Many Windows systems administrators know that using Parallels for their desktop hypervisor allows Mac users to run Windows-based virtual machines. Today, you'll learn about Remote Application Server (RAS), a solution that provides easy access to virtual desktops, applications, and files.
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Timothy Warner

Timothy Warner is a Microsoft Cloud and Datacenter Management Most Valuable Professional (MVP) who is based in Nashville, TN. Check out his Azure and Windows Server video training at Pluralsight, and feel free to reach out to Tim via Twitter.
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In 2015, Parallels, Inc. purchased the desktop virtualization software company 2X and immediately rebranded the 2X Remote Application Server to Parallels Remote Application Server (RAS). The good news is that Parallels redesigned RAS to make the solution easier to use than ever before--more on that in a bit.

Parallels' target market here seems to be shops that have perhaps grown tired of the expense of updating their existing Citrix, VMware, or Microsoft Remote Desktop Services (RDS) terminal server/virtual device infrastructure (VDI) installations. Such organizations may be in the market for a more cost-effective, flexible alternative.

Key features ^

A clear focus of Parallels RAS is to provide virtualized applications and even entire desktops to users who operate different devices:

  • Desktop or laptop computers (Windows, macOS, Linux)
  • Thin-client devices (Chromebook)
  • Tablet devices (iPad, Microsoft Surface, Google Nexus)
  • Smartphone (iPhone, Android, Windows Phone)

Let's face it--end users nowadays all understand the "tap and swipe" navigation mechanics of mobile devices. Why not give them the same experience with enterprise applications? The screenshot below shows you an example of how Parallels RAS streams desktop applications to mobile devices.

Microsoft Excel running on an Android smartphone (image credit Parallels)

Microsoft Excel running on an Android smartphone (image credit Parallels)

Why would administrators want to use terminal services (TS) to stream apps and desktops to users? Well, consider the following points:

  • Operating system and "thick" client software is expensive and sometimes tedious to update.
  • Centralized applications and desktops make licensing easier.
  • Security patches and other software updates give admins more granular control.

Parallels RAS is a client-server solution that can exist on-premises, in the Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services (AWS) clouds, or in a hybrid cloud environment. RAS supports two-factor authentication, and supports SSL/TLS and DMZ deployment.

Parallels RAS architecture ^

The figure below illustrates the basic Parallels RAS architecture.

Parallels RAS architecture

Parallels RAS architecture

  • A: Remote (internet-based) clients
  • B: Local (on-prem) clients: Both local and remote clients can use a Parallels RAS client app or the HTML5 web application to reach their published apps and desktops.
  • C: Secure client gateway: This server tunnels all incoming client traffic through a single port and provides secure connections.
  • D: Terminal services hosts: These are Windows Server hosts running Remote Desktop Services.
  • E: Virtual desktop hosts
  • F: Remote PC hosts

The entire Parallels RAS infrastructure is known as a farm. The load balancers shown in the above architectural diagram can be your own hardware load balancers, or the software High Availability Load Balancing (HALB) virtual appliances you receive as part of the Parallels RAS solution.

You manage your Parallels RAS farm by using the Parallels RAS console, as in the screenshot below.

The Parallel RAS admin console

The Parallel RAS admin console

As you can see, deploying a Parallels RAS solution in your environment involves three primary steps:

  1. Register your existing terminal server hosts (for instance, Windows Server-based Remote Desktop Services TS session hosts).
  2. Define application and VDI desktop connections. What's cool here is that Parallels RAS includes many templates for common applications and operating systems.
  3. Invite users. This is an e-mail that prompts your users to install the Parallels RAS agent on their desktops or mobile devices.

Naturally, there is far more involved in deploying and managing a Parallels RAS farm; you should read the Parallels RAS documentation (particularly the Administrator's Guide) for details.

The publishing workflow ^

As I mentioned earlier in this review, Parallels does a great job simplifying what could be a stupendously complex process. You kick off the app or desktop publishing process by starting a wizard from the admin console; I show you this in the dialog box below.

Beginning the publishing process

Beginning the publishing process

If you choose the Desktop option, Parallels asks which type of desktop you want to publish:

  • Terminal Server: This allows users to connect to generic OS desktops (they can get to their work files though).
  • Virtual Desktop: This allows users to connect to their own server-based desktops (persistent remote access, in other words).
  • Remote PC Desktop: This allows users to connect to their corporate desktops from anywhere in the world by using a web browser.

After defining remote connections, you then assign permissions to your users, and the users can interact with the published assets by using their client-side app. Speaking of which, let's talk just a little bit more about the client.

The client experience ^

After users receive the Parallels RAS client application on their desktops or mobile devices, they will log into it and use it to get to the assets to which RAS administrators have granted them access. The screenshot below shows the Windows client interface.

The Parallels RAS client in Windows

The Parallels RAS client in Windows

The same general workflow (install client app, log into the corporate RAS farm, access published assets) is the same for mobile devices.

The Parallels RAS client in Apple iOS

The Parallels RAS client in Apple iOS

Of course, nowadays we can do most business with HTML5, so Parallels reminds us that we don't necessary need to deploy a "thick" client application to our users at all. The screenshot below shows you the Parallels RAS HTML5 client.

The Parallels RAS HTML5 client

The Parallels RAS HTML5 client

Wrap-up ^

Visit the Parallels website to sign up for a free trial; the trial is available in three forms:

  • On-premises installer
  • Downloadable virtual machine appliance
  • Microsoft Azure virtual machine (AWS Amazon Machine Image [AMI] is forthcoming)

Parallels sells the RAS solution like most software-as-a-service (SaaS) apps; that is to say, via a yearly subscription. I think you'll be amazed at how affordable Parallels RAS is, compared to its competition.

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