Accessing mobile unified communications with virtual desktops

Running virtual desktops for mobile unified communications provides users across many platforms access to the same UC apps available on their laptops or desktops. Learn about the benefits and challenges of integrating virtual desktops, unified communications and mobile devices.

Editor’s note: Virtual desktops deliver access to mobile unified communications applications, providing end users access to rich collaborative tools with their preferred mobile device.

Virtual enterprises strive to provide place-independent and device-independent work environments. Full support for mobility is a key tenet of the virtual enterprise. Smartphones and iPads (and now many other tablets ) have made the future look distinctly mobile to many IT departments. More than 70% of organizations have some support for mobile platforms now. Already 11% of organizations report having some users whose only connection to enterprise systems is via a mobile device. On average, they say slightly fewer than 2% of users fall in this category, but at the leading edge of the group 38% of users do.

Success with mobile initiatives is strongly correlated with having a mobility strategy in place and doing a risk assessment when developing that strategy. A major risk factor to consider is the place of mobile platforms in a UC environment. Fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) may make the integration of smartphones into a campus VoIP deployment easy, but doesn’t help much with a Samsung Galaxy tablet, for example. How can users across many platforms use the same set of rich tools that laptop or desktop users can?

Channeling mobile unified communications with desktop virtualization

One key enabler of the virtual enterprise is desktop virtualization (DV). DV treats the desktop operating system (usually Windows, sometimes Linux or Solaris) as a container for application delivery. Already, more than half of all organizations have some desktop virtualization, a number we expect to grow to 74% by 2012. More than 60% of technologically aggressive organizations, which pursue enterprise virtualization technologies faster, have some desktop virtualization in place. Virtual desktops can reduce endpoint capital and operating expenses as well as ease management headaches.

IT can use virtual desktops as a channel that users can tune into from a PC, a dedicated thin client, or thin client software running on other platforms including several smartphone and tablet OSes. One IT leader in our current (2011-2012) round of research interviews told us that his ultimate goal is “to virtualize everything and achieve complete device independence.” This necessitates running softphones and other UC clients within the virtual desktop images, making them available to mobile users.

Running UC in virtual desktops introduces performance challenges in two areas:

  • Processing signal data
  • Providing “desktop-like” performance

To optimize the user experience, UC software and the virtual desktop client software should use the local device to process (encode and decode) audio and video data wherever possible. This will vastly reduce the latency involved, as well as the volume of data moving between device and data center.

To achieve desktop-like feel in terms of interactions with the interface, virtual desktops delivered to mobile platforms need to deal with the challenges of limited bandwidth over links whose quality tends to be far more variable than links on a campus LAN or WLAN.

Testing ensures mobile unified communications app performance

To combat such problems, enterprises need to look for and test client software that can optimize, through compression and latency/loss mitigation, all traffic between client and virtual machines in the data center. This has been a subject of significant development activity in the protocols used for virtual desktop traffic. Citrix and Wyse have solutions available for various platforms, for example, and Cisco has one for its own UC environment and tablet.

Another set of issues to consider is the suitability of the mobile devices to work with the UC tools’ interfaces. Some clients, with or without layered software added to virtual desktops, can support current technologies such as multi-touch screens. Others would force users to interact via keyboards and/or mouse (finger) if available. This is another area where there is no substitute for testing.

The bottom line? Integrate virtual desktops into your UC thinking, and mobile client devices into your virtual desktop planning. Test multiple solutions. Test not only supported platforms, but also platforms you expect to have to support in the future (iPhones anyone?), and test under real-world conditions of mobile use. 

About the author:

John E. Burke is a principal research analyst with Nemertes Research, where he conducts primary research, develops cost models, delivers strategic seminars, advises clients and writes thought-leadership pieces across a wide variety of topics. John focuses mainly on application delivery optimization (ADO), and desktop virtualization and the new enterprise desktop. He also covers server and storage virtualization, management and monitoring, SOA and SaaS.

Dig Deeper on

Unified Communications