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Virtual desktops can run on tablets and phones - but should they?

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DV There was a time when technology was only sexy for a narrow subset of people. These were the folks, like me, who spent their weekends programming sprites in 68000 assembly language. Then, consumerisation happened, and the world was never the same again. Suddenly, everyone was a geek, and the IT department was in serious trouble.

In the early days of the PC, few people would dream of bringing their own computing devices to the office. These days, with cheap devices packing more power than hundreds of those PCs strung together, offices are awash with employees' personal tablets and smartphones, all wanting to connect to the network. That creates management and security headaches for IT departments. But can desktop virtualisation be used to complement this trend, and even to offset some of the risks?

In its latest Technology, Media & Telecommunications Predictions report, Deloitte predicted that 50 per cent of endpoint devices sold in 2011 would not be PCs; they'd be smartphones and tablets. Some 25 per cent of tablet purchases will be by enterprises, the firm says - and that doesn't account for the many that consumers will bring into the enterprise themselves. That bears out figures from Apple suggesting that iPads have made it into around 65 per cent of the Fortune 100 in some shape or other.

If people are really accessing enterprise computing services from these devices, isn't there a chance that they'd want to access virtual desktops hosted on a server, too?

That's certainly the marketing spin that companies are putting on it, says Andy Goddard, workplace software practice leader at Computacenter, the European reseller giant. "The likes of Citrix and VMware have been pushing this as an idea of how they can sell desktop virtualisation," he explains. Goddard doesn't really feel that the majority of mobile devices are ready to be used as desktop virtualisation clients. "Most of these low-end mobile devices have a natural screen resolution and size of 4 inches," he says, "whereas most of the target environments are based on Windows infrastructures with a higher resolution."

It's true that you're unlikely to want to do much native desktop PC work from your iPhone, Retina display or not. There's only two things that you can do on a computer that can make you go blind, and one of them is trying to edit a Word document on your desktop via a screen the size of a pack of cigarettes.

"In any case, they're touchscreen interfaces, and Windows is predicated around a keyboard and a mouse," Goddard says.

Well, maybe, but the multi-touch interface and screen size on tablet devices 7 inches in size and higher makes virtual desktop access more likely. It becomes possible not only to use your finger as a mouse, but also to pinch and zoom to look at particular areas of the screen. That may not be sufficient for hours of work, but it might let you perform some basic functions, such as spreadsheet editing, looking up Outlook contacts, and accessing desktop documents while on the road.

The tools to make remote desktops available on tablets and phones are certainly available. For example, Citrix XenDesktop and Microsoft’s VDI offering centralise virtual desktops on a server and makes them available on demand to users “on any PC, Mac, thin client, smartphone or tablet”. LogMeIn, a company that has built a reputation for years offering remote access products, now has a version of LogMeIn for iPhones, iPads and Android Tablets. The system lets tablet owners control multiple Mac and PC devices from a single interface. GoToMyPC, the Citrix-owned remote access system, has an iPad version in the works.

Whatever technological utopias such vendors offer, however, there are political barriers to consider. Many companies are unwilling to allow unmanaged devices to connect to their network. In many heavy-regulated industries, points out Goddard, it may be against the law to do so.

Only connect (not)

"As a rule, we see most organisations not allowing them at all," he says. "That's why most organisations find themselves going down the route of an explosion of individual devices, and their response is just not to allow them to connect."

There may be some limited connection options available for tablet users in the more paranoid IT firms. Good Technology sells a system that wraps business applications in a secure sandbox, accessible via a client on a tablet or phone. The idea is to give employees access to the enterprise assets they need while still letting them use the same devices for personal purposes. However, this is mobile access, rather than full desktop virtualisation.

The alternative for companies worried about users bringing in their own devices is to provide a choice of endpoints for some employees. Offering a catalogue of approved client devices for the user to choose from will help provide the right balance between choice and simplicity. These could include laptops, thin clients, and, for some more valued users, tablet devices.

Ultimately, tablet devices are likely to serve as a secondary access point for virtual desktops, where they are used. Where full access to a virtual desktop is allowed via a tablet, employees could conceivably travel with that single device, only to return to a thin client when at the office. As with all new, consumer-friendly technologies, however, the users' reality and the IT department's reality may be markedly different.

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