The Mobile Office: Mobile Computing, BYOD, and VDI

Like it or not, mobile computing has arrived. Like the PC revolution of the 1980s, it came in through the front door, carried in by C level executives in the form of the first iPads. And like the PC revolution, that led to client/server, the consumer Internet, telecommuting, and the ongoing revolution in retail, mobile computing will have far-flung and long-term impact on every aspect of how we live and work.

One difference between the 1980s and today is that when the first PCs came into offices, IT for the most part resisted them. In 1981 I was news editor for the first PC business magazine, “Desktop Computing Magazine”, so I was there. Today, in contrast, a very different IT organization is doing its best to embrace tablets and increasingly capable smartphones and support mobile workers either in and out of the physical office. This, however, is far from easy. Mobile computing increases employee production it and morale, two things that do not always go together, by allowing employees to be productive while out of the office, for instance from their dentist’s waiting room or their back bedrooms.

But for IT, mobile computing support can be a headache. BYOD means surrendering all control over the end-user device. Delivering services, protecting data, and supporting workers when their tablets don’t work as expected, is a complex problem, with the constant worry that at any moment one of these devices could become the conduit for a serious data security breach. Just delivering services to the increasing variety of devices, with different screen sizes, display resolutions, versions of different operating systems, etc., is difficult. And client/server architectures that presume an end-user device with significant local compute and storage resources and things like multitasking and session isolation, often will not work on these much lighter devices, demanding major rewrites of existing services.

For all these reasons, CIOs often tend to see the final arrival of Windows 8 Pro convertible laptops as a possible answer to many problems. They are a next generation of a well-understood, much more capable technology that after decades of pounding is very secure. And they can be funded through the normal laptop replacement cycle since they double as laptops.

But they also have disadvantages. For IT they are expensive, and equipping everybody will take three or more years. For users they will be heavier and thicker because of the larger batteries, they may be too big for many employees, particularly women, to hold comfortably in tablet mode or have screens that are too small in laptop mode. And their battery life is probably going to be closer to that of a laptop than a tablet. Most of all, politics will enter into the debate. A tablet, whether it is an i pad or Android, is a personal statement. Employees will fight to use their personal tablets, and when those are C-level executives, IT will not win that fight.

However, another choice is available, one that will let IT send the corporate standard image to all those devices easily and without rewriting applications or supporting new front-ends — VDI. The latest versions of virtual desktop systems are designed to work with almost every end-user device out there, and particularly with tablets of all kinds. The vendors say they have solved the 9:00 sign-in storm problems with a combination of faster server processors and flash storage. And those higher capacity back-ends also support much more customization, so different employee groups can have different sets of applications to meet their needs.

VDI, of course, also implies inexpensive terminals rather than expensive laptops on desktops. In this scenario the BYOD tablets, supplemented by portable Bluetooth keyboards, become the employees’ main computing devices, supplemented by non-mobile desktop terminals. The large cost difference can largely fund the VDI investment.

And this scenario has another huge advantage. All company data is recentralized in the data center. If the CFO’s tablet is stolen, IT can simply deactivate the VDI connection to the device with no worries about the potential loss of customer personal information.

Of course VDI will not fit the needs of all employees, and a significant group may want the company to provide their mobile devices to them and may prefer Windows 8, with its unique and definitely non-Apple GUI. Most medium-large organizations will probably end up with both Win 8 and BYOD. But certainly VDI is a strategy that deserves consideration. VDI vendors say this is the year of desktop virtualization, and while they say that every year, they just may be right this time. If so, they probably can thank mobile computing and BYOD.