You probably run Office and other software directly from a PC hard drive. But server-side tools can put any Windows application into the cloud, keeping virtual instances of your applications ready at any time. This nimble system lets you log into your software from any PC--and even smartphones--expanding the places you can work, allowing for quicker setup, and often saving money on software costs.
Citrix makes a few of these server- and client-side tools that to virtualize any Windows application. Medium- and large-sized businesses likely have the infrastructure and IT staff to support this process, letting companies install XenApp, the cornerstone of Citrix's virtual application process.
Citrix says that the software will essentially support any Windows application, although companies might be limited by licensing issues, since you typically buy software for each desktop system. Microsoft sells monthly licenses for its applications, but you should check with other mission-critical companies if you're pondering this process.
On the PC client side, you'll download Citrix Receiver, with main versions available for Windows and Mac operating systems. Citrix offers a Linux version, but the company says that it lags behind the other editions, since there's less demand for that tool. After several minutes of download and installation--especially the first time you go through the process on a client PC--you'll be able to run remotely hosted applications.
An iPhone version adds another way to work, with editions also being developed for BlackBerry, Android, and other devices. The free iPhone client software formats applications for the iPhone screen and encrypts the session just like the PC clients. Both kinds of clients also keep data stored on the server side, adding an additional security measure in case you lose your laptop or smartphone.
You'll likely need a dedicated IT staff to support these tools in-house. And by managing applications on their end, they'll save work in deploying software to all of your client systems. But even with your own server costs, you might save money--especially in the short-term--by leasing application licenses instead of paying a lot up-front
Several third-party hosts use these Citrix tools, giving the same flexibility and mobility to smaller companies. Depending on your needs, prices roughly run about $70/month per user for a suite of applications. Check out ClubDrive and Nasstar for a couple options.
By running virtual applications, businesses can scale costs up and down, even letting workers tap into software from a menagerie of devices. Not counting the extra value in this remote access, your total costs could be higher in the long-term, although you'll skip high up-front fees per each client. But depending on your situation, the initial savings and a manageable, monthly cost could make virtual applications worthwhile.
Zack Stern is building a new business from San Francisco, where he frequently contributes to PC World.