For CIOs & Senior IT Executives
Taming the Mobile
Beast - A Topic Of Interest to CIOs - By Joan Herbig
To keep unruly mobile devices safe in the IT fold,
device management must be integrated with data synchronization.
It lurks along highways and airways. It's found in lobbies and taxis. It's difficult to track, hard to control-and impossible to live without. It is, of course, the "mobile beast": the indispensable laptop or handheld device used by sales professionals, field personnel, service technicians and traveling executives. And now more than ever, there's an urgent need to domesticate the species before it eats corporate profits alive.
According to the analyst group IDC, the U.S., Western Europe and Latin America will have 31.3 million mobile workers in 2001, and almost double that number by 2004. This mobility explosion is both the cause and the effect of the growing numbers and power of mobile devices. Why? Because handheld devices, which were little more than glorified calendars just a few years ago, now have the ability to run full-scale corporate applications. In other words, countless people can't do their jobs without them.
In this environment, effectively shepherding mobile devices is essential. Yet many companies fail to plan beyond the next short-term need, purchasing a new management tool every time their mobile devices prove themselves useful in a new way. Soon they find themselves working with a whole kit of mismatched solutions. They use one set of mobile management applications to keep mobile hardware, software and networking assets in working order. Then they use another set of tools to keep the data on mobile devices in sync with data on the LAN. What is desperately needed, however, is an integrated solution, one that combines systems management functionality and data synchronization into a unified whole.
Taming the Beast
Managing a mobile system implementation can be a complex and costly undertaking. Even in a traditional LAN environment, the cost for unmanaged PCs is nearly 30% higher than for well-managed clients. This figure is even greater for unmanaged mobile devices running corporate applications. Most organizations need to support a variety of mobile devices, including laptops, PDAs, smart phones and BlackBerry™ wireless handhelds. While these small devices now run robust business software, they are only intermittently connected to the corporate LAN-via wireless or wireline-and usually at slow speeds. Some users are techno-whizzes, but the majority can't (and for corporate efficiency's sake, shouldn't) be counted on to perform system maintenance tasks. And then there's the matter of keeping mobile data in sync with information on the LAN. Stale, inaccurate data on a mobile device can have disastrous consequences for the traveling salesperson or the customer service representative.
Considering everything that's involved in managing a mobile system implementation and its data, organizations should look for three important capabilities when shopping for a unified solution. This solution should provide: 1) broad device and connectivity support; 2) a complete set of mobile management tools; 3) full-featured data synchronization tools. When these capabilities are combined into a single solution, they really can keep wandering "mobile beasts" securely in the fold.
When the first handheld devices made their debut, they were essentially neat gizmos for technophiles. Now they are distributed to entire regiments of mobile employees, who use them to get everyday work done. For example, the field technicians at one utility company use their mobile devices to report completion of a job and to learn the location of their next assignment.
While some mobile devices still connect to the corporate server via a companion PC, most now link directly to the LAN via a wireless or wireline connection. This means that the mobile management solution must support a variety of mobile operating systems, from Win32™ for laptops, to PalmOS™ and WinCE™ for PDAs. The solution must optimize the connection into an array of network environments, from a variety of publicly-available wireless networks (CDPD, GSM, ARDIS, Mobitex) to virtual private networks (VPNs) that use the Internet to connect to corporate resources. Since throughput is often less than 100 bits per second, the mobile management solution must use available bandwidth as efficiently as possible. This requires flexibility, efficient offline processing and tolerance for disrupted communication.
Companies also need to get mobile devices connected and running quickly, no matter what the environment. The solution must therefore scale easily as devices of all types proliferate across the
Managing mobile devices can feel a lot like herding feral cats: they go where they want, do what they want and sometimes disappear altogether. A comprehensive management solution places an "invisible fence" around the unruly bunch, keeping them within sight and under control. A well-known retail catalog company, for example, uses a full-featured solution to manage the mobile devices issued to its sales representatives. These employees never visit headquarters and depend on their handheld devices for virtually every aspect of their job-entering customer information, taking orders and viewing the status of shipments.
Since its employees rely on their mobile devices so completely, the retailer depends just as completely on its mobile management solution. Any such solution worth its salt should provide robust capability in four areas:
1. Asset Tracking. The catalog company always knows the type and configuration of all hardware and software used by its field employees;
2. Software Updating. Applications and upgrades are automatically downloaded and installed for the users, requiring little or even no involvement on their part;
3. Session Automation. Customized scripts automate document update and availability processes, ensuring that sales reps have the latest information at their disposal;
4. Remote Archival. Employees never have to worry about performing a system backup, and the company never has to worry about lost data.
No matter how mobile devices are used in an organization, they must be consistently in sync with the corporate network. A comprehensive mobile management solution needs to provide:
1) Groupware synchronization. For instance, a sales rep's mobile address book needs to match information in Microsoft Exchange® on the LAN;
2) Database synchronization. For example, data from a utility work-order generated in a backend database (SQL®, Oracle®, Sybase®, etc.), must be seamlessly exchanged with the employee's mobile device;
3) Unstructured synchronization. This means all files and documents on the mobile device must match those on the server. In addition, the management solution should maintain a directory of all documents available for subscription, and automatically disseminate revisions. The sales representative can therefore rest assured that she has the most current version of the company price list.
Without a robust synchronization tool, keeping all these types of information marching in step can be a nightmare. Vital data is corrupted or lost; IT experts waste countless hours fixing problems; or they spend months developing a stop-gap solution of their own. That's why it's wise to implement a synchronization tool with more capability than is currently required. It's a lot cheaper to grow into a solution slowly than to outgrow it too soon.
No Need to Flip
Systems management and data synchronization really are two sides of the mobile management coin. A unified solution allows the two functions to dovetail perfectly every time a mobile device connects back to central information resources. When the utility worker dials in to report a completed job and receive her next assignment, she also receives a software upgrade. When the salesperson submits a customer order, his email files are archived at the same time.
By using a single, comprehensive tool for device management and data synchronization, organizations can save dramatically on IT resources, as well as improve employee efficiency and morale. A unified solution allows mobile beasts to wander freely throughout their range without devouring huge chunks of the IT budget-while also ensuring that they're never left out in the cold.
About the Author
JOAN HERBIG is CEO of XcelleNet, Inc., the industry leader and worldwide provider of management solutions for remote systems and mobile devices. Earlier this year, Joan was named the 2001 Woman of the Year in Technology by the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG). An active member of the
Georgia technology community, Joan was also recently elected to TAG's Board of Directors and the Board of Directors for the Atlanta Women's Network. Joan is also a member of the Georgia Executive Women's Network, the Georgia 100 Mentoring Program, and Women in Technology International, an
organization which awarded Joan its "Women Forging the Future" Award in April 2001. As Executive Director for Women in Technology (WIT), she holds a B.A. in French from the University of Louisville and an M.S. in Computer Science from the University of Kentucky.