Control in a mobile world

As more workers require mobile access to corporate systems from home or on the road, support costs can spiral. Jessica Twentyman...

As more workers require mobile access to corporate systems from home or on the road, support costs can spiral. Jessica Twentyman maps out ways to understand these costs, minimise them, and justify the expense to the board

The mobile workforce poses a tricky conundrum for the IT manager: the productivity paybacks to be gained by enabling employees to access corporate data regardless of location are alluring, but the support costs involved are hard to calculate.

That makes building a solid business case for mobile deployments a hit-or-miss affair. Will PDAs last 12 months or three years? Will the company be forced to invest in more bandwidth six months after the initial implementation, or should it over-order now on capacity? Will the mobile applications that it is planning to roll out be the ones that prove most popular with employees?

Not only that, but the disjointed and overlapping nature of many mobile technologies and support overheads introduce a further level of complexity to the equation. A sales representative who spends much of their time on the road, for example, may use a PDA for scheduling appointments and accessing e-mail, a laptop for storing sales presentations and entering new orders into the company's sales systems, and a mobile phone for staying in contact with head office.

Managing those devices for an entire salesforce clearly poses a huge support burden for IT teams - and, potentially, huge associated costs.

"We often find that IT teams are expected to support mobile users with little thought paid to the added costs of doing so," says Dean Murphy, head of wireless technologies at Satsuma Solutions, which provides consultancy services in web, Windows and wireless technologies for companies including drinks giant Diageo and printer firm Epson. "What we propose is that companies need to find strategies for funding IT departments out of the productivity gains that are achieved by implementing mobile applications."

According to a report from Forrester Research, the cost of supporting a mobile user ranges from 1.5 to three times that for a traditional, "tethered" user. "These higher support costs are the result of several factors, including irregular connections to the network, low-bandwidth connections and more complex applications and hardware," says Forrester analyst David Friedlander (see box, Breaking down the costs).

The costs involved in supporting mobile workers fall into three discrete categories: network services, device hardware, and application/network infrastructure.

Network services tend to top the list of concerns over mobile enablement, primarily because of cost but also speed of transfer and accessibility. At present, most organisations opt for GPRS voice/data connectivity, either using volume-based or flat-rate tariffs. Third generation networks are expected to be available in most major UK cities by the end of 2005, but coverage will be patchy elsewhere for some time, forcing companies to rely on a hybrid 3G/GPRS strategy for international connectivity.

In either case, beyond hard-ball tariff negotiation with the mobile operators, there is little organisations can do to cut costs in this area, reliant as they are on the ability of their employees to access and send data regardless of location and timezones. It is, however, a good idea to track costs on a per-user basis.

When it comes to devices, the general rule is that the greater the number of device types supported (and the more capabilities offered by those devices), the higher the costs will be for purchasing and supporting them.

"Organisations should standardise mobile device platforms to the greatest extent possible," says Friedlander. "Although it is rarely possible to deploy a single mobile platform, companies should attempt to limit support to three PDA or converged device platforms."

Most experts agree that allowing employees to bring in their own mobile devices from home and expect IT support for them is unworkable. "You might just as well allow them to build their own PCs and install their own choice of desktop software," says Bob Brace, vice-president of mobile solutions at Nokia.

Worse still, it can introduce serious security weaknesses, says Maria Lorenz, end-user services consultant at IT consultancy Fujitsu Services. "I often say that one of the biggest threats to IT security is Christmas, when everyone receives shiny new devices that they want to use to access corporate data," she says.

Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, for example, has recently cut its mobile costs significantly by rationalising both the number and type of devices it issues to senior managers so they can access their e-mails on the move.

"A lot of our senior managers are away from their desks for a great deal of time during the day either at one of our 10 outreach sites or in offsite meetings," says Steven Gill, IT infrastructure support engineer at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

After using Blackberry devices for some time, the hospital decided that it could get a better deal by switching to XDAs. The per-device price of the XDAs was £250, with per-month subscription costs of £22 through O2, as compared to a price of £350 per Blackberry device and charges of £34 per month. In addition, because the XDAs offer more functions than Blackberries, the hospital now plans to replace a number of its laptops with XDAs. "This will save the purchase price of laptops, difficult and lengthy support for them, and dial-up costs," says Gill.

