Unless you've been living under a rock or disconnected in some other way from the rest of the world, you know that Apple's iPad has become a mainstay in the technology world. No matter where you go, it seems there's someone toting an iPad, talking about new apps for their iPad, or heading off to buy an iPad. The extreme popularity of the device is highlighted by not only Apple's own sales numbers but also the media frenzy that occurs anytime even a hint of a new model hits the rumor circles.

Despite the device being capable of producing content, a large amount of time can be spent using an iPad to consume content. No matter whether you're browsing the web, watching movies, reading books, or playing games, iPad is an ideal content-consumption device. But what about using it for "real work"?

It's not too hard to find a plethora of articles and blog posts on both sides of the fence when searching the Internet. Some people say that there's no way they could replace their primary computing device, be it a desktop or laptop, with any kind of tablet -- iPad or otherwise. "It's impossible to do precision work! The mouse is far more accurate," they cry. "I need a real keyboard. Can you imagine typing a report or working on a 30,000-row spreadsheet on an iPad?" people bemoan. Other people have no problem using an iPad as their primary device. "I only go back to my 'real' computer when necessary. The iPad is perfect for 95 percent of what I have to do," they explain.

I don't stand firmly in either camp. I believe in using whatever is best for the task I'm trying to accomplish. Right now I have a Lenovo ThinkPad running the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, an HP desktop running Windows 7 on a 23" monitor, Apple's Mac mini running OS X Lion on a 21" monitor, Amazon's Kindle Fire, and a third-generation iPad. By trade, I'm a systems engineer. Can someone like me successfully use an iPad for "real work?" And even if I can, would I want to? Let's find out.



Putting It to the Test

The HP desktop is my primary device, and I have a fair number of applications installed on it for work. In addition to what you would typically find installed (e.g., Microsoft Office), I installed the Microsoft Lync client, Remote Desktop Connection Manager (RDCMan), PuTTY to take care of Telnet/Secure Shell (SSH) jobs, the Remote Server Administration Tools for Windows 7, every web browser known to the world, and so on. I don't believe I perform any task that's so massive that it would be downright impossible on an iPad, nor are any of my applications in the category of "Whoa! What is that?" In fact, I installed many of the same tools on my iPad. There's the Lync client, a Remote Desktop client (HLW Software Development's iTap RDP), and an SSH client (Panic's Prompt). I use the built-in VPN client to connect back to corporate resources. I also take advantage of multi-device Web 2.0 tools, including Evernote and Dropbox, to have access to just about anything I need from anywhere.

Perhaps proving that Apple's marketing machine was right all along, procuring those iPad applications was a breeze. I simply tapped the App Store icon and searched for an application by entering its name. When the first-generation iPad was new to the market, I would typically search by entering what I was looking for (e.g., "SSH client"). Now it's even easier to find iPad applications that meet your needs, as new apps are constantly being reviewed on the Internet. Try searching for "RDP client iPad" and you'll see what I mean.

For the most part, configuring the applications was also a breeze. For example, I didn't have to perform any "iPad trickery" to get iTap RDP to connect to my Remote Desktop Session Host server, nor did my Cisco VPN require any configuration changes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that all of the applications that connected back to corporate resources did indeed "just work."

With all that being said, you might think utilizing an iPad for "real work" is nothing but roses. However, after spending a few days attempting to use my iPad for my "real work," I found one drawback: On the iPad, the only pointing device is your finger and so much of Windows administration is still GUI-based.

Connecting to corporate resources with the VPN client isn't an issue. Accessing internal websites, even internal websites used for administrative tasks, is fine (as long as the site doesn't require a plug-in such as Microsoft Silverlight or Adobe Flash). Getting to a router, Linux host, or UNIX host is no problem. Even using a tool such as LogMeIn to see what someone is doing on a machine and talk them through a problem isn't a challenge.

