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Four ways mobile VDI access is changing -- and one way it's not

The mobile device landscape is constantly advancing, and it's altering how IT shops deliver virtual desktops and applications to on-the-go employees. Learn how to keep up with the times.

The newest mobile devices can now support VDI access and app virtualization better than many laptops made just five years ago.

For organizations that already use virtualization, delivering virtual apps and desktops might be the most secure way to provide users with access to corporate resources on mobile devices. But the mobile device market is a lot more diverse than it was just a few years ago, and Apple's iPads and iPhones aren't the only game in town anymore. IT should understand how user-owned devices and a few other factors affect mobile VDI access.

Dealing with a diverse mobile device mix

Between Apple iOS devices, Microsoft's Windows tablets and 2-in-1 devices, and a wide range of Google Android phones and tablets from OEM, there are more VDI-friendly mobile devices out there than ever before. Android devices are generally cheaper and therefore available to a wider audience than Apple equivalents. Meanwhile, Microsoft is becoming a player in the tablet market with its Surface devices that include high-definition screens and built-in 4G data connections.

I once argued that an iPad isn't an ideal VDI client device, but it could still prove useful in certain situations. The crucial question back then was whether a mobile device is an acceptable VDI client for some users or for some of the time. Mobile devices are now even more pervasive in the enterprise and suitable for more use cases.

High definition and 4G boost usability

The way people use devices for VDI has also changed. Users routinely work with phones to connect to virtual desktops and applications because of the familiarity and convenience. Many of these devices now have high-definition screens, and the VDI client software uses all the added pixels to show a more usable Windows desktop. Panning and scrolling are no longer needed; the whole desktop is on screen at once.

Many of these devices also have built-in 4G data connections through which users can access their desktops. For example, I routinely use my phone to connect to a desktop while I'm in a data center. In the past, I would bring my laptop and jack into the LAN somewhere. Now, I use a 4G wireless network to connect to my virtual desktop and check that the physical changes I made are correct.

The rise of application publishing

Another change is the wider adoption of app publishing -- also commonly referred to as app remoting -- in VDI products. Citrix's XenApp platform has included an application publishing feature for many years. In 2014, VMware added app publishing to Horizon View. Now, VMware shops can publish and deliver single applications instead of a full desktop using the Remote Desktop Session Host application pools introduced in Horizon 6.

There's nothing wrong with using MDM alongside a VDI platform to provide more holistic security.

Administrators can also choose from vendors outside the big two, such as Parallels Remote Application Server, or even deliver published apps from the cloud using Microsoft Azure RemoteApp.

App publishing is a better fit for mobile devices -- smartphones in particular -- than full virtual desktop delivery. Most mobile devices run a single app in full-screen mode, rather than windowing several applications, so launching a single app fits far better with the mobile user interface. This is particularly beneficial when the mobile user only requires access to one or two VDI applications.

MDM enables trusted mobile VDI access

Although VDI software accommodates mobile devices -- for example, Citrix and VMware both offer client apps for iOS and Android -- VDI platforms were originally designed for PC access. With the growth of enterprise mobility, many companies already use mobile device management (MDM) products to keep track of user-owned devices. There's nothing wrong with using MDM alongside a VDI platform to provide more holistic security.

With MDM in place, a user's client device becomes a trusted mobile endpoint with a known level of security. Some device management products include secure network access, which effectively creates a virtual private network portal for each corporate application. This setup makes it reasonably safe to deliver individual published apps to users instead of full virtual desktops.

Windows apps are still lacking

One of the primary reasons to use VDI on smartphones or tablets is to provide remote access to legacy Windows desktop applications. But that doesn't mean those apps necessarily work well.

Most mobile devices are designed for use as a touchscreen interface, but Windows apps are primarily driven by a mouse and keyboard. That disconnect is what makes using Windows applications on mobile devices an uncomfortable experience. Users can add keyboards and mice to their tablets, but peripherals only make devices less portable.

Another negative to mobile VDI access is that there haven't been huge improvements in client software for mobile OSes. Additionally, VDI vendors are no closer to being able to automatically refactor Windows applications to suit touchscreens.

It would be fair to say that mobile VDI access still includes compromises, but in many situations mobile connectivity is worth any negatives. There's a saying among proponents of smartphone photography that the best camera is the one you have with you. Despite its downsides, sometimes the best VDI client is the one you carry everywhere in your pocket.

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