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The state of workspace tools and where they're headed

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Assess the hype around digital workspaces

Digital workspaces, which give users one access point for all their resources, are great in theory. In practice, there are concerns about vendor lock-in and other issues.

For decades, trend after trend and technology after technology have promised to change the game and create a paradigm shift -- or some other cliché term. The current flavor of the day is digital workspaces. 

Anchored by products from VMware and Citrix, digital workspaces promise to provide a one-stop shop where users can access their apps and data, and IT can manage it all. This single-pane-of-glass concept is not a new idea, but until now, it has been largely limited to back-end infrastructure management.

The problem is workspace suites still consist of many moving parts, so they may not be as simple as they seem. IT administrators are right to hold these products under the microscope and evaluate them with a MythBusters-like intensity.

Where digital workspace tools get the job done

In a mobile-first world, people are on their smartphones and tablets far more than their conventional PCs. Unfortunately, in the enterprise, some things such as legacy applications still aren't available for mobile devices. Workspaces aim to eliminate this problem by giving users access to everything from virtual desktops and applications to native mobile and web apps in one place. 

Using a digital workspace will also force enterprises to address another challenge: managing Windows PCs.

Digital workspaces do a great job supporting cloud-first strategies. Any admin who has lived through the horrors of imaging and virus removal knows the value of virtual desktop infrastructure and desktop as a service (DaaS). Virtual desktops are a huge benefit in a digital workspace because they create a central location where admins can manage desktop images and virtual data. And they allow admins to deliver full desktops to users anywhere on any device. VDI's primary challenges of network latency and heavy upfront infrastructure costs, however, prevent many organizations from taking advantage of the technology.

As DaaS offerings become more popular and relieve organizations of the burden of setting up and managing the infrastructure that powers VDI, distributed computing has become easier. It also makes virtual desktops much more accessible cost-wise, at least upfront.

The double-edged sword of SSO

Workspaces promise to provide single sign-on (SSO)  for all services without users having to constantly reauthenticate, which is incredibly helpful. SSO makes it easier for IT to manage users' identities across applications and services, cutting down on the need for password management tools and hopefully putting an end to users writing down passwords and sticking them to their keyboards -- an unsafe practice that still exists.

The challenge is that setting up and running SSO is not so easy. Admins need knowledge of Security Assertion Markup Language and cloud federation to really get single sign-on working properly.

SSO comes down to more than technical prowess, however. An organization's authentication methods often come down to organizational needs rather than technical requirements. It's a balance between the need for security and keeping users happy so they cooperate with IT's security policies rather than seeking ways around them. 

Windows 10 maximizes digital workspaces

Using a digital workspace will also force enterprises to address another challenge: managing Windows PCs. It's easy to extend a VDI image with any Windows operating system to users' devices, but managing Windows PCs themselves is a completely different story, mostly because of how Microsoft architected Windows for so long.

The fundamental management shifts in Windows 10 make device management much easier for organizations and digital workspace vendors. The changes include converting to an app-based model so admins no longer have to use System Center Configuration Manager or other more cumbersome deployment methods. In addition, Microsoft opened Windows 10 APIs up to mobile device management (MDM), which allows a new set of tools to control and secure the OS.

Workspace suites typically contain MDM, but not traditional desktop management tools. As a result, moving to Windows 10 as quickly as possible is crucial to taking full advantage of digital workspaces.

Vendor lock-in rears its ugly head

To really get digital workspaces to function, organizations should use the same vendor's products across the board, which naturally raises fears of vendor lock-in. Still IT admins must overcome their fears to maximize the potential of workspaces.

In some organizations, condensing to a single vendor isn't a problem. But for others who have diverse products pulled together from different vendors, it can be challenging. It's not a complete barrier to the world of digital workspaces, but something IT must be aware of.

Digital workspaces are definitely worth investigation and investment if IT moves to, or already lives in, a mobile-first, cloud-first world. They address many of the most intense pain points for both end users and IT. Like with all purported cure-all technologies, however, admins must proceed with caution and check integration points to other applications, systems, architectures and identity management products. 

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This was last published in April 2017

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