Finally, IT management must consider the application infrastructure that will support mobile users. The IT department will need to purchase, implement and provide ongoing support for web-enabled applications that allow corporate data to be accessed through a variety of client devices as well as data synchronisation tools that take into account the intermittent connectivity of mobile devices.

It will also need to take into account the cost of security technologies for identity management and data encryption. And where applications will be accessed through mobile phones or PDAs, the IT department will need to install software "gateways" that enable these devices to access data in a format suitable for their small displays.

IT departments will need to reassess these costs regularly if they are to stay abreast of changing technologies and take advantage of the cost savings that they offer, says Friedlander. That may be time-consuming but offers an attractive payback, "Companies with strong, up-to-date mobile usage policies and robust management tools will be able to reduce mobile support costs by 20% to 30%," he says.

Case study: Property firm keeps down cost of mobile e-mail   

When London-based property consultancy Spring4 was considering ways of providing its agents with mobile access to e-mail, cost was a primary concern. "We were looking for an accessible system - but one that did not require a huge financial investment," says Spring4's operations director Richard Peperell. 

Initially, the company considered equipping employees with Blackberry devices, but that option was swiftly ruled out when the potential costs involved in that became apparent. "We calculated that a Blackberry approach might cost us as much as £35 per month, and that would be an excessive burden to us," says Peperell.  

Instead, Spring4 opted for a mobile service from OpenHand, which meant an initial software purchase price but no ongoing monthly charge except for the mobile operator's call charges. These, says Peperell, rarely exceed £5 per user.  

At that price, he adds, there is no reason to exclude any employee from mobile e-mail access. Employees equipped with a Sony Ericsson P900 smartphone can not only pick up their e-mail but search the 4,000 business contacts held on Spring4's sales force automation system ACT. They can also use the smartphone's camera to take photos of properties and send them to colleagues and potential buyers.  

That has meant that Spring4 has saved money by negating the need to invest in extra laptops and digital cameras. It has also found that using e-mail rather than making phone calls has cut costs. Another benefit is that employees are more productive as they can send e-mails when travelling. 

Because OpenHand is not tied to a specific network or appliance, Spring 4 was able to stay with its existing mobile carrier 02 and negotiate a separate rate for data transfer. And because OpenHand supports the most widely available wireless network protocols, including GSM and GPRS, Spring4 staff can stay in touch wherever they are in the world. "We have members of staff who travel extensively. We didn't want to be limited by the number of territories that would support our choice of mobile e-mail," says Peperell. 

To prevent unauthorised access, the OpenHand server sits inside Spring4's firewall and uses the 128bit Advanced Encryption Standard, which scrambles information being transmitted from the server to the phone. Because data is held on the OpenHand server rather than the phone, it is not lost if the device is lost or stolen.

Breaking down the costs   

"As companies expand the mobile workforce and evaluate wireless e-mail or business applications deployed to handheld devices, understanding support costs will be critical to making a business case," says Forrester's David Friedlander. 

Forrester's methodology for doing this uses existing cost models for regular, "tethered" users as a baseline. Mobile users are then broken down into four categories: 

  • Casual worker. An employee who works from home infrequently and uses a PC to access data 
  • Permanent teleworker. Employees based in a home office that undertake little or no travel 
  • Task-oriented mobile worker. An employee whose job is mobile but who has a specific task that requires limited access to IT resources 
  • Mobile employee. Travels at least 25% of the time and may use various devices. 

From here, firms can calculate how much more mobile users cost to support than tethered users.  

In the example below, Company X has 5,000 staff, of which 3,500 are tethered users. The 1,500 mobile users are broken down into the four categories, each with cost multiple associated with it relative to a tethered user. Friedlander says multiples will vary by 30% to 50% based on users' mobility and the complexity of the IT environment.

Read more on Mobile hardware