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Virtual desktops don’t replace EMM

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A few weeks ago, a Gigaom Research client told me she was “sick of BYOD” and wanted out. She asked me if I thought she could “dump everything and just have employees remote into their desktops when they need to work from the road.”

It’s a compelling question, and timely, too.

In his 2015 end-user computing outlook, Gigaom Research analyst Simon Bramfitt documents the persistent fears that businesses have of BYOD plans along with the growing acceptance of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). It’s tempting to think that the two trends are directly connected: By turning smartphones and tablets into dumb terminals, we combine the redundant connectivity of a mobile device with all the security and manageability of a containerized desktop environment. If your iPad falls into a river, let it float — your data is safe on a server.

And plenty of vendors support VDI as an important component of an enterprise mobility solution. Citrix is  leading in mindshare, with a solid enterprise mobility management (EMM) platform and perhaps the industry’s best-known VDI solution. With AirWatch firmly under its wing, VMware offers a very similar range of features, and Microsoft isn’t far behind. Every week, in fact, I see lots of excitement from vendors about virtualized environments on mobile devices. But we’ve heard barely a peep from IT management — the ones who actually manage mobility programs. So while scrapping mobile app development in favor of delivering general-purpose apps to any device via a virtualized desktop seems like a tempting solution to a mobile headache, it clearly doesn’t stand in as a replacement for a BYOD plan.

In the last two years, I’ve only heard one other client mention an interest in using VDI as an alternative to apps. Here are three reasons why.

Assets still matter

An unlocked top-of-the-line smartphone like an iPhone 6 or a Galaxy 5 costs nearly as much as a laptop, and supporting and configuring that hardware is expensive (particularly if the tech support staff is not familiar with a specific phone model). And even if virtualization solved all security and access problems, tracking, managing and provisioning devices would still be a necessary and resource-consuming evil.

Mobile-device management (MDM) software provides those asset-focused services, and should be a standard deployment for every enterprise. And since most MDM providers already bundle a free or low-cost suite of applications to handle the most common productivity tasks, using those apps is generally much easier (and cheaper) than creating and supporting a virtualization program to connect to desktop apps.

Mobility is about more than the app

 Enterprise mobility isn’t simply about accessing apps on the go. The devices themselves are an integral part of the picture. That includes SMS, voice, location-based services, and the camera, all of which need to be managed and integrated into a system. For example, a sales app might integrate text and email communications with prospects while using GPS to guide reps to a meeting.  Enterprises supporting similar use cases beyond routine productivity  will want to take full advantage of everything a device has to offer through traditional apps.

There are also a number of mobile-specific concerns that rely on device and usage context. Throttling data transfers or disabling certain applications when a user is roaming or over a data cap can be managed fairly easily with EMM tools in traditional mobile settings. Connecting app behavior to device and plan data is much more difficult when the app is running inside a virtualized black box with limited connection to the device.

Mobile apps are different

Successful mobile apps are rarely anything like their desktop counterparts. While a desktop or web app can provide a wide range of choices through menus and expansive screens, a good mobile experience is heavily dependent on context and workflow, providing only the tools a worker needs at that moment to accomplish their current task. And since task switching is particularly difficult on mobile devices, good apps often pull from a number of different sources, mashing up traditional enterprise apps into a unified-but-focused front end.

And building those apps continues to get easier. No-coding platforms allow non-developers to drag-and-drop app components and data sources to create basic business apps. Cross-platform Mobile Application Development Platforms (MADPs) allow developers to write one set of code and deploy it to multiple target platforms.

VDI will certainly play a role in enterprise mobility. Our other client who asked about VDI had a very specific goal in mind. Following an acquisition, he wanted to provide an iOS environment to 500 new sales reps on non-Apple tablets. He needed his new employees to be productive right away, and he didn’t want to replace perfectly good hardware. That’s the kind of use case that’s absolutely perfect for VDI. It’s also a great solution for occasional users who need short-term access to a wide range of office applications and assets. But as a catchall solution, we’re going to have to live with EMM and mobile as we know them. Our devices are too smart to become dumb.

Image courtesy of triloks/iStock.

10 Responses to “Virtual desktops don’t replace EMM”

  1. Bob Foster

    I have a bunch of enterprise customer sitting on stacks of XP boxes gathering dust, I will go and tell them this story and report back on how they do with it. This will appeal to a LOT of big orgs out there holding onto lots of legacy XP boxes.

    Microsoft really needs to fix the VDA license < If they do not, the DaaS space will thrive without them, we do not need MS blessing to do real DaaS in this world amongst SA holders.

    DaaS is exploding without Microsofts blessing and its all underpinned by VDI rather than RDS, only crazy people build DaaS out of RDS.

  2. ewalsh5

    Don’t believe VM and VD ever can replace EMM .. a full suite EMM like Kony offers MADP, MBaaS, API Management and PaaS infrastructure. Comprehensive backend cloud features – Service Orchestration, data sync and storage .. and this is before considering their console, active directory benefits and UX flexibile layouts. It’s much more of a full capacity operation solution. (more here:

  3. Enterprise mobility has come a long way from being a niche, ‘good to have’ service to being a dedicate first choice approach of industries. There is enough evidence to suggest that the UX benefits alone are worth more ROI (more here:, overriding even the deepest security concerns for many companies. We just have to tighten the aspects important to our deliverables and data in EMM .. VM isn’t the way. – IDG blogger posting on behalf of PC Connection

  4. Realy? Take a thousand $ iPad and turn it into a Windows terminal? If you want to make a workforce not only mobile but productive as well, give them good tools to work with. IMO VDI on a mobile device is not that.

