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Can BYOD breathe new life into the virtual desktop?

Tom Kaneshige | July 11, 2013
Seattle Children's Hospital isn't your typical BYOD story. Its mobile device strategy isn't bound by onerous user policies and monitoring software. Rather, the hospital's CIO reports an interesting twist: BYOD is resuscitating ill-fated virtual desktop infrastructure technology.

As many as 6,000 people tap into Seattle Children's Hospital's network to check out confidential medical records and email. They might do so from all sorts of personal mobile devices and other roguish computers, ranging from personal Apple iPads and Android smartphones to (gasp!) Internet cafe desktops.

Even more alarming, there isn't watchdog software continuously tracking these devices and remotely wiping them when they're lost or stolen. There's no draconian Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) user policy blacklisting apps. There's no telling employees that they must give up privacy rights.

None of these security risks matter, because Seattle Children's Hospital employs a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) that safely keeps corporate data on corporate servers, not on client devices.

"That's the beauty of my BYOD strategy," says CIO Wes Wright.

It should be obvious by now that this isn't your run-of-the-mill BYOD story. In fact, Seattle Children's Hospital's approach hints at something altogether more fascinating: BYOD leading a resurgence of virtual desktops, a once-promising technology that has largely fallen on the heap of failure.

Virtual desktops come in many flavors and configurations, but basically the technology allows servers to run virtualized Windows desktop sessions accessible via a simple Web browser. From an IT perspective, this makes the client device largely irrelevant. Sounds great for BYOD, right?

"I think the whole BYOD thing really has kick-started VDI," Wright says.

Virtual Desktops: Rise, Fall and Rise Again
A few years ago, the virtual desktop fell in stunning fashion.

Virtual desktop projects failed due to cost overruns, complexity and a poor user experience. Some of those technical challenges have since been addressed. The introduction of storage technology to support persistent, one-to-one disk images and GPU-based graphics improvements have solved two of the technology's biggest hurdles, according to a newly released free ebook entitled The New VDI Reality, an update to The VDI Delusion.

Now BYOD is breathing new life into the virtual desktop.

"The number one driver for investment in client virtualization, according to our surveys in the end of 2012, is supporting work from anywhere-so flexible work styles," says David Johnson, principal analyst at Forrester Research, which he writes about in a blog post. "In 2011, it was trying to increase manageability and lower costs. It's a significant change."

Can Windows Software Run on iPads?
While BYOD drives a resurgence in the virtual desktop, it's important to note that some of virtual desktop technology's failings still exist and are even magnified in the brave new world of BYOD. Chief among them: Virtualized mouse-and-keyboard-driven Windows desktop software renders poorly on new-fangled touch-screen tablets.

To understand the problem, you need only to look at the popular Windows-based Cerner EMR (electronic medical record) software that Seattle Children's Hospital relies on.


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