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Introduction to Mobile Communications
Context-Aware Pervasive Systems
Advanced Server Virtualization
The Business Value of IT
Service-Oriented Architecture

Mobile Devices and Centralized Computing Redefine the Desktop

by Amir Husain

Hardly a day goes by without a new mobile or smartphone device hitting the retail shelves, with upgraded capabilities and compelling new functionality. The world over, mobile telephony is becoming universally prevalent and the capabilities of our phones are increasing by the day. From larger displays, faster networks, improved software and more effective input techniques to massive storage, GPS functionality, built-in security and easier to use designs; everything is on offer, with upgrades every six months. Wait a little while longer and you'll see greatly extended battery life with fuel cell technology, flexible displays, foldable e-paper, built-in micro projectors, and serious CPU and storage upgrades. The mobile device of today is more powerful than the PC of a few years ago.

No small wonder then, that mobility is being looked at so seriously within the enterprise. The fact of the matter is that today's professional interacts with corporate data not only from the secure environs of an office building, but also from the subway, while on the bus and when in a hotel room on the other side of the world. Due to the ubiquity of the next generation mobile device, it is becoming an increasingly common and imminently practical means of access into the corporate network.

While this development presents tremendous potential and flexibility for knowledge workers and mobile professionals, it also raises a lot of challenges for corporate IT management. If you take a conventional view of things, is the smartphone another client just like a desktop PC? If so, does it need to be secured in the same fashion? Before we allow it to tie-back into the corporate data center, will we install anti-virus software on it so that it can be free of key-loggers, trojans and byzantine code of other types? What about software distribution agents? Inventory and health management clients? And remote control/help desk applications? Does corporate IT need to buy as many management application software licenses for the mobile device as for a regular PC? Can the average corporation afford to grow its IT budget two, three or four fold as its employees go from a "one employee, one PC" model to a "one employee, many devices" model? Not likely.

If access to corporate data via a mobile device hinges upon a PC-like model for security and management, we might just be out of luck. Thankfully, however, that is not so. An emerging computing architecture that is beginning to make waves in the enterprise space offers an alternative. Not only does this new paradigm offer a way to effectively leverage mobile devices, making them a useful part of the IT infrastructure, it also mitigates many of the cost and management burdens identified earlier. This seismic shift that is altering the enterprise computing landscape is known as "centralized computing," also referred to as "Virtual Desktop Infrastructure" or VDI.

Centralized computing redefines the desktop; instead of using a PC that sits at your desk taking up a lot of space, making a lot of noise, generating a lot of heat and gathering a lot of dust, you only require a svelte thin-client like access device. Typically, such an access device is completely silent, has zero moving parts and is a fraction of the size of a typical PC. But the device can afford to be so minimal only because it isn't actually performing the heavy duty computing itself! It is mainly a means to gain access to your real desktop, which has now been centralized at a data center either as a virtual vachine (VM), a blade PC or a dedicated server. In this model, the fixed capabilities of the PC at your desk no longer limit what you can do. You may gain access to as much compute power as you need, based on your changing workload. And your IT administrators can reallocate available compute capacity throughout the enterprise using sophisticated management tools that are at the core of this exciting new architecture.

Where centralized computing truly shines is in its inherent synergies with mobile computing. Now that the PC is centralized, and possibly virtualized, you can access it from any device and from anywhere in the world! All your data, applications and settings are stored centrally so you don't have to worry about whether you installed Powerpoint on all your PCs, or whether you copied your presentation from your desktop over to your laptop. Everything is available from all the devices you use - your home PC, your laptop, your office PC and perhaps your smartphone. In the centralized computing architecture, what's being transmitted to your mobile device is merely pixel traffic--there is no file-system level or open network access--allowing you to compute securely from what might be an insecure device.

The Windows Mobile platform became the leading smartphone OS in the United States back in 2006, and has maintained its dominance since then. Despite the prevalence of this platform, very few users are aware of its full capabilities. For instance, the fact that Windows Mobile comes bundled with the basic technology needed to connect back to a centralized blade or virtual machine. Numerous OEM versions of Windows Mobile ship with the RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) client application, which serves exactly this purpose. Practically, though, accessing a desktop PC with a basic RDP client can be, mildly put, inconvenient. You weren't meant to look at a Windows desktop on a 2.5 inch screen. And this is where the software infrastructure that's at the heart of the centralized computing architecture truly comes into play. Sophisticated connection brokering software, such as ClearCube Technology's Sentral 6.0 product, will provide customization of the Windows desktop view to adapt it to the particular constraints of the access device. This is done using a technique known as multi-modal user interfaces. In addition to playing gatekeeper and appropriately allocating virtual machines to end-users, connection brokers will continue to be enhanced to provide a slew of capabilities targeted towards the mobile user. Very soon, we will see geographically aware brokering tune the remote access experience based on user location. The GPS capabilities built in to many of today's smartphones make this all the more practical.

It is one thing to look at a mobile device as "a really tiny PC", but it is quite another to appreciate the unique characteristics these devices now possess. For example, their high resolution integrated cameras and mobile broadband capabilities can make the mobile device a virtual extension of the PC experience. In a meeting or lecture, the mobile device is a handy way to capture notes and whiteboard images. With the right software in place, the tie-in to a centralized virtual machine allows notes to be immediately captured, collected, possibly run through an OCR and catalogued in one central place. When the user logs into his or her virtual machine using a thin client or other large screen access device, all the data is already filed and available. This is just one example where the unique capabilities of the mobile device, coupled with the centralized architecture, increase productivity and steer the user away from usability headaches such as manual device synchronization. Scenarios of this nature abound, and we will start to see many of them become quite common in the months and years ahead.

In conclusion, we are undoubtedly watching two powerful trends unfold before us; the birth of a next generation client computing architecture - centralized computing - and the morphing of the smartphone into a powerful, multi-talented, miniature access device. When put together, these technologies will allow anytime, anywhere access to data and applications. The PC, instead of being a 20 pound box parked on your desk, becomes a featherweight virtual machine that can live anywhere on the network; in a corporate data center or hosted by a Google, Yahoo or MSN. Unsurprisingly, as all these shifts take place, what remains most important is the software; connection brokers, remoting protocols, virtual machine management applications, multi-modal UI controllers and more. It is these software building blocks that make this evolving architecture so compelling and exciting. Based on what we already see, it is clear that we are about to enter a new age of computing and a new age of access. And what we have not yet seen, which stands just beyond the horizon I suspect, will make computing more useful than we can currently imagine. The fun, as they say, is just about to begin.


About the Author

Amir Husain is the chief technology officer spearheading the strategic development of cutting-edge products that deliver increasing value to ClearCube's customers. Amir is the inventor of ClearCube's patented and proprietary Distributed Computing Infrastructure and he holds more than a dozen filed and awarded patents. More information about Amir and ClearCube is online at www.clearcube.com.
 
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