Windows cracks under data access demands

The operating system fights for survival as workers demand cross-platform access to corporate data

The enterprise workforce now has more choice than ever when it comes to endpoint devices, with smartphones and tablets, as well as the more traditional PC and Mac, all deployed in many organisations.

This shift means that Windows, once the predominant business platform, may be losing its importance as the gateway to corporate applications and data.

Not too long ago, worker access to corporate data meant running Windows applications, and by extension, using a Windows PC or laptop.

Nowadays, many employees can access their customer relationship management (CRM) system and transact sales from an iPhone, or update spreadsheets from an iPad, and many other functions that previously could only be performed on a PC.

This doesn’t mean the PC is dead, a point that Forrester Research made explicit in a report earlier this year. “Traditional PC hardware and PC-based software remain priorities; the PC isn’t dead,” it stated

“But mobile devices and apps are rising in importance, and providing workers with flexibility and supporting customer service – on both company and consumer-owned devices – are now key IT disciplines.”

Other options available

This has led to many enterprise applications being made accessible via platforms other than Windows. In some cases, this has been accomplished by offering native versions of client software for platforms such as Android and iOS, as Microsoft has done with its Office mobile apps, while firms such as SAP have offered developer tools that enable mobile software to connect into their applications.

Microsoft also tried to move towards a more cross-platform model in Windows 10 by enabling so-called Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps, with the intention that these would run across PCs, laptops, Windows tablets and Windows smartphones.

However, that vision was hampered by the fact that Windows Phone accounts for just a tiny percentage of the overall smartphone market, with most users preferring an iPhone or Android device. In recognition of this, Microsoft has switched to developing iOS and Android versions of its apps that link to Office 365.

Another factor is the continued growth in cloud services, specifically cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications that are accessed via a web browser. Business applications such as CRM and enterprise resource planning (ERP) have long been delivered this way, but more are following, notably Microsoft with its Office 365 suite of productivity tools and Google Apps (now rebranded G Suite).

With this approach, the browser becomes the client rather than the device or its operating system, and this has been given a boost with the emergence of standards such as HTML5 that enable web developers to create more dynamic and interactive applications, and customise the interface for different devices by serving up a mobile-friendly version of the page to smartphones or tablets.

Read more about desktop computing

Options for access to IT have soared since the desktop PC’s heyday, and organisations must conduct a balancing act.

To remove barriers to workforce mobility, CIOs need to deliver the right apps and information to the right user, on the right devices.

The increasing sophistication of web-based apps also led to the introduction of the Chromebook, a laptop platform based on a lightweight operating system from Google that is focused around the browser and Google’s cloud-based services, including Google Apps and automatic backing up of user data to the cloud.

These have been gradually finding a home in many organisations as a low-cost business client for employees that primarily work with documents and SaaS applications, with a range of models now available from suppliers such as Toshiba and HP, as well as Acer and Asus.

Providing virtual desktops

Meanwhile, another approach that organisations have been turning to for cross-platform access to applications is to provide virtual desktops, or to present the user interface of a Windows application on an endpoint device. In both instances, the application is actually running on a Windows server in the corporate datacentre or in the cloud, and the user interacts with this using their device as a remote display.

This is technology first pioneered by Citrix long ago, but which has seen something of a revival since the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend saw employees start to bring iPads into the workplace and demand access to corporate applications with them.

Delivering access to applications this way has some advantages. It enables users to access standard Windows applications such as Microsoft’s Office suite via non-Windows devices including Apple or Android tablets. Also, because the application is hosted on a central server, no data is stored on the endpoint device, which means that if a tablet should be lost or stolen, the data remains secure.

However, the downside of a remote desktop strategy is that it often calls for a significant amount of infrastructure to support it, especially if organisations choose to provide a full virtual desktop instance to users rather than simply virtualising individual applications.

Another drawback is that it requires a constant network connection between the endpoint and server, which may be fine for on-campus working over Wi-Fi, but impractical for travelling sales staff, for example.

