If you can give users offline access to data, do it

Focus on delivering data, not applications. You can give users offline access to data, but applications often rely on an online connection.

Vendors and customers alike are finally coming to terms with the fact that delivering data is what we really care about and that applications are just the things workers use to access that data. This is a big difference from years past when it was all about delivering applications with data locked into application-specific silos.

There are hundreds or even thousands of applications. Some are off the shelf, while others were made in-house (some both). Many of them have proprietary data that goes along with them. For those applications we can't simply say, "Here's the data, fellow employee, go ahead and find a way to use it." Rather, we have to deliver the entire supporting stack to them. I've talked about this before -- it's called Windows as middleware.

To address this problem, the industry has come up with several solutions. There are remote desktop platforms like Citrix XenDesktop and VMware Horizon View as well as other remote players like Parallels Access, LogMeIn and GoToMyPC. Each of them has a viable way to provide users on any device in any location access to their applications so that they can access their data. But there's always been one lingering problem: offline access.

Offline access or bust

Remote access tools can't compete with apps that give users offline access to data, like Office for iPad. When a user has a presentation to work on at 30,000 feet, he can't use tools that require an always-on connection, no matter how great they are. We're nearly twenty years into the remote desktop world, but we still can't rely on the technology to work on the plane or train. In fact, an offline application doesn't even have to be as good as the remote desktop tool. You've heard the phrase "any port in a storm"? This is kind of like "any app will do on a plane."

When there aren't offline access options available to you, the remote access tools are great. If you can lean on them to move your migration forward, enhance your management capabilities or phase something out, fantastic. But if a tool that lets users work offline becomes available, you better expect that the users will start clamoring for it -- remote access offerings aren't always the best way to deliver applications. Until a few weeks ago, a remote desktop product for getting Office to your iPad users was acceptable. Today, because there's an official Office for iPad, remote access tools don't cut it.

Next time you're looking at a way to enable remote access, keep your users' needs in mind. You might think that the user interface of a remote desktop tool is amazing, that workers will have access to all their applications, and that your prayers for a way to allow mobility are answered. But you still can't compete against tools that offer offline access. Online products are great, but they don't work in every situation.

Focus on the data every time you look at how you deliver applications, especially to mobile devices and remote users. Look at all the ways workers can use the data, and then let that determine which application they use. Do they have to use a Windows app? If so, then you need to provide them Windows somehow. If not, just get them the data and let them take it from there.

This was first published in April 2014

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