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Finally used to VDI? Now get ready for virtual mobile infrastructure

VMI provides the benefits of VDI without the disadvantages of operating a desktop on a mobile device. Remote mobile apps may be the way forward.

Over the past few months, we've started hearing more about a technology called virtual mobile infrastructure, or VMI. Broadly speaking, VMI is to mobile devices and apps what VDI is to desktop applications.

To be clear, VMI is not simply accessing remote Windows desktops and applications from a mobile device. Rather, VMI is accessing remote mobile apps from a mobile device. With VMI, a user clicks on an icon to launch an app on their phone, and the app's window appears as expected. However, since this is VMI, the actual mobile application is not running locally on the client device--it's running in an Android virtual machine (VM) in a remote data center.

For example, a company could develop an Android-based mobile version of an order entry app which would run in a virtual Android instance in the data center. Users in the field could then access that mobile app from whatever device they have: an Android phone, an iPhone, a Blackberry, a Windows Phone, etc. The company would only have to develop and support one app on one platform (Android), while their users could use the phone of their choosing.

The thing that's crazy about VMI is that I actually like it and think it's a fantastic idea. (And remember, I'm not a guy to just hop on the hype bandwagon. Even as late as 2012, I wasn't sold on the concept of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), that being the year I wrote "The VDI Delusion.")

VMI has all the same classic advantages of VDI. It's great for separating work and personal environments on the same device. The work side of things is nothing more than a single client app that connects to the remote apps. If an employee leaves, the company only has to shut off the employee's access to the remote system, and none of that employee's work stuff is available to them anymore.

It's also great because an enterprise only has to manage and support applications on a single Android platform—the platform running on their VMI hosts in the data center—and employees can connect from whatever device they have. Most VMI vendors have iOS clients too, which means that even the iOS users can use the same Android apps from their iPhone—the remote apps are only sending pixel information to the client mobile devices, and the mobile devices only need to send key, gesture, location and device information up to the remote application.

There's also a security benefit, since no corporate applications or data ever reside on the client device. Not only is this great when users lose their device, but it also makes it easy to protect and secure corporate data. It's a lot easier to prevent users from forwarding corporate emails and data to personal accounts when everything is in a VM running in your controlled data center.

There are several vendors in the VMI space today, including Raytheon, Nubo, Hypori and potentially even Citrix with their acquisition of Virtual last month. Each of these vendors takes a slightly different approach to VMI, though there's one thing they all have in common—every one of them is currently only able to virtualize Android. (Apple's licensing agreements don't allow iOS to be run in a central VM.)

As I mentioned already, this doesn't mean these VMI solutions can't be used with iPhones. The client device can be an iPhone, but the virtual mobile environment that these devices connect to on the back end has to be Android. And the user experience from an iPhone is fine. Yeah, the Android applications' user interface might not look 100% identical to an iPhone, but at least the user is connecting to a mobile app rather than a desktop app as with VDI.

This VMI concept is a bit new, but I would imagine that many of these smaller players will get snapped up by the larger enterprise mobility software companies, and in a few years, we'll all include VMI as a standard part of our enterprise mobility management strategy.

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