Pros and cons of mobile desktop virtualization

There are use cases for delivering virtual desktops to smartphones and tablets, but mobile desktop virtualization comes with usability issues.

It's worth using mobile desktop virtualization software in some cases, but companies should use it in tandem with

mobile apps.

Mobile desktop virtualization lets you run virtual machines (VMs) on smartphones and tablets. The most frequent use cases that I see are to provide access to Microsoft Office applications such as Word, Excel, Access and Outlook. Companies often virtualize proprietary customer relationship management accounting and human resources software as well.

Mobile desktop virtualization pros

There are advantages to using mobile desktop virtualization software. For one, virtualized operating systems and apps are easier to update; you can make a change to the one instance of the software you virtualized in the data center, and that change is immediately pushed out to all users.

Mobile desktop virtualization offers extended functionality as well. A program such as Outlook is more full-featured than a mobile device's email client that integrates with Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, for example. With Outlook running in a VM version, users can look up the Active Directory and search for co-workers' availability, which aren't native mobile features. Even if certain software -- such as your company's sales suite -- has a mobile app, there is a good chance that the desktop version of that application will deliver full functionality, whereas the mobile app may not.

Security is also improved with mobile desktop virtualization. In a bring-your-own-device environment, the corporate data lives in the data center, so the IT team doesn't need to manage the whole device. And there is virtually no traceability back to the corporate office with virtual mobile desktop software; a hacker could not push a virus through a virtual app.

Mobile desktop virtualization cons

But there are drawbacks to using mobile desktop virtualization. When running apps built for Windows on touchscreen devices, touch targets are smaller and certain functions may not work. Your application may make use of right-clicking or dragging bars, for example. Users can perform these functions on their mobile devices, but it can take a long time to master.

More on mobile desktop virtualization

How desktop virtualization helps with BYOD

Why desktop virt and mobile devices don't mix

Virtualization vendors take on mobility

Do users really need desktops on their mobile devices?

Storing files from a virtualized application can be a pain as well, because VMs rarely have the same storage options as what's available either physically in the office or in the cloud. Many large to medium-sized companies use some sort of remote desktop virtualization, which lets users pull up their desktops and use them remotely, storing files as they normally would. But the process of loading the remote desktop isn't as fast and easy as using mobile apps and the cloud to get the same work done.

Finally, when the VM is down, everything on the VM is down. This means employees can't get anything done if the VM is their only access to work. Whether it is the software or Internet connection that goes down, it always seems like users are right in the middle of something when the connection is lost. Mobile virtual desktop software is improving though, and it is rare to actually lose work now. Users just pick up where they left off once they regain connection.

The decision to use mobile desktop virtualization really comes down to a cost/benefit analysis and some hard questions. Your company needs to consider whether the software it's looking to virtualize will be used for a long time and whether there's a mobile app for that software on the horizon.

This was first published in September 2013

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