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Apple iOS devices and VDI: Connecting the cult and the corporation

Our job as IT leaders and technicians is to find ways to get everything to work together. As mobility grows, there is more and more need for IT to integrate Apple iPhones and iPads with virtual desktops in the data center.

Three years ago, the concept of using Apple iOS devices in the enterprise was taboo. Now, between bring your own device (BYOD) and the cult-like following you see every year at Apple shows, you can see that the company isn't going to adapt to the enterprise. Rather, the enterprise needs to learn how to adapt to the new Apple-led paradigm while not compromising the foundation of their corporate environment, which for many is the Windows platform in a standardized, centralized data center.

More about VDI on mobile devices

Desktop virtualization challenges in the mobile era

Guide: How VDI fits into mobility

Q&A: VMware's CTO on desktop access via mobile devices

So how do you deal with users that want to run virtual desktops on Apple iOS devices? I had to deal with this conundrum in my organization's warehouse, where employees do tasks such as receiving products, inventory, moving goods and packing boxes.

Luckily for us, most of our processes are fairly simple and we have computer stations available at all of these locations. However, moving goods is a manual process that requires workers to receive tickets on a handheld device. Each of these people has an RF-enabled device that looks a lot like the phasers from the old Star Trek series. They're old, they're bulky and they run Windows CE on a three-inch screen. Oh, and did I mention they cost almost $2,000 each?

Like most major enterprises, we have a massive monolithic enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The problem with this was we had no flexibility in terms of the application development options, so we had to update our environment on the operations side of the house.

We set out to find a way to do three things:

  1. Access our back-end ERP system via a mobile device;
  2. Provide barcode-scanning capability; and
  3. Be cheaper than the current solution.

Making the unlikely marriage

When we began this project, we got the typical "can't we do this on an iPad?" question, because it was the only real game in town in the tablet arena at the time. We tried out some of the vendor applications that were readily available on the app store, but none of them matched what we needed. Our specialists also took a look at the programming but found that it would be far too cumbersome to re-program ourselves. 

This forced us to the VDI option, which worked with some remarkable effectiveness. To connect the Apple iOS devices to our ERP system required a few steps.

First, we wanted to find a remote desktop app that was free or really cheap. We ended up using Wyse PocketCloud to connect to our virtual desktops in our data center. To set up the desktops, we spun up individual systems in our Hyper-V environment for each end user.

To make sure the Apple iOS devices were securely connected to the network, we deployed certificates to the devices to enable them to have secure wireless and VPN access. To script the launching of the software and provide single sign-on, we just used a few lines of PowerShell.

Does this solution seem too good to be true? It's not! It's based on a few tried-and-true principles. Keep these tips in mind if you're considering running virtual desktops on mobile devices.

Keep it simple
My staff and I subscribe to the "three click" rule. That means that if it takes more than three clicks or steps, chances are it's more complicated than it needs to be. Our job as IT people is to take the complicated and make it look simple. If something isn't simple, people won't use it.

Know what you know; know what you don't know
Know your team's capabilities. If you can't do it, don't force it. In this case, we knew we didn't have the capability to reprogram an entire mobile app version of the warehousing environment, so we didn't try.

Use what you have
Most enterprises already have a VDI environment available to them (either through experimentation or in active production). Use your existing infrastructure whenever possible. If you have a secure VPN that is mobile-enabled, use it whenever you can.

By following these simple principles, you can find a solution that costs less, makes your users more mobile and happy, and proves that this unlikely marriage is not only possible, but quite useful.


This was first published in July 2013

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