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How cloud computing, tablets will reshape the desktop

The cloud and tablets both have sizable benefits for enterprises. Aligning the two can change the way you think about desktops.

IT departments are embracing both cloud computing and mobile devices for their multiple benefits. At first, these two technologies may seem to be fairly independent; mobile technology focuses on driving efficiencies in data centers, while the cloud brings new levels of flexibility and usability to end users. Both technologies are valuable on their own, but enterprise potential is amplified when mobile and cloud are used together.

Some functionalities that tablets lack can be found in cloud computing resources. For starters, most mobile device applications are designed for non-desktop platforms, like Android and iOS, and they tend to have a narrower range of functionality than desktop applications. Though tablets offer more mobility than even ultra-light laptops, they lack the substantial storage and are not designed to compete head to head with workstations or laptops when it comes to compute-intensive operations. There are a number of ways to meld tablets and cloud computing to deliver desktop-like functionality, and offer alternatives to traditional desktop experiences.

There are a number of ways to meld tablets and cloud computing to deliver desktop-like functionality and offer alternatives to traditional desktop experiences.

Bringing desktops to the cloud

One way to leverage the benefits of cloud computing for tablet users is to bring traditional desktops to the tablet. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) runs virtual desktops in a centralized infrastructure, which can reduce management overhead, improve consistency across desktops, and increase end-user access to desktop environments. In a similar way, admins can use cloud-based virtual desktops, known as Desktop as a Service (DaaS), rather than installing and maintaining a VDI. With DaaS, end users can access their virtual desktop from multiple devices, including a tablet.

There are a number of advantages to deploying virtual desktops. First, users can access applications and data on their desktops from a variety of devices, including tablets. Second, in the case of VDI, user data resides in a company data center, and in the case of DaaS, data resides in a cloud provider's data center. This frees up on-premises storage space and ultimately saves enterprises money. And finally, users are not dependent on mobile-designed applications for tasks that are best done with full desktop applications.

DaaS and VDI improve mobility to established desktop platforms by bringing the desktop to the tablet -- but can IT teams create even greater mobility?

Rethinking the desktop for mobile devices

What if instead of bringing existing desktops to tablets, IT teams used the tablet interface as the starting point for deploying enterprise applications? The cloud is a natural fit for delivering those services -- as long as IT teams secure the tablet-cloud platform and deliver the appropriate apps for end users.

Mobile device management (MDM) systems can provide important security functions, such as enforcing tablet configuration policies, whitelisting and blacklisting apps, enabling encryption, and remotely wiping lost or stolen devices. With MDM systems, administrators can control some of the same types of asset management tools for desktops and servers.

MDMs allow IT teams to control tablets and other mobile devices, but from an end-user's perspective, a major benefit of tablets is the ability to personally configure your own device. For example, if a user finds a productivity app that reads .xls files, he can download it for data analysis without waiting for IT to install the app. The responsibility of managing devices is shared between system administrators who set and enforce policies, and end users who must download apps within the parameters set by company policies.

In addition to a shift in responsibility, there is a shift toward using common file formats and application programming interfaces for applications. Light number crunching can be done on a tablet with a spreadsheet app, while more involved statistical analysis can run in the cloud -- assuming both can access and read the data.

Tablets are not a desktop replacement for all end users. Users of Microsoft Word's niche functionality or the advanced functions in Excel, for example, won't be satisfied with tablet office productivity apps -- at least not yet. The combination of tablet and cloud computing functionality, however, enables us to rethink the desktop and envision a flexible, useful alternative that leverages the advantages of both.

Dan Sullivan, M.Sc., is an author, systems architect and consultant with more than 20 years of IT experience. He has had engagements in advanced analytics, systems architecture, database design, enterprise security and business intelligence. He has worked in a broad range of industries, including financial services, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, software development, government, retail and education. Dan has written extensively about topics that range from data warehousing, cloud computing and advanced analytics to security management, collaboration and text mining.

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