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More mobile devices support virtual desktops -- but are they practical?

Which mobile devices can you use to access virtual desktops? When is it practical to use an iPad or smartphone to access a desktop remotely? Find the answers here.

Ask anybody who attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, and they will tell you that the show was all about tablets and smartphones. Since that time, I have read countless stories on various technology blogs that claimed that the PC is dead and will soon be completely replaced by tablets and smartphones.

Although I don't share that bleak view of the PC's inevitable demise, I do think that nontraditional devices such as tablets and smartphones will start playing a much larger role in the enterprise. We should thus examine the practicality of using such devices as virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) clients.

Do mobile devices support VDI?
I'm sure that some of you are wondering if mobile devices can even be used as VDI clients. Generally speaking, the answer is yes. A lot of new tablets and smartphones are making their way into the market right now, however, and client software may not exist yet for some of the newer or the less popular platforms.

Of course, you also have to take the infrastructure into account. Some virtualization vendors use proprietary client software and may not offer a mobile version of their VDI clients. Typically, mobile VDI connectivity isn't a problem for mainstream technologies. For example, 2X offers a free client for the iPhone, iPad, and Android phones and tablets that works with all of the major VDI platforms.

Using a mobile device as a VDI client
Even though a mobile device might be able to access virtual desktops and provide a similar end-user experience as a PC, the practicality of using that device ultimately depends on what applications the user needs to do his job.

In some ways, this could be said of VDI in general. After all, some applications are better suited to VDI environments than others. For example, Microsoft Office usually runs really well in a VDI environment, but you probably wouldn't want to use VDI to host video editing or computer-aided design (CAD) apps. Those types of applications would quickly deplete your virtual desktop host of hardware resources and may not provide a satisfactory end-user experience.

When it comes to using mobile devices as VDI clients, you have to think about more than just whether or not the server has the resources to run the application efficiently. You have to consider how the end user will use the application.

From a VDI prospective, the biggest and most obvious difference between a PC and a tablet or a smartphone is that the latter devices don't usually have hardware keyboards and mice, and not having those familiar tools can affect productivity. (Some mobile devices support an optional docking station.)

For instance, even though a tablet has an onscreen keyboard, it probably wouldn't be a good fit for a user whose primary job responsibilities involve word processing or data entry. In fact, I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have typed this article using an onscreen keyboard.

The lack of a mouse isn't as significant of a limitation as the lack of a hardware keyboard is. The 2X client that I mentioned earlier provides an onscreen mouse that seems to work really well. Even so, it may not be a good fit for users who need precision control. For example, an onscreen mouse might be a poor choice for those who do graphic design, desktop publishing or CAD work.

One last limitation that you may run into is the device's screen resolution. In preparing to write this article, for example, I loaded a VDI client onto an iPhone and established a virtual session. I set the screen resolution to 800 x 600, but the Windows desktop extended far beyond the boundaries of my iPhone's screen. Although the client software supports lower screen resolutions that are better suited to the iPhone, some of my applications require a minimum screen resolution of 800 x 600. I was able to access the entire desktop by panning across it, but the experience wasn't really practical for long-duration use.

Screen resolution isn't going to be nearly as much of an issue on tablet devices. But you still need to make sure that your organization's tablets support the minimum screen resolution required by your apps without forcing users to pan the screen to access the full Windows desktop.

Though I don't believe that tablets and smartphones are superior to PCs, there are some environments in which tablets and smartphones can make excellent VDI clients. This is especially true if your organization uses applications that are optimized for use with such devices. Before you begin replacing PCs with tablets, however, consider how the switch will ultimately affect user productivity.

Read more from Brien M. Posey

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer, he has written for Microsoft, TechTarget, CNET, ZDNet, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies.

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