Have we declared the death of the paperless office? Probably not, but it can be very tricky to print from a virtual desktop that's accessed on a mobile device.
The reality is that almost no businesses can work without some hard copy documents. Since printing is an essential part of most businesses, it's going to be required for mobile staff. However, providing printing to remote and mobile staff as part of a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) deployment can be a real challenge. Depending on the device and the situation, virtual desktop printing may be ridiculously easy or quite difficult.
How universal printing works
All of the major VDI products have some sort of universal printing feature. This method works for virtual desktops that are accessed from a client device, such a repurposed PC or thin client.
Universal printing works by passing a print job from the virtual desktop to the VDI client, then printing it using the printer driver on the client OS. This method works really well for staff that work from home or from multiple offices, because any printer installed on the client device is made available inside the virtual desktop.
Universal printing also works well for laptop users who take an Internet connection and printer with them on the road. Even Internet cafes offer printers, and the universal-printing functions can be enabled to print from a virtual desktop. The beauty of universal printing is not having the nightmare of managing hundreds of printer drivers in the VDI master image; one printer in the master image works with any printer on the client.
Unfortunately, universal-printing tools require a fully featured OS on the VDI client device.
Three steps to mobile printing
You might be accessing a virtual desktop from a mobile device, so what are the printing options for iOS or Android devices?
The VDI clients for these devices don't have universal printer support. Part of the problem is that mobile operating systems don't have great printing capabilities, if they have any at all. IOS devices can print via a Mac on the same network or directly to some models of network printers. There are third-party options to print documents from iOS and Android devices to various types of printers, often using Bluetooth or USB cables. So far, none of these solutions integrates into VDI clients, so printing from a virtual desktop on a mobile device has to be a three-stage effort.
First, you need to get the item that needs to be printed into a file. The easiest method is a "Print to PDF," but the source may already be in a file that can be opened on the mobile device, such as a Word document. You need the printout in a file in order to transfer it to the mobile device.
The second phase is transferring that file to the device. There are lots of options: using file-syncing tools such as Dropbox, emailing the document to yourself or transferring it through a file-share or SharePoint site. VMware and Citrix have document-syncing products as part of their VDI suites to help with file transfer.
Once the file is on the mobile device, the final stage is getting the device to print the document. Usually, that's using third-party software that is installed on the mobile device. These applications have limited ranges of printers that they support, however, because the app vendor needs to write drivers for each printer type.
More on virtual desktop printing
Remote Desktop Services printing problems
Why mobile printing is so complex
Reviewing mobile-printing apps
An overview of Apple iOS printing options
If this sounds like a lot of work compared with universal printing, you're right. It feels a lot more like a solution that users would invent for themselves, rather than an enterprise technique.
You may also notice that almost none of the processes is specific to virtual desktop printing; you can use those methods for simply printing a document that you've created or accessed on your mobile device. I hope we will soon see integration between the major VDI products and iOS and Android printing applications such as Cortado Workplace, which does both file syncing and printing. In fact, Cortado's technology provides the VMware View universal-printing capability, so maybe we'll see something happen there.
Inability to print isn't so bad
If a virtual desktop on a mobile device is being used to access secure data, then the inability to print is probably a good thing. Transmission to the printer is one less vector for data loss.
In fact, you could move to mobile as part of the move to a paperless business. If the printed copy is being handed to the client for disclosure or compliance, then an emailed PDF may be a better solution. If the printout is used for signing and corporate records, you could use a mobile signature-capture app to sign the document on the device instead.