Digging into virtual mobile infrastructure: What are the right use cases for VMI?

Virtual mobile infrastructure (VMI) was a big topic of conversation at BriForum. We've written about VMI before, but the BriForum session that Gabe Knuth and I gave covered a lot more ground, so over the the next few weeks I'll be sharing various parts of it in articles.

Virtual mobile infrastructure (VMI) was a big topic of conversation at BriForum. We’ve written about VMI before, but the BriForum session that Gabe Knuth and I gave covered a lot more ground, so over the the next few weeks I'll be sharing various parts of it in articles. This week I’ll cover VMI use cases.

(If you haven’t heard of VMI yet, you can find an introduction here. Gabe Knuth just wrote about another part of our presentation, where he used the BlueStacks Android emulator to do "DIY VMI." Also, check out Brian Katz's series of VMI podcasts from BriForum.)

VMI in context

When people learn about VMI for the first time, once they understand what it actually is there reaction is usually something along the lines of. “Interesting. That’s pretty cool! ... But wait, what’s it used for?” That’s the main idea of this article, but we can’t quite dive in yet. First we have to put VMI in context.

VMI will always be compared to VDI, and because of that we can take many of the lessons we learned from VDI and apply them to VMI. The most important, central lesson is that even though VMI technology itself brings all sorts of benefits, to be successful with it, you have to have a single important reason to use it. (Brian and Gabe have been writing about this for years.)

It’s also crucial to consider VMI in the context of the entire enterprise mobility space, including all the latest capabilities (and remaining limitations) of various forms of mobile device management, mobile app management, mobile security, and mobile devices. If you’re considering VMI, you have to be up to speed on all of this.

Why use VMI

Now we can begin. Why use VMI? Distilling all the reasons, there are two basic questions to ask:

  • Do you need a mobile app?
  • Do you have a specific need for any of the unique benefits that come with running that app remotely in a data center?

If you answered yes to both of those questions, then you need VMI. It’s as simple as that.

Taking the next step, what are the specific benefits?

  • No data is stored on the local client device—all that’s installed is a thin client app.
  • The business app is abstracted from the underlying client hardware—so you don’t have to be as concerned about device security, and you don’t have to deal with device fragmentation. (The makers of the VMI client apps still have to worry about that—but that’s their job.)
  • All your business apps run in a data center, where you can have much more control over the environment.
  • VMI provides the appropriate user interface: It’s mobile apps delivered to mobile devices, not Windows apps delivered to mobile devices, like if you were doing VDI.)

Who can take advantage of these benefits? The obvious targets are any industries with strict security or compliance requirements:

  • Government, defense, and intelligence
  • Embedded devices, manufacturing, point of sale, etc.
  • Healthcare
  • Finance

These are all industries where VMI vendors are seeing interest, running trials, and signing up customers.

More benefits

Of course VMI brings all sorts of other benefits:

BYOD and COPE: All of the users’ work apps are together in one place, separated from their personal apps, and secured without having to lock down the device or restrict the experience for personal apps. This is also good for user privacy.

Mobile app management: The current MAM landscape is a bit of a mess, as both of the major categories of MAM technology have tradeoffs. (Read more about that here.) VMI can work around these tradeoffs and manage any app on any device. This means you don’t have to worry about app wrapping, SDKs, or MAM ecosystems, nor are you limited to just the app management features that come built in to devices.

App strategy: Using VMI means that you can write one single version of an app and then deploy it to any device. Developers can lean on the security that’s part of VMI, so there’s no need for them to figure it out on their own. 

Complete mobile OS and virtual device control: VMI gives you complete control over the mobile OS—something that’s otherwise been next to impossible in the modern smartphone era. You can customize the OS, be in control of upgrades (both app upgrades and OS upgrades), set permission, and generally lock it down however you want.

Important aspects of VMI to keep in mind

All these benefits are tempting, but when looking at use cases we also need to keep certain other VMI attributes in mind:

Android only: To date, all VMI solutions has Android as the hosted OS, since Apple won’t allow iOS to run on third-party hardware or be controlled remotely. This does mean that all of the apps for your VMI environment must be available for Android. Some people view this as a challenge, since many ISVs still produce iOS apps first.

Legacy apps: While VDI is considered a solution to deliver legacy Windows applications, VMI has nothing to do with this—nobody has any legacy Android apps.

Different UI options: VMI can be used to deliver a complete corporate Android environment, or it can just deliver a single app (almost like the mobile equivalent of VMware Fusion’s “unity” mode). Your strategy can be to combine both remote VMI apps and locally-installed apps.

VMI is still new: VMI is a new technology that’s just getting started. There are technical and logistic challenges to be solved, and a remote connection to a mobile OS in a data center is very different from a local mobile OS. That’s not to be discouraging, just to be realistic. There are at least 6 different vendors working on VMI, though.

Offline: Obviously since it requires a remote connection, VMI doesn’t work offline. But remember you can always mix VMI with local apps, and we’ve also argued that offline doesn't mean the same to VMI users as it does to VDI users. But at the end of the day, if you need offline access, then VMI isn’t for you.

Real world use cases

Now that we’ve looked at all the benefits and attributes of VMI, what are the actual use cases for it?

Department of Defense, National Security Agency, and other government organizations: These are organizations that are, in the worlds of one VMI company founder, “extremely paranoid.” (This is with very good reason, of course!) These organizations have had trouble adopting modern mobility in the past because they’re very concerned about having data at rest on devices and device attestation. Special $4000 phones have been developed to support classified information, but these were ultimately unsatisfactory. A thin-client VMI approach is much more flexible and much cheaper, while still meeting their security requirements. (Justin Marston of Hypori has written more on this subject.)

[Probably not] BYOD for all typical commercial knowledge workers: Because VMI simplifies BYOD and mobile app management, some people believe it could be a widespread solution, However, that’s probably too optimistic. Remember when people predicted that most desktops would be virtualized? Yes, MAM and BYOD can be challenging, but for these general use cases, VMI is competing with other EMM and MAM techniques. So for widespread majority adoption, I’m going to say that’s not a likely use-case for VMI, unless your company feels the need to go to the same lengths as the DoD and NSA.

Single apps and tactical use cases: There’s more potential for widespread commercial VMI adoption for individual apps, for the reasons I covered above, like security and difficult to manage apps.

Embedded devices and the extended enterprise: The extended enterprise—think kiosks, factory equipment, embedded devices, field workers, partners, contractors, point of sale, and so on—will be a huge part of the enterprise mobility landscape, and VMI is applicable to many of these use cases.

Consumer-facing apps: VMI could potentially be used to secure consumer-facing medical and financial apps—the security benefits are obvious, as well as the benefits from having the app provider be able to update the app without user intervention.

Final notes

Even though VMI can be seen as an alternative the EMM and MDM and MAM, in reality VMI will most likely be used in conjunction with EMM. EMM techniques can be used to manage virtual Android images, to secure VMI client apps, and to combine VMI with local apps.

VMI is for sure a very specialized product, but as more companies start significant mobility projects, even if VMI is used for just a few percent of use cases, that’s still a significant market.