In addition, licensing costs have often made the server-hosted desktop approach prohibitive for all but the largest organisations.

Parallels Remote Application Server

One company seeking to change this is Parallels, which acquired 2X Software in 2015 for its remote desktop services technology. It used this to deliver its Remote Application Server (RAS) product, which is based around a simple subscription-based annual licence that starts at £66.66 per user.

Parallels customer Enterprise South Liverpool Academy (ESLA), a secondary and sixth form school, saw this as an ideal way to provide IT services to students and teaching staff both on-site and in their homes, without over-stretching their budget.

 “We wanted to bring technology into the classroom, and we knew we were going to have to go for quite a mobile solution, because the days of a fixed classroom, the big fixed computer suites, have gone,” says ESLA head of ICT Chris Little.

“So we were looking at independent learning, enabling a lot of use of iPads and tablets and things like that. We decided to get a robust Wi-Fi solution, and we wanted a good virtualisation system that we could use to deliver apps to students on their own devices or school devices, and for staff to be able to access it from outside of school after hours. We looked at quite a few solutions brought to us by Capita, including the usual big names like VMware, and then we were demonstrated the RAS system, which was considerably better value for money,” says Little.

So far, ESLA’s RAS deployment has been largely trouble-free, according to Little, with few issues reported by users when accessing server-hosted applications over a Wi-Fi connection or remotely via the internet.

On the device side, Parallels has used some features from its Parallels Access product to give Windows apps a native look and feel when accessed on an iPad or Android tablet, such as support for touch input and gestures like pinch-to-zoom, making them easier to use.

Similar capabilities are offered by VMware’s Horizon platform and Citrix’s XenDesktop, which are targeted more at larger organisations. Horizon, for example, is designed to run on top of VMware’s vSphere platform, which many enterprises will already have deployed in their infrastructure.

Windows not going away

However, this growing interest in cross-platform access to applications should not imply that Windows or PCs are going away any time soon. While it is possible to perform many tasks on devices such as tablets and smartphones, running demanding tasks or having many applications running simultaneously is still best served by the power of a PC or Mac and a large screen.

Also, the decline in PC shipments does not necessarily mean they are being replaced by devices such as tablets. In many cases, factors such as the greater reliability of modern PCs enables organisations to renew them less frequently, while workers are making use of tablets and smartphones alongside their PC or Mac instead of replacing it.

Every industry is different

“We must remember, when looking at the commercial PC market, that the decline in sales is not totally hardwired to the growth in smartphone and tablet sales. Most employees in the ‘knowledge worker’ category have one of each,” says Richard Edwards, principal analyst for enterprise ICT at Ovum.

“Every industry is different, each having a different mix of role types, application types and activities that need to be undertaken.

Today’s computing landscape provides choice that extends in both reach and range to meet these different needs, and that’s what matters.” 

This was last published in December 2016

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Having used remote web-based platforms on several "modern" devices, I can't help thinking back to my mainframe/mini days, when typing a message, and having to wait upto twenty seconds for the text to be reflected back on screen. Not a problem, where typists are properly trained, but for those with nine thumbs and only one finger, it makes for frustrating use.

Distributed computing meant having local processing, and fewer data round trips. This makes for more effective use on devices using the Mobile Phone data network capabilities.  The problem with trying to be instant, makes for frustration when the signal is low, or blocked by large metal framed buildings, as in much of the modern world, where these are thrown up and merely shrouded in a thin plasterboard or similar overcoat.

As a former software developer too, who worked on multiple "Paradigms", for me, the most effective system was what became known as 3-tier, where data was processed at the appropriate system level, and communicated sporadically... Not perhaps as immediate as some would like, but for solving that problem, we are in danger of creating a motorway network for data, and building up the use of it, to the extent, that every one has to travel at the data equivalent of 20mph... OK, if you are the one with overtaking lane speeds, but for most applications not strictly necessary. 
Browser applications merely throw more and more traffic onto the network, that doesn't need to be there.

Time for a rethink? 
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