Even as tablets have become increasingly commonplace, many IT leaders still struggle with how to implement the devices at their organizations. Off-the-shelf software for the devices is no longer a rarity, but it does little to address existing enterprise applications. In most cases, issuing the device itself is the easy part of a tablet deployment. Determining how to upgrade or modify your back office applications to leverage tablet technology is far more challenging and costly.
Virtualization to the rescue?
One shortcut to getting existing applications on tablets is desktop and application virtualization. Like the virtualization technologies that most of us are familiar with in the data center, desktop virtualization moves an end-user desktop, complete with OS and applications, into the data center. Desktop virtualization largely predates widespread tablet adoption, having made headway in niche markets where thin clients or generic workstations accessed centralized applications using technologies like Citrix and Windows Terminal Services.
Extending this concept to tablets seems relatively obvious, especially if you already have a virtual desktop infrastructure in place. Rather than enhancing or replacing existing applications, throw the appropriate client on your tablet device and suddenly you have access to your complete application portfolio, all with the centralized management and provisioning that comes from moving the desktop into the data center. Newer virtualization technologies allow for individual applications to be virtualized and presented to the user in a corporate "app store" of sorts. On the backend, these applications run on what amounts to a shared desktop image, limiting patching and maintenance to a small pool of images rather than requiring that each user be provided with an individual desktop.
One small detail
Virtualization certainly provides a rapid way to get enterprise applications onto tablets, with one major caveat: you're stuck with the traditional desktop user experience. Most enterprise applications assume screens significantly larger than the typical 5-10" tablet screen and are keyboard- and mouse-centric. Contrast your typical SAP or Oracle screen to the average tablet application, and this problem quickly becomes obvious.
There are a few mitigation strategies around the problem of putting desktop applications on tablets. The first is to simply acknowledge and ignore the problem, assuming that the cost savings of virtualization vs. tablet-native solutions outweigh the usability hit. Combine this with the fact that virtualization vendors like Citrix are adding tablet "enhancements" to their clients, which attempt to "translate" some tablet-style interactions like finger-based scrolling into desktop applications, and virtualization may be "good enough."
Virtualization also opens your fleet of tablets to traditional desktop development tools. A custom application for iOS and Android may be a bridge too far for your organization, but a C# front end, built using traditional desktop tools but with a tablet-optimized UI, may be more palatable.
The good news about virtualized applications on tablets, and the UI challenges the technology presents, is that it's relatively easy to test and demonstrate. The big three vendors — Citrix, Microsoft, and VMware — provide the usual demo licenses of these technologies, but I would suggest an even easier route for a "quick and dirty" proof of concept: GoToMyPC. The ubiquitous and familiar remote desktop tool is a Citrix product and contains some of the same UI enhancement technologies as their virtual desktop client. Put GoToMyPC on a desktop with your standard enterprise applications, install the client on a tablet or two, and you have a virtual desktop proof of concept that will make any usability problems (or lack thereof) glaringly obvious, without spending a dime or provisioning any complex technologies.
Desktop and application virtualization just might be a way to start using tablets in your organization, with a very modest investment compared to custom development or application upgrades. While not without caveats, it's easy to test and based on proven technologies that may already be implemented at your company.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.