Choosing the right software infrastructure to support your operation's mobile needs

As mobile working becomes the norm, we review the technology options

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As mobile working becomes the norm, we review the technology options




Analyst firm Gartner has predicted that by 2007 about 70% of office workers will own at least three mobile devices. And the increasing sophistication and popularity of mobile technology is driving organisations to change the way they support mobile and remote workers.

Key to having an effective company-wide wireless IT system is the software infrastructure, which facilitates and supports the mobile applications used by staff. The choice of software platforms is so great that users can select the product that will fit their particular business challenge.

For firms that want to give their mobile workers e-mail or voice and data services, a straightforward option is to approach a telecoms provider such as Orange, Vodafone, O2 or T-Mobile.

If an organisation decides to run the mobile network itself, it will need asset management and tracking software and tools to carry out tasks such as automatically updating software across remote and mobile devices.

For those that require wireless access to enterprise resource planning systems, a good strategy is to base the system on infrastructure from the likes of IBM, Sun or Microsoft, which offer software to link personal digital assistants, laptops and mobile phones into core enterprise databases and applications.

Gartner research director Ronni Colville said, "IT organisations should determine how to handle the impact of handheld integration in their existing user infrastructure, whether that requires focused solutions specific to handhelds, or broader suites addressing multiple user platforms, such as desktops, laptops and handhelds."

A simple mobile data strategy that has aroused interest among many organisations, particularly multinational companies, is centred on the Blackberry device and Blackberry Enterprise Server platform from Research in Motion (RIM).

There are now more than two million active users of Blackberry-enabled e-mail, personal information management and data/voice services, according to RIM. This is a small fraction of the worldwide total of 1.5 billion mobile users, but enterprise adoption is growing fast, and all the main UK telecoms providers now offer Blackberry services.

RIM has produced several versions of its Blackberry Enterprise Server software which can link into the main enterprise e-mail systems - Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino and Novell Groupwise - as well as offering a web client and access to corporate data and applications.

Suppliers such as RIM, PalmSource (which makes the Palm OS) and Microsoft (with its Windows CE and Pocket PC platforms) offer a host of manage- ment products for data synchronisation and software distribution to support handheld devices.

Last week Microsoft launched Windows CE 5.0, the latest version of its mobile operating system. This offers users a software platform for building applications based on its .net programming environment and Visual Studio tool.

PalmSource has produced a development platform that supports standards such as Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) and Microsoft's .net and Soap, and has the support of enterprise software suppliers such as IBM, Seibel, BEA and SAP.

Colville said, "Operating system and device suppliers will continue to add and expand synchronisation and content management features as embedded features to target the enterprise market. In the near term, these features follow a pattern of being less complete and more proprietary than the independent software supplier offerings."

Another strategy for providing data services to a mobile workforce is to use a third- party telecoms provider to support a range of mobile voice and data devices. Most UK providers offer a full range of mobile business voice and data services.

For example, Orange has a service based on its Mobile Office Card, a PC card that can be used with a laptop, which connects to an office network using GPRS, a wireless Lan, Wi-Fi or GSM, and offers the user access to e-mail, the web or desktop applications.

Vodafone has a similar wireless card called Vodafone Mobile Connect, as well as E-Mail Anywhere, a service which automatically forwards e-mails to a mobile phone, and is charged as part of a monthly tariff.

When it comes to more advanced mobile data systems, most organisations opt to host and manage these themselves to retain control, guarantee the security of data and reduce their costs. Rob Bamforth, practice leader for wireless and mobile networks at Bloor Research, said many companies are still wary of implementing mobile or wireless systems because of security and management concerns. "However, as with most aspects of the use of technology, these challenges can be overcome by the use of appropriate policies and procedures," he said. "This can be accomplished in a cost-effective manner if the right tools, products and services directly support the implementation of those policies and procedures."

There are many products available to manage remote laptops, PDAs and other mobile devices, with the major suppliers and many specialists selling software to carry out device management in a secure way. This includes inventory and asset management, data synchronisation, software and patch distribution, back-up and restore, and content management.

