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Mobile app virtualization eases deployment headaches for IT

Application virtualization has become a useful bridge technology for IT departments trying to enable a mobile workforce.

IT pros have begun to realize the challenge of enabling mobility isn't as easy as setting up an email account on an iPad and calling it a day. If IT doesn't provide a way to access corporate applications and data on mobile devices, end users will circumvent IT and choose their own applications.

Mobile is a great catalyst for change. Organizations don't have to do everything with mobile, but we're reaching a tipping point that it is the device platform of the future.

J. Schwan,
founder, Solstice Consulting

With careful planning and understanding of employees' needs, IT can deliver existing apps without having to incur the cost of completely re-architecting existing apps for a mobile environment -- a process which can take months of planning and development work, and can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The three phases of mobile app deployment

There are three phases of enterprise mobile application deployment, according to Sam Ramji, director of strategy at Apigee, an application programming interface platform company based in Palo Alto, Calif.

The first is the delivery of existing apps to mobile devices in a virtualized manner. IT shops insist that app virtualization as a mobility play is a necessary bridge technology, given organizational investments in Windows 7 and applications not built for a mobile environment. Many also acknowledge it's not a long-term solution to enable a mobile workforce either, and only makes sense from a cost perspective if organizations have already virtualized their applications.

The second takes an existing application and turns it into a cross-platform mobile app. The third decouples the data from the application and picks the appropriate application for the platform or device being used. Then, IT can pipe the data from the data center into the application.

"The first two don't respect the benefit of the mobile device," Ramji said. "The third is really hard to achieve with the realities IT departments face." Ultimately, he said, while mobile is forcing organizations to rethink how they deploy applications, there are still too many limitations for organizations to create an environment where the device doesn't matter, but the access and use of data does.

Mobility a 'catalyst for change'

Mobile has forced organizations to rethink existing systems and how employees access those systems, said J. Schwan, founder of Solstice Consulting, a Chicago-based enterprise mobility consulting firm, which released App Launcher, a previously internal-only mobile application lifecycle tool, this past summer.

"Mobile is a great catalyst for change," he said. "Organizations don't have to do everything with mobile, but we're reaching a tipping point that it is the device platform of the future."

Doctors and administrators at the University of California at Irvine's Medical Center insisted on using their own iPads for work, which caused the IT department to react seemingly overnight.

IT set up a combination of AirWatch's mobile device management and Bradford Networks' network access control to provide a level of control over devices flooding the network, said Curtis Hendrick, manager of emerging technologies and support services for the university's IT department. The organization pushed users towards iOS devices (approximately 1,000 iOS devices are now enrolled in an officially supported capacity at the hospital) because most of the organization's application vendors have released iOS versions of their apps, Hendrick said.

For applications that didn't have a mobile version to leverage, the IT department used its existing XenApp installation to push virtualized applications to iPads through Citrix Receiver. In the case of the hospital's electronic medical records application, doctors can use both the traditional Windows version of the app and an iOS version.

"The interface isn't great on Citrix, but doctors have more functionality for entering patient data. The mobile app is great for swiping quickly through results on an iPad," Hendrick said.

Rather than choosing one application delivery method over the other, IT must offer doctors the flexibility to use whichever version of the electronic medical record app they need at any given moment, he added.

Other organizations have migrated legacy applications to the cloud as a result of mobile, while concurrently using virtual desktop infrastructure technology to deliver homegrown apps in the process.

Two years ago, Quality Distribution Inc. (QDI), a Tampa, Fla.-based bulk-transport company, decided to reduce its dependence on Microsoft products, said Cliff Dixon, vice president of IT at QDI. The plan was to adopt Software as a Service applications, such as Google Apps, when possible and then use Ericom's PowerTerm WebConnect, which acts as a gateway to turn back-end data and applications into HTML5 Web apps for legacy applications.

Then, the company gave employees in regional offices Google Chromebooks to access the new application environment. The employees love it because they have access to all their applications and data even on a home computer, Dixon said.

"Because trucking happens in the middle of the night, it's a 24/7 type of employee," Dixon said. "If they need to start a process at home, they used to fire up their computer, create a VPN tunnel and hope things went smoothly. Now, they just grab their smartphone or iPad off the bed stand or anything with a modern Web browser, and get the job done in half the time."

The ultimate goal for QDI is to eliminate the company's data center footprint and legacy applications by 2015.

"We've taken that challenge to adjust our applications to fit the BYOD [bring-your-own-device] mold and choose app vendors that understand we operate in [the] mobile world," Dixon said.

Dixon envisions an IT department that is less about troubleshooting problems and more about delivering services. Going mobile and shedding legacy platforms is part of that vision.

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