Mobile Virtualization Might Soothe IT's Smartphone Headaches

There's a mobile revolution going on, but one could forgive corporate IT departments for not jumping up and down with excitement. That's because smartphones and tablets that are finding their way into the workplace represent insomnia-inducing challenges for IT, not to mention liabilities for companies with large mobile workforces.

Some solution providers said mobile virtualization just might be the answer harried IT departments are looking for.

Demand for that one cool smartphone that unites work and personal functions has been building ever since the Apple iPhone ignited the phenomenon known as the "consumerization of IT." Apple's iPad and Google Android-based tablets are quickly gaining fans among business users. Yet in both cases, data security and device management have proven to be enough of a barrier that IT departments often end up applying blanket policies that forbid their use, erring on the side of caution to prevent disasters from happening.

This mobile-phobia is a missed opportunity for companies, because employees' personal mobile devices are typically more advanced than the ones on which their companies have standardized, as is often the case with desktop PCs.

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"Smartphones and tablets are becoming an increasingly important part of user computing, and it's a challenge for administrators to handle these devices in the workplace," said Steve Kaplan, vice president of data center virtualization practices at INX, a Houston-based solution provider.

In light of the productivity benefits mobile devices bring, virtualization technology is receiving an increasing amount of attention. Chris Pyle, president and CEO of Champion Solutions Group, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based solution provider, has seen a "major uptick" in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) business driven in large part by the consumerization of IT. "People are bringing the devices they want to use to do business, and IT is trying to respond to that," Pyle said.

Wyse Technology's PocketCloud and Citrix's Receiver are examples of applications that can allow smartphones and tablets to mimic the functionality -- and more importantly, the security and management -- of corporate PCs. These apps can run most commonly used business applications and strike the much sought-after balance between user convenience and IT requirements.

A recently unveiled mobile virtualization partnership between VMware and LG could be a sign of where things are headed. LG next year will begin shipping Android smartphones pre-loaded with VMware's Mobile Virtualization Platform (MVP), a thin layer of software that is embedded on a mobile phone that puts the phone's operating system, applications and data into a virtual machine that's separate from the underlying hardware.

Scott Scherer, an analyst with research firm In-Stat, Scottsdale, Ariz., said there's an especially strong case for mobile virtualization in large organizations and ones with tight internal control requirements. And as with other types of virtualization, there is also potential for significant cost savings.

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"There is opportunity to improve productivity by granting mobile access to company tools and services, to reduce costs by shifting the purchase of handsets and service agreements to employees, and to improve IT department efficiency through easy-to-use administrative tools," Scherer said.

Chris Ward, senior solutions architect at Greenpages, a solution provider in Kittery, Maine, said LG and VMware's model has potential, but he doesn't believe most current smartphones have the horsepower to handle multiple operating system instances.

"The phone hardware manufacturers are going to have to stop skimping on horsepower," said Ward. "Most handset vendors underpower the phones or give them just barely enough to run the OS that comes with the phone. It'll be interesting to see if they can provide the horsepower, keep costs reasonable and maintain decent battery life."

Other vendors would argue that the single device for work and play can be realized without the use of mobile virtualization. This has been one of Microsoft's key mantras for Windows Phone 7, a beefy OS that comes loaded with Office apps, Office 365 suite integration and all the consumer bells and whistles a mobile aficionado could ever want. Microsoft says its OEM partners sold 1.5 million Windows Phone 7 devices in the first six weeks after its launch.

Given the number of IT departments that are struggling with the single-device conundrum, there's a lot of pent-up demand in the marketplace for technologies that solve the problem. Alan Gould, president and CEO of Westlake Software, a wireless solution provider in Calabasas, Calif., believes there will ultimately be several different paths to this goal.

"The concept of getting down to a single device for everything is going to take many shapes, including point-and-shoot cameras losing out to smartphones. Users that are required to carry a personal phone and then one for business also will tell you this is highly desired," Gould said.