However, using Remote Desktop to administer a Windows server is a challenge. If you're thinking that you can simply set up an SSH connection to a Windows host and run command-line utilities from there, stop and think about all of the server applications you have installed on your Windows servers. Then think of the applications that just stink in terms of remote administration. I'm not referring to remote administration from a mobile device while you're in the jungle; I'm referring to remote administration that stinks even from your desk 100 feet away from the server, such as:

  • The fax server that's administered from a GUI-based console that hasn't changed since 2001
  • The internally developed server application that runs only on Windows Server 2003 and works only by using the application's console interactively
  • The telephony application in which the only command-line access is to start and stop it, with no capability to look at and troubleshoot log files

    For these types of server applications, you need Remote Desktop. Even with pinch-to-zoom, three-finger swipe, and all of the other niceties that are built in to applications like iTap RDP, it's still a challenge to use Remote Desktop for Windows server administration because of the GUI elements and the lack of a mouse. If I only had to administer Linux hosts and Cisco switches, this wouldn't be a problem, as there are many excellent and inexpensive iPad Bluetooth keyboards and keyboard/case combos if typing directly on the iPad's screen becomes too tiresome.

    Could I get by during crunch time using my finger to navigate the Windows GUI remotely? Of course. Would I want to? Probably not. Will this change in the future? Absolutely. As Windows moves to be more and more PowerShell oriented (along with Microsoft's push to Metro), eventually I expect to see fewer and fewer of these legacy server applications that require you to use Remote Desktop to administer them.

    iPad to the Rescue

    Outside of that one major negative, my experience using the iPad for "real IT work" is probably best shown by example. Several months ago, I was in the midst of troubleshooting a problem with a virtual machine (VM) host. The host would simply drop dead at random times after approximately one week of running. By "drop dead," I mean there was no response to ping, no ability to connect with a kernel debugger over the serial port, no STOP errors, and no kernel dumps. The only way to get the host to come back to life was to power cycle it. The only way to power cycle it remotely was to use the Integrated Lights-Out (iLO) functionality built in to the server. This went on for about three weeks until the root cause was uncovered. (It was a BIOS setting.) When various fixes were being tried during that time, it wasn't uncommon to have to use iLO to access the server at odd hours. One of those odd hours was at 1 a.m. while I was walking back to my room at a Holiday Inn during a technology conference. When my monitoring system told me the system had keeled over, I pulled out the iPad, connected in with VPN, launched Safari, accessed the iLO interface, and restarted the server. This was while I was walking down the hallway. I had also used the iPad heavily all day, and I still had 30 percent of battery life left.

    Today I still travel with my laptop. I like having that safety net, especially if tasked with something requiring precision Remote Desktop use. However, I usually reach for the iPad first. Sometime in the next few years, I can see myself not taking the laptop with me.

    Despite my laptop potentially going the way of the dinosaur, I can't see giving up my desktop computers. In fact, I find myself using them more. There are many things I just don't want to do without a large monitor, a full-sized keyboard, and a mouse! Their utility can't be beat. This is why many IT pros are experiencing so much trepidation with Windows 8 and Metro on the desktop. I always have dozens of windows open on my desktop machines, flipping through them like a deck of cards.

    Give It a Try

    If you have an iPad (and considering the large number of them I saw in use at Microsoft TechEd this June, I expect that many of you do), I encourage you to try using it for some of your "real work." Although you might not be able to use it for everything, you'll probably find more uses for it than you originally imagined. In fact, I typed the first draft of this review on my iPad in Evernote.

    iPad
    PROS: Simple to use; huge range of applications and accessories; long battery life; lightweight
    CONS: Can't completely replace an IT pro's laptop or desktop
    RATING: 4.5 out of 5
    PRICE: Starting at $499
    RECOMMENDATION: The iPad can't be your only tool, but it's a worthy addition to your arsenal.
    CONTACT: Apple • 800-676-2775 or 408-996-1010