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Rival implementation paths - yet BYOD still hits a wall

Android, orphans, VDI and the Windows8 wildcard

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At many government agencies, mobile computing advocates are strongly pushing "bring your own device" (BYOD) solutions.

This can work, but only if the BYOD approach offers just basic functionality, such as allowing guest access to an office Wi-Fi network.

But most agencies want more than that out of their mobile devices. As they work to leverage the expected functionality of smartphones and tablet computers, hard limits are quickly discovered. When this happens, IT managers may need to limit exactly what BYOD means to their workers. Eventually this may mean approving just a specific subset of devices rather than allowing employees to bring whatever device they want.

This is happening even though mobile solutions tend to fall into two main technology camps - each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

  • The first camp supports the idea of purchasing or developing specific mobile applications. (There's an app for that!) Slight technical and programming variations often are necessary for these apps to run on iPhone, Android or Blackberry devices. That means managing multiple iterations of the applications. Sometimes these solutions include launching and managing a corporate "app store" which controls the downloading and on-going maintenance of various applications. Things quickly get complicated.
  • The second camp takes a different approach. Instead of developing multiple versions of applications, they instead support the idea of using virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI) as the best way to offer applications to mobile device end users. This solution doesn't require separate apps to be developed for different mobile platforms, nor does it require an app store. Instead each device loads a virtual OS instance from a server, and displays appropriate application within that virtual desktop window
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Both solutions look like solid performers at first glance. But each approach faces major challenges. Some of these challenges are outlined below.

Drawbacks Associated With Separate Apps and App Stores

The challenge starts with mobile infrastructure capabilities and application lifecycle management. This may include integration, security, governance, provisioning, usage analytics, and data integrity.

Beyond that, it can be challenging to create an application capable of operating flawlessly on all devices. Most apps need to be tweaked for the different devices on which they will operate. That not only means different versions for iOS, Android or Windows devices, it also means dealing with different subsets of those devices. Android in particular can be challenging. There are multiple versions of Android OS for different types of smartphones and tablet devices. Some of those versions are not longer supported. A Website called The Understatement has a great page showing support history and known "Android Orphans." Also, Adobe flash is no longer supported on some versions of the Android OS.

The Android issue already has caused some organisations to limit the number of devices that they will support. Thus it's fair to say that the concept of "BYOD" in those organisations already is very limited.

Another issue is the long-term migration of apps as new devices and OS versions are introduced. An app store becomes a maintenance management issue. This applies to all mobile devices, not just Android. IT managers need to anticipate and prepare for these ongoing maintenance issues.

Drawbacks Associated With VDI Implementations

At first glance, virtual desktops seem to address many of the issues listed above, but they also introduce their own problems. On smaller devices it can be difficult to view, scroll and conduct general navigation and business on a small screen. Some of this can be addressed by embedding client device rules into the server-side app. For example, the server could recognise whether the end user has connected using a four-inch of a full-size display. It can then modify the page accordingly. But many apps are not yet designed for this. VDI often ends up as an awkward kludge rather than a set of applications specifically designed for mobile devices.

VDI also amplifies connectivity issues when a device is beyond the range of any network. While connectivity can be a problem for any mobile app, with VDI end users actually lose their host computing environment along with the connectivity.

Also, moving to VDI can be complex. Often there are multiple components which must be correctly integrated in order to display a viable VDI environment. And, in many implementations, VDI ends up converting inexpensive desktop disk memory to more expensive storage area network (SAN) storage. These issues don't help organisations save time and money in the long run.

So with both the VDI and App store paths fraught with speed bumps, where does that leave an organisation which wants to allow users to bring their own devices? In reality, most will limit full enterprise connectivity to a very limited subset of devices.

The Windows 8 Wildcard

With the appearance of Windows 8 plus new mobile devices capable of running Windows 8 (such as the Surface tablet) organisations also have a third choice for enabling mobile devices.

Before talking about the mobile aspect of Windows, it's worth doing a little market size reality check for the plain old personal computer market. Apple may have a steadily growing market share, but it still makes up just13% of the total U.S. PC market. Thus Microsoft remains the dominate player in PCs. While Apple is a key player in the mobile market (iPhones and iPads) most government enterprise business applications are still designed mainly for use on PCs.

The genius of Windows 8 is that it runs on multiple types of devices, including PCs, tablets and smartphones. Thus, an application designed to run on one of those platforms usually can run on all. And Windows 8 itself can be set to run in either a virtualised desktop environment, or in native mode right on the devices.

The short story here is that Windows 8 machines avoid many of the pitfalls associated with the other two solutions outlined above. But organisations will still need to reconfigure their networks, servers and applications if and when they migrate to Windows 8.

Consequently, no matter which of these approaches an organisation decides to pursue, they still will hit a wall once they move beyond the simple "guest access" phase of their migration to mobile devices. That's when the tougher decisions start to kick in, and the choices are likely to include spending more development money and allowing fewer device choices for government employees.

Posted by Shawn P. McCarthy


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