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Published: 08 May 2015
Virtual mobile infrastructure is an emerging technology that's conceptually similar to remote desktop technologies. It's getting a lot of attention right now, along with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Like VDI, virtual mobile infrastructure (VMI) hosts an operating system in a data center, and users can access it remotely from various endpoints. The difference with VMI is that it hosts a mobile OS instead of a desktop OS. The clients are mobile apps, and the remote display protocols are specifically designed to handle touch inputs and mobile connections. With VMI, you can deliver a data center-hosted mobile application to a mobile device running on any platform.
Because the OS runs in the data center, no corporate data is ever present on the mobile device, which makes VMI ideal for high-security environments, highly regulated industries and bring your own device programs. Mobile apps hosted in the data center can also take advantage of being physically close to enterprise resources and on the same network, making them run smoother on the client device.
To date, all virtual mobile infrastructure products use Android as the hosted OS; Apple won't allow iOS to run on other manufacturers' hardware. VMI client apps can be written for any platform, though. Vendors that provide VMI include Hypori, Raytheon, Remotium, Trend Micro and Nubo.
Why try VMI?
VMI provides a better user experience on mobile devices than desktop virtualization does, because its apps are built for a mobile interface instead of a physical keyboard and mouse. It also makes enterprise app development easier. There's no need to create separate apps for different mobile OSes, because users can access the Android-based VMI app from any device, whether it's an iPhone, Windows Phone, BlackBerry or tablet of their choosing. Developers can also rely on the very nature of VMI to make apps and their data secure, instead of having to build security features on their own.
In addition, VMI provides a way to separate work and personal apps that's free from the compromises associated with other mobile app management (MAM) technologies. For example, MAM techniques such as app wrapping and software development kits are limited to particular apps, and device-based MAM faces limited support on smartphones and tablets. VMI avoids both of these tradeoffs by allowing any app to be managed on any device.
Bumps in the VMI road
The obvious challenge with virtual mobile infrastructure is the need for network connectivity. VMI is simply not an option for offline uses. Many people are also skeptical about latency and fidelity over mobile connections, but VMI was developed specifically for this scenario. You'll never mistake it for a native experience, but most VMI products offer quite good performance over Wi-Fi and 4G connections.
There are several other more significant roadblocks that VMI vendors have to overcome. First, any vendor may use the Android Open Source Project as it pleases, but the Google Mobile Services that many apps use are not open. Google must approve devices that access these services. That isn't a problem for most mainstream Android tablets and phones, but VMI vendors are still working to get data center-hosted versions of Android certified.
Hosting Android in the data center presents technical obstacles, too. VMI vendors must provide some sort of hypervisor or Linux container system to host the Android instances, and they have to ensure that it can scale appropriately. Providers must decide whether to use an x86-compatible version of Android or to use the regular ARM version on top of an emulator. There needs to be a way to create and manage Android instances and to push and configure apps within them.
Virtual mobile infrastructure must also take user niceties into account. These products need to find a way for OS features such as push notifications to be redirected to the VMI client apps. And remote protocols for Android need to support more than just touch events and the display. For a solid user experience, they have to support audio, location data, screen size, orientation and cameras.
Finally, VMI can't extend legacy applications to mobile devices the way desktop virtualization can. Some mobile apps will not translate well to other platforms, so customers still have to develop or source mobile versions of mission-critical apps.
For most enterprise mobility use cases, local native apps remain the best approach. But because of VMI's unique attributes, there are still many valid use cases that will support it.
This article originally appeared in the May issue of the Modern Mobility e-zine.
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