. These packages execute in an isolated container. This allows for multiple versions of an application that might otherwise conflict with each other to run at the same time.
With remote desktop-based techniques, nothing executes on the local computer except for a client that provides access to the remote application. Depending on what the administrator chooses to do, users can connect to the entire remote desktop or just the browser itself. In either case a full instance of the operating system is running, it’s just that in the case of showing only the browser, the rest of the desktop is being hidden. Since the applications are running remotely, they are subject to the policies on the remote computer and utilize the network that the remote computer is connected to. This can be a local network or one from a cloud service.
Use cases for virtual browsers include:
- Web developers who need to use multiple versions of the same browser for testing puposes.
- Mobile device users who want to run multiple browsers on a smartphone or tablet.
- Employees that require an older (and less secure) version of a specific browser to provide full functionality for a Web-based application.
- Individuals who are concerned about Web-based malware such as poisoned cookies and drive-by downloads.
- Students and employees who want to access websites that a network administrator has blocked.