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My virtual desktop experiment: No desktop. No laptop. Just my iPad.

July 23, 2012 / Don Mennig

I’ll admit it. I was a VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) skeptic. But now I’m a convert. What turned me from cynic to evangelist? I ran a little experiment. Last month, I was preparing to travel for an entire week. First, I attended Cloud Expo East 2012 in New York from Monday through Thursday, and then headed down to Avalon, N.J., for a few days.

The experiment was to go sans laptop for the entire week, bringing only my iPad with an Apple keyboard running The Evolved Office: Desktop. It works on the iPad by utilizing VMware’s VMView app. You download it from the App Store, enter your connection URL, log in just like you would with any PC or laptop, and boom … Windows is running on the iPad. Or in my case, Windows running on my iPad, running on the Evolve IP VDI infrastructure.

The first test came when I missed my train and had an hour to kill. I had been putting the finishing touches on a PowerPoint presentation that was going to be running on one of our trade show booth monitors. The remaining tasks were fairly straightforward: setting animations, slide timings, fine-tuning spacing, font sizes, etc.

I settled in at Starbucks on its free WiFi and had at it. I have to say … it was as smooth as glass. Once I got used to using the virtual trackpad and touch-mouse cursor (only took a couple minutes), I was editing away. It was nice having access to all of my network drives too, since that’s where the PowerPoint presentation and my graphics libraries are stored.

Once on the train, I realized I hadn’t quite finished what I started at Starbucks, so I fired it up again. If you’ve ever used AmtrakConnect Wi-Fi, you know how useless it is most of the time, so I went with my iPad’s built-in 3G connectivity. Aside from one stretch where we went underground, it worked perfectly.

Even when I was disconnected when underground, once reconnected, everything was still there, just as I left it. Right about then, the fact that I had just finished an elaborate PowerPoint presentation — on an iPad — on a moving train, was slowly sinking in. I was now officially becoming a fan of this whole VDI thing.

The next stop was the Cloud Expo show at the Jacob Javits Center. I was excited that we were going to be running live demos of The Evolved Office: Desktop, both on an iPad and a 5 ½-year-old Dell laptop that one of my co-workers brought with him. It’s one thing for a show attendee to understand the concepts and benefits of a proper VDI solution. It’s another thing entirely to see a tablet or ancient laptop running Windows with the speed of a quad core i7 processor with 8GB RAM.

For our demo on the show floor, we hooked an iPad up to one of the 26-inch LCD monitors mounted on our trade show booth using a VGA cable and the Apple VGA adapter (you could also connect via HDMI or AirPlay using an Apple TV).

When you connect in this manner, the iPad sends the image to the monitor then turns itself into half a track pad, and half a keyboard, which is as cool as it sounds and even easier to use. Connect a Bluetooth keyboard and the iPad becomes a giant track pad. When operating in this mode, it straight up feels like you’re using a PC. (Our CTO even figured out how to add a mouse into the mix, but that’s another blog post altogether.)

This demo setup was a showstopper. We would display Word 2012 or PowerPoint 2010 with various iterations of “Hi, I’m an iPad. Yes, this is Windows and Word 2010. Isn’t it great when we all get along?” It was funny to see people cruising by the various booths until their eyes hit that message.

The most frequent reaction? People would stop, tilt their head sideways while studying the setup, then come right up to one of us and say, “How are you doing that?” Or, “So does this actually work?” They were hooked, so we would then give them the full dog and pony show.

One skeptic was a lead designer at a creative firm. I figured I had one way to impress him. I installed Photoshop CS6 from my remote marketing department drive in front of him. I then created a graphic similar to the messages we were running with Word and PowerPoint, but also added some graphics. His reaction? “That’s the coolest thing I’ve seen here.”

I should also mention that, after suffering with the dead-dog slow WiFi at the show, I was initially worried about the performance of our VDI solution demo. Even pulling up a simple web page was practically unworkable over the Javits Center’s WiFi. Our engineers back at Evolve IP’s main data center assured me that as long as the connection was persistent, we only really needed 100k each way. It turns out, they were right, and my fears were unfounded.

Not only did the demos run smoothly, but the limited Internet bandwidth turned out to be a silver lining. Everyone at the show knew that the WiFi was horrible, and other vendors’ VDI demos were lagging. Ours was flying, and people were impressed.

Now that Photoshop was installed, I also installed Adobe Dreamweaver. It turned out to be a great move because I was able to make updates to our website from my hotel room. I was also able to create graphics for some blog posts, run reports on our social media activity from Radian6’s Flash-based dashboard, and just work as I would if I had my nine-pound Dell Studio 17 laptop with me.

On my last night there, it dawned on me that I could connect my iPad to the hotel room’s 32-inch LCD TV. As I sat there on the bed; keyboard connected; iPad running as a track pad; 32-inch, 1920×1080 monitor just four feet away — I was in nerd heaven. I grinned like a little kid on Christmas morning as I realized that I’ll never have to travel with a laptop again.

Leaving New York, I did a little more work on the train. I edited some Word documents, updated my project-tracking Excel document, answered some emails (although I did that using the native iPad email client), and wasn’t even thinking about HOW I was able to do this. It literally became second nature in just a few hours.

My experience from the beach house was similarly seamless. I keep a 19-inch LCD monitor there, so connecting The Evolved Office: Desktop to it while performing the few tasks I actually did over the weekend was a snap. As with the show attendees, a couple of my techie friends stopped in their tracks when they saw the unusual configuration. I spent at least two hours that weekend showing it to people.

My friend Ben said it best: I can think of so many reasons why this makes sense. Me too, Ben. Consider me converted. Desktop in the cloud is for real, and it’s massively cool.

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