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Remote desktop mobile apps offer debatable VDI alternatives

If you really need Windows on a mobile device -- and that's a big 'if' -- remote desktop mobile apps can be cheaper and simpler than deploying VDI.

As more VDI-less remote desktop apps hit the market, the merits of running Windows on mobile devices are still in question.

IT departments that don't want to invest in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) can simply use PC-based clients and their corresponding mobile apps to deliver full Windows desktops and applications to smartphones and tablets. Some experts argue, however, that remote desktop mobile apps undercut the true benefits of mobility and can even undermine productivity.

Earlier this year, Gartner Inc. said VDI adoption rates have plateaued around 10% because virtual desktop performance still doesn't compare to that of a traditional PC.

Remote desktops try to cram an old technology into something new.
Benjamin Robbinsprincipal, Palador Inc.

When companies are unwilling or unable to cut the legacy cord, remote desktop mobile apps can enable mobility without replacing databases, back-end systems and other tools, said Chris Silva, a mobile analyst with the Altimeter Group, a San Mateo, Calif.-based research firm.

"There should never be a need to replicate our desktop on a tablet," Silva said. "But [remote desktop applications] are the easiest way to flexibly be inflexible."

A PC peg in a mobile hole?

Splashtop Inc., a popular remote desktop mobile app developer that boasts more than 10 million downloads, recently launched an enterprise-grade version of its software. Such apps allow organizations to bridge the gap between mobility and legacy applications without investing in costly infrastructure upgrades or long-term virtualization projects, Silva said.

But this approach can actually stunt the growth of mobile initiatives, said Benjamin Robbins, principal at Palador Inc., an enterprise mobility consulting firm based in Seattle.

"The first car looked an awful lot like a horse and buggy," Robbins said. "Remote desktops try to cram an old technology into something new, because we're still trying to figure out the new. The more we use mobile devices, the quicker they mature in features and the more they evolve in functionality -- and the sooner remote desktop will fade into the past."

Inside Splashtop for Business

Velta Moisio, IT director for the Lake County Juvenile Court in Ohio, said Splashtop for Business on corporate-owned iPads has had positive results in her organization.

The county's probation officers work away from their desks more than 50% of the time, and previously used laptops in the field. During a recent hardware refresh, the county replaced those laptops with iPads with cellular connectivity. The Splashtop app gives the officers access to their case management system, archived court motions, calendars and more, whereas they previously could only take notes on their laptops.

"It will definitely help us decrease costs for hardware and licensing," Moisio said. "We can manage it ourselves, and we didn't have to request additional server resources or funding, and we don't have to worry about licensing considerations like we would with VDI."

Moisio previously used the consumer version of Splashtop at home. When she learned the San Jose, Calif.-based company was beta-testing an enterprise version, she jumped at the chance to pilot it, she said, because other remote desktop mobile apps offered a poor user experience during testing.

Splashtop for Business takes the consumer application and adds IT-friendly features through a management console, which provides Active Directory integration, uses 256-bit Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL, encryption and provides various auditing capabilities. The company said it has also worked to provide lower latency and optimize touch-based gestures for end users.

The Splashtop management console can be installed as an on-premises virtual appliance or in the cloud. IT departments push down the Splashtop Streamer client to employee desktops, and users simply install the remote desktop app on their mobile device of choice. (It's available for iOS andAndroid devices, Windows Phones, and BlackBerrys.)

Splashtop said nearly 10,000 companies piloted the application, which became generally available late last month and costs $120 per user per year, with a minimum of 25 seats.

Other remote desktop mobile applications that work without any virtualized back end include Xtralogic, TeamViewer, WinAdmin and LogMeIn Ignition. All are consumer-focused apps, but some also come in more enterprise-friendly versions. Microsoft's built-in Windows remote desktop protocol is also an effective alternative to VDI, industry watchers said.

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