Citrix sees smartphone as thin client

Your next desktop thin-client device could be your smartphone

Remote application software provider Citrix and mobile virtualization software vendor Open Kernel Labs have joined to author a specification for turning tomorrow's smartphones into mobile thin-client devices, the two companies announced today. They call their creation the Nirvana Phone.

"We see extending the enterprise virtualization platform out to mobile devices," said Chris Fleck, Citrix's vice president of community and solutions development.

With a few modifications, smartphones could convey virtualized applications or even entire desktops from the data center to a full-sized monitor, the companies claim.

While existing smartphones could not provide all the capability needed for this setup, the companies are hoping to influence the design of the next generation of phones through the reference specification, which provides the minimum hardware requirements.

Thus far, no smartphone manufacturers have publicly committed to building Nirvana Phone-capable products, but they have shown interest, said Rob McCammon, who is vice president of product management for OK Labs.

The utility of reusing a smartphone as a sort of detachable thin-client device should be apparent for the mobile worker. Instead of toting a laptop hither and yon, a user can simply plug a smartphone into a docking station, one with a monitor, keyboard and mouse. The phone can act as a thin client, delivering a fully operational virtualized desktop from the data center.

On the software side, much of what is needed to make this happen is already in place, Fleck said.

Citrix's mobile-client software, called Citrix Receiver, can stream applications and virtual desktops to smartphones, using the company's ICA (Independent Computing Architecture) or HDX (High Definition User Experience) protocols. OK Labs has a microkernel hypervisor, or microvisor, called OKL4, that is already installed in more than 500 million Android, Symbian and Linux smartphones, according to the company.

In the suggested setup, the Citrix Receiver would run over the OKL4, which would provide the abstraction needed to run thin-client sessions over a variety of smartphones. This approach "allows you to implement the functionality in a way that is agnostic of a particular mobile-phone operating system," McCammon said. "The capability can be rolled out in a standard way, but on a large number of mobile handsets."

An enterprise could design a virtual desktop, complete with the required applications, and host it on a virtualization platform at the data center. The desktop can then be accessed by the user from anywhere with a docking station and network connection.

"We can already deliver any generic Windows or Web application. Or companies could modify their apps to run on their server side and get delivered out to the receiver," Fleck said.

On the hardware side, keyboards and mice could be connected to the smartphone with Bluetooth or by USB. A docking station could integrate all these capabilities.

For video, McCammon predicted that many of the next generation of smartphones will probably have an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) output to allow consumers to watch videos or photos on their televisions or computer monitors, directly from their phones. This output could connect the phone to the monitor. Additional graphical processing and memory capabilities might be needed to run a complete remote computing session, though this muscle may be arriving in the next generation of phones anyway, McCammon said.

"Some of the device makers are already putting more powerful video chips onboard," McCammon said. "Those would be more than enough to handle the Nirvana Phone scenario."

The two companies will hold a webinar on Feb. 9 to further discuss how the Nirvana Phone would work.

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