App breaks through the mobile compatibility wall
- By John Breeden II
- Aug 23, 2012
Agencies attempting to move to mobile platforms will inevitably hit a compatibility wall based on the devices they choose. Some tablets and smart phones can’t run Windows apps such as Word and Excel, some are unable to support Flash, and some are simply too insecure for managing government data. Believe it or not, the Citrix Receiver app can eliminate all of those problems and a lot more, regardless of what mobile platform an agency chooses.
It’s not magic how the Citrix Receiver app works, though at first it might seem like it is. At the most basic level, it turns mobile devices into thin clients while handling all the heavy lifting for programs back at the data center. An agency has to be running a Citrix server to host the programs, but if it is, the Receiver app itself is free.
Ease of Use: A+
Government Price: Free
Pros: Allows desktop apps to run on most mobile platforms, secure, no noticeable lag
Cons: Must have Citrix servers on the backend, need to download some documents to edit
We tested Citrix Receiver on an Apple iPad and a Galaxy S II Android phone. Once the back-end connection to the Citrix server was established, we simply choose which apps we wanted to support. We picked Word, Excel, Adobe Acrobat and Internet Explorer as the main ones, plus a CAD-based drawing program to try out some heavy lifting in terms of data. An agency can let users pick and choose what apps their mobile devices will support, or an e-mail can be sent to users that will auto-configure their mobile workspace, a nice touch that should eliminate help desk calls.
The apps version of the programs running on the mobile platform work pretty much like the desktop equivalent, but also gain some new perks. The programs take on the advantageous properties of the platform on which they are running. For example, when you run Word on an iPad, you get to use all the touch gestures such as using two fingers to zoom in, or a three-finger tap to automatically adjust the view. And the program resizes automatically when the screen is flipped.
The Citrix Receiver also can add functionality in terms of security. Administrators can disable printing for example, which is done on the backend. Since the mobile devices are only really showing a window back into the server, any settings made there will be enforced automatically. Patches too can be applied at the data center without forcing users to connect to the network. They will simply connect to patched programs from that point forward.
Lost phone less risky
No data is actually being saved on the phone or tablet in most cases, either. So if a user loses his phone or tablet, anyone who finds the device won’t have access to government information. The only exception to the rule right now is that some documents need to be downloaded to the mobile device itself to be edited, although Citrix officials say they are working on a solution to allow editing to take place on the server side. In terms of logging into the data center, that tunnel can be protected with multiple levels of authentication including passwords and RSA SecureID Soft Tokens. So a stolen device isn’t really much of a problem anymore.
Using the desktop programs on mobile devices is surprisingly elegant. As a test, I left my desktop running with an open Explorer window and two other files from Excel and PowerPoint minimized. When I logged into the system on an iPad, it reproduced my desktop exactly as I had left it, right down to the open window. And even more impressive, the page I was watching was running a Flash movie, which is normally forbidden on the iPad. But since everything was actually running back at the data center, my iPad displayed the movie perfectly. In a sense, Citrix Receiver helped to fix one of the iPad’s only major flaws.
Continuing the test, I left the iPad screen and logged into the Citrix server using an Android phone. The system detected that I was using a new device and removed the desktop from the iPad to transfer everything over to the Android, again in the exact same configuration that I had left it. Using programs like Explorer and PowerPoint on a tiny screen wasn’t a lot of fun, but they worked, which might give users an extra lifeline if they really need to get access to their data but are nowhere near the office. Receiver doesn’t really care what platform it runs on.
Negligible lag time
Having tested Citrix systems before, I know that the main drawback was normally the lag time between issuing commands on the remote computer and waiting for the server to respond. I didn’t experience that to any noticeable extent when working with the Receiver, and I tested it with a 4G device, a 3G device and an 802.11n wireless connection.
I pulled out that CAD program as a final test in this area, and loaded a complex engineering file. I was able to rotate it smoothly around in circles, zoom in to look at circuits and back out for the larger picture without experiencing any lag issues. I’m sure my test smartphone couldn’t handle a complex program like that natively, but since it’s only really displaying data with the Receiver, it works fine.
Many federal agencies are probably already running some form of Citrix server for remote users. They may have to upgrade that capacity to handle multiple applications and many users at the same time. But even if they do, the benefit of doing so is a free hand to choose their desired mobile platform on the other end.
Receiver works well on most Android, iOS and Windows mobile devices, provides security that may not come standard with a smartphone or tablet, and can use mobile touch-sensing efficiently even if a program doesn’t normally support it. For all these reasons, the Citrix Receiver earns a Reviewer’s Choice designation and would be a huge boon to any agency treading into the untamed waters associated with equipping a mobile workforce.
Citrix Systems, Inc., www.citrix.com
John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.