Providers of such software include IBM and Computer Associates, which both offer products or modules for software distribution, data synchronisation and device monitoring and management.

IBM has a host of tools to manage remote workers in its Tivoli and Websphere products. For example, the Websphere Everyplace range can give mobile devices access to critical information and applications; and Websphere Everyplace Mobile Portal is a development tool to create personalised mobile content.

Computer Associates offers a significant software application in this area as part of its Unicenter systems management suite. CA Wireless Site Manager offers an IT manager central control of a wireless network, which can have a large number of "authorised" wireless laptops, PDAs and other devices connected to it. These carry a pre-installed software agent, and can adhere to predefined security schemes. If an unauthorised device tries to connect to the wireless network, the software blocks it.

Microsoft Systems Management Server is another application that can be used to manage a mobile workforce. It does this through the deployment of applications, security patches and software updates, as well as carrying out asset management. The server software can be used, for example, to ensure that each remote worker using a Microsoft-based device has the latest security patches on their machine.

Gartner advises organisations to also look at Novadigm, Mobile Automation, Novell and Xcellenet as suppliers that offer mobile systems management products that can manage laptops as well as PDAs.

Hewlett-Packard-owned Novadigm sells a system that integrates into HP's Openview systems management software and is designed to manage mobile devices, deploying software and synchronising updates to mobile users across applications and networks.

"There is a growing need to adopt a single, centralised solution that can effectively support both Lan-attached as well as mobile devices," said Colville.

There is a large variety of software that can run on mobile devices themselves. Virtual private network software providers such as Check Point, Whale and Aventail allow users to access most of their familiar desktop applications remotely, and provide robust security to do so. Added to this, software developers such as Xora and IMImobile have written mobile connectors that hook into enterprise software products, so that wireless devices can connect to back-end data used by popular enterprise applications.

For example, Xora provides out-of-the-box connectivity to SAP, Clarify, Siebel Field Service, PeopleSoft CRM and Oracle Field Service.

Another example is Peramon Technology, which has developed the Mobilizer Saleslogix Connector to connect mobile phones and PDAs to the popular sales application, as well as connectors for Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino e-mail applications.

For software developers, Sun Microsystems offers J2ME, a platform for writing applications that run on mobile phones, PDAs and embedded devices. J2ME includes Java virtual machines and a set of standard Java APIs.

"The J2ME platform is deployed on millions of devices, supported by leading tool suppliers and used by companies worldwide," said a Sun spokesman.

In terms of applications that are optimised for smartphones and mobile devices, the list is extensive. As well as producing mobile versions of its Office applications, Microsoft offers Outlook Web Access, a tool that can be used with Microsoft Exchange Server to securely access a mailbox from any computer with an internet connection.

Oracle has created a mobile version of its database, called Database Lite 10g, for laptops and PDAs. The database can run on any wireless network and is managed from a central database console.

In addition to these, data and content synchronisation software services from the likes of AvantGo offer specially formatted popular websites for PDAs and smartphones, with content such as news, weather, sports, stock quotes and maps, which can be synchronised from the desktop or wireless hotspot.

Mobile technology has given workers the freedom to ply their trade outside the confines of the office. All that now remains is for organisations to implement the software infrastructure to allow them to do so securely.


The consultant's choice

Consultancy Capgemini Ernst & Young uses HP-owned Novadigm's Radia suite to automate the management of desktop and laptop-based applications and other digital assets.  

In the UK, Capgemini's consultants are mobile most of the time, and spend many hours working on laptops in airports, at client sites or at home.  

Radia Application Manager can automatically update applications such as Microsoft Office, Winzip and anti-virus software, as well as update, repair and replace project applications such as Microsoft Project and Visio.   

Wireless fieldwork

US beauty products retailer Sephora uses IBM Lotus Domino Sametime and Everyplace, together with eWork Order from Big Sky Technologies, to manage repairs and upgrades in its 75 stores. Store managers communicate wirelessly with hundreds of mobile, on-call maintenance contractors, using the workflow and collaboration tools.

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