  5. amitabhsinha

    VDI solves the problem of delivering apps and data to unmanaged (BYOD) PCs and Macs. The mobile (iOS and Android) experience leaves much to be desired.

    MDM/EMM solves the problem of delivering apps and data to mostly managed mobile (iOS and Android) devices. It does not solve for PCs and Macs.

    CMT (Client Management Tools) solves the problems of delivering apps and data to managed PCs. It does not solve for mobile and Macs.

    All three solutions (VDI, EMM, CMT) have relevant niche use cases.

    But we need a new solution to deliver:
    – any app (web, windows, hybrid, native) and
    – any data (CIFS, sharepoint, open text, iManage) to
    – any device (PCs, Macs, iOS, and Android)
    with a good user experience & reasonable TCO.

  6. Rann Xeroxx

    This whole article is not very focused. It keeps mentioning BYOD and than talks only about “apps” and mobile devices. What about BYOD computers? When you are talking about working remote, depending on your job, most work is done on a full computer. Other than issues with bandwidth, remoting into a VDI works fine for most work, other than graphical engineering (they are working on that but its a work in process). Even a ChromeBook can remote rather well into a VDI.

    As far as mobile devices, after implementing a MDM solution at our enterprise, one that was in Gartner’s magic quadrant, we are very unsatisfied. Frankly out experience is leading us to the conclusion that you should not try and control the device but control your app(s). Example, have your email app, that is encrypted and locked with your federated ID account. It has a poison pill in that after 3 days of off line, you cannot access it if the app can’t heartbeat back to the server. And if you leave the company, we kill your account. Do whatever you want with the app, leave it on your device, remove, whatever. Do this with all your apps. Your other corporate mobile apps just make into web apps. This will not work for all companies but a great many it will.

    • Regarding focus, my apologies. You’re right – laptops and desktops were the first BYO devices, though as you mentioned, VDI has been a huge improvement over the early VPN + app combo that left the device wide open and caused so many headaches for support.

      Regarding MDM, I think it (like VDI) is a wonderful tool when it’s used properly for the right jobs. If you want to provision devices, pull support information, lock or wipe, and so forth, it’s fantastic. BoxTone (now part of Good) did very well for several years providing a support interface to exactly that kind of information. But you’re absolutely correct that it’s a brutal way to manage apps and data – particularly if you have to deal with partners and contractors. App-level management tied into identity is definitely the way to go, but depending on the app and the audience, you might need a few tools to get there. Responsive Web apps, custom apps, policy-wrapped third-party apps, VDI – they’re all solid options for the right user and context.

    • I have to agree on your perspective on MDM, especially when considered in conjunction with BYOD programs. I’d go as far as to say that 1st generation MDM tools worked against BYOD by design. Taking an app/data-centric approach is the only sensible way to go, and I’m sure you’ve noted that as the market has matured vendors have stopped pushing MDM in favor of MAM and EMM systems.

      You might want to revisit 3D graphics on VDI, this technology is now good enough for prime time. I know of several companies that are running it successfully, some in house and some via specialist DaaS providers.

  7. To be clear, I don’t think that there is any connection between VDI reaching maturity and the push back against supporting BYOD. Not wanting to jump through the hoops of implementing a safe and secure BYOD program is a position I can understand and fully empathize with, however to go from not wanting to support BYOD to having “employees remote into the desktops when they need to work on the road” is a cure worse than the disease.

    In short, desktop virtualization is a management technology, not a mobility technology.

    A virtual desktop can be accessed on a mobile device but for the most part it is a pretty poor experience, not because remote display technology isn’t up to the job, it’s possible to run professional 3d graphics apps across 4G LTE connections and achieve perfectly satisfactory results. Rather because mobile devices have small screens and the translation between touch-centric device and mouse/keyboard centric desktop is challenging both from a technical and user experience perspective.

    This doesn’t mean you should discount Windows applications from a mobile strategy. Beyond the basics of remoting the application without the accompanying desktop, Citrix has a rich API that allows developers to take advantage of mobile OS user interface components and expose mobile device sensors to Windows applications. Reddo Mobility is implementing a platform that allows non-developers to take existing Windows application components and use a drag-and-drop interface turn them mobile optimised business apps. Most recently at last week’s Citrix partner conference Summit, Citrix showed off a new way of overcoming the challenges of working with mouse-centric apps on a touch driven mobile device. Not yet a shipping product, but polished enough to go to production if customers demand it., the “X1 Mouse” is a Bluetooth mouse you can use with the Citrix Receiver app on your iPad so you can have a real mouse with your remote Citrix desktops and applications.

    Together tools like this mean that the mobile device can do things that are impossible if you have to rely on native device features alone, at the same time though, they are only part of a much broader set of technologies that can be used to implement a comprehensive mobile strategy.

    • Agreed. I think VDI is a fantastic addition, particularly for companies with a lot of existing Windows apps or existing VDI implementations on desktops and laptops. And virtualization vendors (I’ve been very impressed by Citrix in this regard) have gone a long way toward mapping mobile gestures and other UI quirks to those apps in a pretty seamless way. It’s a great tool, and I think we’ll be seeing more of it. But like just about everything, it’s one more tool in a toolbox. About a year ago, I spoke with a vendor who told me that responsive HTML would kill native app development in 12 months. Unless something cataclysmic happens in the next two weeks, that doesn’t look likely to happen, though there are plenty of cases in which mobile Web apps make sense.