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Virtual Desktop Infrastructure in the Mobile World

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure is here for more than a decade. With our team we have designed, implemented, managed terminal/remote desktop server infrastructure with almost all Windows Server releases, from 2003 to 2012 R2. We have seen many benefits to it in terms of IT management and daily operations but is it really practical considering today’s mobile world?

For any techie, accessing your server infrastructure from your mobile phone is fascinating at its best. If your only task is to restart the server. Seriously.

I have been there, I have done that. It is almost impossible to work with the traditional start menu structure from your mobile device. It is almost impossible to work with the traditional applications from a touch device. It is impossible to work with them on a 5-inch screen. To get your work done you will be panning, zooming in and out and firing up menu items which you have no intention to do so. It is not your fault and it is not the desktop application’s fault either.

Traditional desktop applications are designed to take advantage of the big screen estate, at least 11 inch and upwards. They are designed with small icons and text fields to used with a keyboard and mouse, which are really precise controls compared to thick fingers like mine. Don’t even think about using your nail tips, they do not work. On the other hand, these legacy applications are where the business runs: the ERP systems, CRM systems, in-house developed applications and the corporate productivity applications.

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Here, the IT department has a couple of solutions: replace legacy applications with mobile-friendly ones, rewrite mobile interfaces or develop custom mobile applications/front ends for these applications. To be frank all these solutions are discouraging; not only in terms of time and cost but also due to the rapid changing in the mobile industry. At this point desktop virtualization presents itself as a relief but due to the real life situations I have just discussed, it is not the painkiller we, the users, expect.

If we cannot give up the legacy systems and at the same time we need to be mobile, what are our options?

The key solution is application virtualization: in Microsoft terms this is Remote App, in Citrix terms XenApp. These solutions bring the application to the mobile device without requiring the user to navigate the desktop. The user sees the application icon as any other icon on his mobile device and taps to open it. In some cases, these solutions also bring mobile elements to the application itself (such as bigger drop-down menus, pinch to zoom etc.).

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As an administrator we know that any company-issued mobile device will be running the owner’s child’s games in no time, this is unavoidable. Trying to enforce company procedures and compliance requirements will not work: your compliance systems will fail, children will not (experience). Application virtualization helps to eliminate one of the biggest security concerns, which is securing the company data from the user’s personal data. Any application data is stored on the device itself whereas the virtualized application’s data is stored on the enterprise system. Since the remote application is somehow running in a sandbox or in a container/wrapped state, it is practically isolated from the other applications, easing the security concerns of the IT department. I do not argue that this is the most secure solution, but I argue that it is less painful to implement and manage.

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Plus, legacy applications have compatibility issues. With the mobile world, where operating systems are updated more frequently, it is almost impossible to keep up with the latest releases together with the backward compatibility. Remote application deployments also ease the pain here. If the remote application infrastructure is compliant with the new mobile operating system release then you can pretty much think that your legacy application will continue to run. Because the legacy app does not directly run on the mobile operating system, it runs inside the remote application wrapper then on the operating system. It is abstracted from the mobile OS.

IT departments can easily deploy virtual desktop infrastructure without too much thought and effort, but the usage and the efficiency results will be questionable. Developing mobile applications will take some time and may hinder the company’s mobile transition plans. Remote application delivery can be a temporary solution to the problems. It is certainly not as perfect as a pure mobile solution but is certainly a very good one. As always, do not forget to communicate with your end users openly about the deployment and the company’s mobile transition strategies.

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1 Comment

  • Avatar for John Chen John Chen says:

    Another way to allow users to access applications securely from their mobile device is virtual mobile infrastructure (VMI). It is like VDI, but rather than virtualizing Windows desktops and apps, VMI virtualizes Android platforms and apps and displays them remotely.

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