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Four questions to ask before choosing virtual or web-based apps

Picking between virtual or web-based apps is complex. It comes down to key factors such as what types of apps IT must deliver and what features users need to get their jobs done.

Virtualization and web-based technologies are viable options for delivering applications to enterprise users, but choosing one approach over the other requires careful consideration.

Virtualization lets IT administrators deliver applications from a centralized data center as if they installed the apps on users' virtual or physical desktops. Technologies such as HTML5 let IT provide users with access to web-based apps through their browsers, regardless of the devices they're using or where they are.

Before IT administrators choose, they must ask themselves four important questions about their networks, users and applications.

Commercial applications, line-of-business applications or both?

The different types of applications admins deliver to users can help point them in the right direction. For example, admins might consider commercial applications or services such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, Salesforce or Google Docs. Or IT admins might deliver line-of-business (LOB) applications they developed specifically to help workers get their jobs done. For example, they might implement an LOB application to grant users access to information about the company's inventory.

If admins want to deliver commercial apps, they must determine what formats are available. For instance, Microsoft offers an Office desktop version and the cloud-based Office 365 service. Admins should compare features and usability and make a decision from there. In some cases, like with a service such as Google Docs which is entirely web-based, they don't have a choice.

When it comes to delivering LOB apps, a lot depends on whether admins still have to develop them. If admins already built desktop versions of LOB apps, for example, they are less likely to switch to a web-based approach.

What features and functionality do users need?

Admins must conduct a thorough cost analysis to compare all possible options.

Admins also need a good sense of what their users require to do their jobs. Web technologies are not as feature rich as native apps and often don't perform as well. The user experience should be at the forefront of admins' thinking. If users lose features or performance degrades they're likely to revolt.

Whether users generally work in-house and connect through the corporate network or they depend primarily on outside wireless internet connections, admins must account for how users reach their applications. Web-based apps are often easier to deliver to roaming users so wireless internet connectivity is crucial. If users access applications primarily through the corporate network, wireless connectivity concerns should not be as big a factor.

In addition, admins must account for the devices themselves. Users might connect to virtual resources from tablets or smartphones running Google Android or Apple iOS. With web-based apps, users only need a browser, regardless of the device type. With virtualized apps, admins must be sure their virtual app technology supports the various device types and that their applications can adjust accordingly.

Admins can mix-and-match products, depending on the nature of their applications. For example, they might choose to deliver more complicated applications to desktops and offer a pared-down version of the same applications to mobile devices. They could deliver the desktop version as a virtual app and the leaner version as a web app.

What are the infrastructure requirements and capabilities?

How admins proceed depends on the infrastructure they already have in place and how much of it they can use for delivering their applications. For example, if admins support VDI with the apps on their golden images, they might have many of the resources they need to virtualize those applications in place already.

On the other hand, if they plan to build the infrastructure from scratch, they can compare implementation strategies to get a sense of what might best serve their organization and what it would take to get all the pieces in place without having to factor in legacy systems. If infrastructure as a service or desktop as a service are in play, admins should be aware of their effect on how they deliver applications. No matter the approach, admins must account for scalability, disaster recovery, resource limitations, maintenance schedules and more.

By keeping everything in-house, admins retain control over their systems no matter how they deliver apps. With outside services regulatory and compliance issues can limit IT's choices. Even if admins plan to keep everything in-house, they must examine their infrastructure needs in terms of delivering virtual or web-based apps.

Admins must consider interoperability with other services and back-end systems. For instance, if an application needs to connect to various web services, it might be easier to go with a web-based version. It all depends on the type of applications admins plan to deploy and the systems they need to support them.

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What are the costs?

Admins must conduct a thorough cost analysis to compare all possible options. They must account for the IT and development resources they have in-house and the level of expertise they require. They may need to look to outside resources to fill the gaps.

The more admins do themselves, the longer it is likely to take and the more resources they'll require. Costs can add up quickly. At the same time, admins should not let the cheap startup costs of web and cloud services lure them in because long-term subscription fees also add up.

Virtualization licensing fees are costly as well and can be confusing. Plus, anything admins build entirely in-house comes with lots of hardware, software and personnel costs, both in the short and long term.

Depending on how quickly admins must have apps up and running and what they already have in place, time can be a factor too. For example, if admins already deliver web apps to users, setting up another one might not be difficult if they can use the existing platform.

It's not all or nothing

Admins do not have to lock into one approach over the other. They can virtualize some apps and implement web apps where it makes the most sense. Either option requires resources though and could disrupt users, so admins must get it right the first time.

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