Virtualization no silver bullet for Macs or mobile

As employees bring non-Windows devices into the business, vendors tell IT to impose Windows via virtualization -- and miss the point

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I've heard from several IT pros that applications such as ERP run Windows only, so they either can't support users' mobile devices or can support only mobile access via a Windows VDI or other remote client. That's simply not true, says Thomas Grassl, who runs SAP's mobile and desktop marketing group and uses a Mac himself. In fact, he says SAP's application design approach is "mobile first where possible," given how much many ERP users travel. Yes, power users in accounting or HR need a Windows PC to do many of the sophisticated ERP functions from SAP's Windows app -- just as such users need the Windows version of Microsoft Excel because of its Visual Basic capabilities not available in Microsoft's Mac or cloud versions. But most of a company's ERP base is using ERP functions available in mobile clients or Web apps, or both.

SAP has about 30 native mobile clients for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry (not all apps are available for all mobile OSes), plus some specialty functions for Windows Mobile devices. SAP has no native Mac apps, but Mac users can access CRM, reporting, and many other functions through any of the popular Web browsers, as can Linux users and even Windows users who don't have a native Windows app, such as when working from a home PC. SAP's main competitor, Oracle, also offers some mobile and Web clients. The notion that the use of ERP means you can't work from a Mac or mobile device is simply not true for most ERP users.

Any strategy around imposing a Windows (or other) back end onto mobile devices through virtualization is a bad idea. If the goal is to provide both back-end-secured data and a common development effort, it makes more sense to go with Web apps that self-optimize (using CSS, dynamic HTML, and libraries such as jQuery) based on the device being used. Alternatively, you could take advantage of the ability in Android and iOS to create hybrid apps that work with native wrappers around a Web app for deeper, more dynamic use of native device capabilities tied to a common back end for logic and data management.

Virtualization technology also makes sense in mobile to create separation between personal and business contexts; users can switch to a business "partition" whose apps and data are separate from their personal apps and data, and manageable by IT. Several products that do this are already available or coming soon, from companies such as Antenna Software, Cellvox, Citrix's OK Labs Unit, and Enterproid. This style of virtualization doesn't extend the Windows monoculture, but it does deal with the more critical issue of managing a dual-purpose device in a way that honors both the individual and corporate contexts.

Monocultures are bad
IT has driven for standardization and consistency for several good reasons: easier management, easier deployment, and faster time to market for development. But a monoculture -- of any sort -- reduces your flexibility, narrows your scope of action, and leaves you vulnerable to a disease or equivalent systemic failure. Remember the Vista debacle? If Microsoft hadn't remedied that messy OS with Windows 7 in a relatively short order, companies would be stuck with an aging XP or moving users to a confusing replacement.

Think of how many established products you know suffer the effects of such inbreeding, until they finally fall with a thud as a new option becomes available: Unix by Linux, Lotus Notes by Exchange, the original System 7 Mac OS by Windows 95, QuarkXPress by InDesign (itself now also on an inbred decline), Lotus 1-2-3 by Excel, WordPerfect by Word (another one suffering from inbreeding's effects), BlackBerry by iPhone, and dBase by SQL.

You see the same effect in any monoculture, where successive generations get worse as new ideas are ignored and flaws left unfixed, as the incentive to evolve is lacking. Heterogeneity -- a cornerstone of consumerization -- is messier because it's more complex, but it's healthier and more apt to provide an option you need when you need it.

The opposite of a monoculture -- randomness -- is not the answer. You want managed diversity for your technology, just as you do for people and suppliers. Virtualization's proper role is to help different technology species coexist where they otherwise might not, not to clearcut the technology forest for one species of tree.

This article, "Virtualization no silver bullet for Macs or mobile," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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