Using the iPad as a VDI client: Does it work and who needs it?

If your users are always on the go and sick of lugging their laptops around, they may want to use the iPad as a VDI client instead. But they shouldn't expect a full PC experience.

Using an iPad as a VDI client is only viable in some use cases, but when the scenario is right, iPads can provide increased mobility and productivity.

The first reason an iPad might make a good virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) client is that today's tablets offer screen resolution rivaling that of desktop PCs from a couple years ago. The iPad display is up to the task of presenting desktop applications to users. We've also moved from 2G to 4G mobile networks that provide LAN-like speeds. So, the pieces seem to be in place for mobile access to corporate desktops without a laptop.

Who will use iPad as a VDI client?

Before you begin an enterprise iPad deployment, however, decide who needs them in your organization.  In some organizations, it's people who don't work regular hours and could be called on at any time. Senior management, project managers, on-call staff and conference attendees are obvious candidates. These people will have their iPad wherever they are and usually prefer not to keep a laptop on hand at all times. They can connect to a VDI session with their iPad and have instant access to a Windows desktop.

For many, the iPad desktop is more of a secondary VDI client, used until access to a larger screen is available with a proper keyboard and mouse. But what about employees who don't normally have a laptop or iPad and usually sit behind a desk using a PC?

VDI client use case: Customer service

I recently spoke to a colleague who finished a successful VDI rollout at numerous customer service centers -- specifically using iPads as VDI clients. At the service centers, staff use desktop computers behind long counters in front of a line of customers. The business deployed iPads to allow staff to be in front of the counter, talk to individual customers and show the customer detailed information. Staff can use the iPad desktop to access exactly the same CRM application that's available on their PC.

More on VDI client usage:

Tablets in the enterprise: Are you ready?

Diebold turns ATMs into VDI clients

Does a mobile VDI platform make sense for your users?

More mobile devices support virtual desktops, but is it practical?

When I heard about the VDI client project, I thought it was a typical iPad fashion venture, conceived at board level with little understanding of real use. I assumed staff would eventually find that using Windows applications on the iPad desktop and keyboard is too difficult to use all day, every day.

Surprisingly, staff engagement with customers is so valuable that helpdesk leaps into action the moment the system is unavailable. Using the iPad as a VDI client means customers can ask much more open questions and get answers immediately. Most importantly, users get the full corporate application, whereas it requires a huge amount of effort to bring a large application to a new platform natively. Using a native iPad app probably wouldn't have met the business needs, and mobile applications often end up being very feature limited.

Issues with iPad as a VDI client

But, is an iPad always a good VDI client? Common iPad complaints are that the iPad desktop has a small screen and it doesn't support a mouse. Plus, VDI operating systems (Windows XP or Windows 7) don't have great touch interfaces and aren't well-supported over remote protocols. I doubt anyone wants to use an iPad as their full-time VDI client.

Still, that doesn't mean an iPad isn't a valid choice for a VDI client. It worked well in the case of the customer service centers. If you're at a conference with just your iPad and need urgent access to an enterprise application, an iPad gets you there. It's probably a better choice than going to an Internet café and using their questionable device or Wi-Fi to access corporate systems. 

The iPad won't replace most people's desktop thin client, but the VDI client can enable access in more situations. VDI from an iPad isn't always the best technical solution, but it can be the best business solution. Don't be surprised if you're greeted by customer service staff with an iPad in the future, and don't assume they have some watered-down mobile application.

Alastair Cooke
is a freelance trainer, consultant and blogger specializing in server and desktop virtualization. Known in Australia and New Zealand for the APAC virtualization podcast and regional community events, Cooke was awarded VMware’s vExpert status for his 2010 efforts. Follow him on Twitter @DemitasseNZ.

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