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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.

For starters, clinicians had complained to Wright that a virtualized session of the desktop version of Cerner was unwieldy on the iPad's native Safari browser. The Cerner app-touch-enabled or not-simply doesn't work well on a small tablet form factor. There's just too much information to view.

Then there is Cerner itself trying to enter the mobile game. The software company has been focused on developing a native iOS app instead of a mobile Web-based version, which flies in the face of the desktop virtualization model.

"In order to get [the native app] to play, I'm told that I have to register each device to be able to get to the Cerner server," Wright says. "That goes against my BYOD and virtualization strategy. I don't want to be keeping track of somebody's personally owned equipment."

Instead, Wright has been working closely with Microsoft engineers and a software company called VitalHub to basically port Windows desktop software to touch-friendly Windows 8 so that it could be served up in a virtualized environment to iPads. The end-goal is to have a touch-enabled, tablet-sized version of Cerner running on the iPad's Safari browser.

"Windows 8 is the only touch-enabled OS that you can really virtualize," Wright says.

Fortunately for Wright, Seattle Children's Hospital's clinicians didn't pound on his door demanding access to the Cerner native iOS app on their iPads. One of the reasons is that clinicians use the Cerner app mostly at the hospital where there's a Windows machine with a large monitor around every corner.

"This keeps them from reaching for an iPad," Wright says.

Microsoft's Monkey Wrench
Even more confusing is Microsoft's role in all of this.

Forrester's Johnson advises CIOs to carefully consider the future of Windows desktop applications for their systems of record before making the jump to virtual desktops. If a CIO anticipates a long-term dependency on the Windows desktop-say, five years and beyond-then he might want to consider one of a half-dozen virtual desktop solutions.

"For most large organizations, virtualizing Windows applications to support BYOD would be very likely a medium to long-term solution," Johnson says.

The problem is that Microsoft seems to be moving away from virtual desktops and toward a new mobile application model, thus diminishing the need for traditional desktop software. In addition, Johnson points out that Microsoft is putting little marketing resources behind Microsoft VDI and Client Hyper-V.

"We think the Windows desktop will be increasingly used for a subset of all the work that people do," Johnson says.

Virtual Desktops Face BYOD Security Challenges
The virtual desktop also isn't a panacea for BYOD's security woes.

The reality is that some employees will need to download corporate data on their BYOD tablets or phones and work offline instead of always having to fire up an online virtual session. Seattle Children's Hospital's solution to this problem is an Outlook plug-in from Accellion, a mobile file-sharing software vendor. Security-cleared employees can use Accellion to attach a file and send it fully encrypted to a home email address.


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