The mobility conundrum

When selecting products for your mobile workforce, fitness for purpose should be the deciding factor, but the needs of the...

When selecting products for your mobile workforce, fitness for purpose should be the deciding factor, but the needs of the individual should be taken into account. Eric Doyle reports.

David Idle, IT manager at healthcare supplier Actamed, says giving his workforce mobile devices frees them from the office desk and makes then more independent, efficient and productive. However, simply throwing hardware and software at the salesforce does not bring results.

"We have 30 laptops operating outside of head office, using ADSL, ISDN or mobile communications," says Idle. "They communicate with head office using Citrix, which operates through a virtual private network tunnel via a Cisco firewall. We are told, for a company of our size, we are about as up-to-date as you get - but this does not stop us having problems."

Probably the most important issue facing adopters of a mobile strategy is data security. What happens when the hardware is left in someone else's office or is stolen from a car? Can passwords alone protect data on the disc drive? Is it worth encrypting all data on a mobile device to minimise the loss if it is stolen?

The answer depends on the sensitivity of the data. Idle's trade-off is to take a thin-client approach and keep sensitive data in the fortress of the head office datacentre and allow minimal information on the device. This has paid off. "We have had three laptops stolen over the years and lost no information other than that stored locally. From a company standpoint, no business-critical data was lost," he says.

The advantage of this is that the encryption requirements are limited to the VPN, rather than relying on users. The possibility of the hardware being stolen still exists, but it would have to be stolen when connected to head office for it to be worth anything more than its second-hand hardware value. The downside is that staff may be unable to work if a connection problem occurs, or they may work more slowly if broadband has to be abandoned and a standard 56Kbit modem used instead.

In his book, Beyond Fear, Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at security consultancy Counterpane, says the best way to enforce security is to make the custodian a shareholder in the need to maintain it. Just as owners of company cars are often less careful with their vehicle than they would be with their own car because the personal financial risk is removed, company-issued mobile devices are more likely to be treated in a cavalier manner. Few companies would expect their employees to buy their own hardware and the risk has to be covered by insurance.

However, this may not always hold true. Mobile devices are often described as personal devices, which implies a degree of personal preference comes into the decision. Companies that supply their employees with clunky old mobile phones are likely to find their employees buy their own slinky mobiles for personal use. Which phone will be the better looked after is obvious.

Fitness for purpose is the main issue when choosing hardware platforms. Nigel Deighton, vice-president and research director at analyst firm Gartner's mobile practice division, says, "When it comes to choosing hardware, there is no clear winner in the mobility market. Some companies may want always-on connectivity through GPRS. Others will be happy to synchronise data through 802.11 wireless connections at a Starbucks coffee bar or some other public access point. Even Wap might be appropriate. It is a case of looking at what solutions are available and how the user operates."

Jessica Figueras, a senior analyst at Ovum, agrees. "Look at what the user is expected to accomplish and their working styles and environment. Employees differ and field service personnel working out of vehicles may require totally different hardware to a worker dealing with the public in a bank."

Andrew Barker, head of mobility volume products for supplier Fujitsu Siemens, also believes users should be central in the planning phase. "Mobility will be inherent in whatever device is purchased, but the needs of the individual should also be taken into account. Some people find reading a personal digital assistant screen difficult and might prefer a larger display. Health and safety issues should be applied to each individual's requirements."

Obviously, widening the choice introduces other aspects, such as bulk purchase discounts, but in the current sales climate a compromise deal is usually negotiable. With most enterprise applications being developed to accommodate as many platforms as possible, and with Java support in many operating systems, the choice is broader than it used to be. Bear in mind the flexibility of the application. It will usually be cheaper to stick with the application currently in use rather than rolling out and migrating data for a new one, especially when training overheads are taken into account.

Management of disparate devices is also a concern. If hardware has to be recalled every time software is upgraded or operational parameters are changed, the cost and inconvenience mount up. Figueras says, "The choice has to be a balance between the customer and convenience. Complexity depends on how heterogeneous the environment is. If users are allowed to connect their own products, the result can be expensive."

User choice is nevertheless important to success. Deighton advocates trials to test the suitability of devices. "It may well be that different scenarios require different solutions. Sometimes mobile phone SMS alerts will be preferable to e-mail and no single wireless technology will satisfy all users' needs."

Idle has produced a report on the way mobility has been tackled at Actamed. When he interviewed managers, he discovered that some employees were so worried about the security of their systems they would not always take their laptops out. He says, "We should consider the view of the managers when they believe that sales personnel do not take their laptops into the field for security and handling problems. The continued need for laptops against a much cheaper desktop with a form of synchronisation with mobile devices should be reviewed."

The result was the adoption of the Citrix-based system, thereby also avoiding the synchronising issue. The application running the mobile section of the business is Microsoft's Navision Axapta enterprise resource planning software, designed for the wholesale distribution and business services industries.

For companies considering moving to a mobile environment, the present situation is complex, but this may become simpler. Intel is developing a mobile phone that detects the cheapest and best wireless service available and will allow roaming between GPRS GSM and 802.11 networks.

Another Intel product is the Personal Server, which is a PC with no input or output ports, just the processor, memory and a hard drive. It contains a Centrino chipset and uses the wireless capability to communicate with keyboards, printers and screens. This means that input/output devices can be any local wireless-enabled devices. Organic LED screens can be folded or scrolled up for storage. With all the hardware clipped to the user's belt, the handheld device will become an intelligent screen. This will considerably reduce the weight of the handheld element and may even make the tablet PC format more popular. A reduction in juggling data and hardware is anticipated because the Personal Server will probably combine the extra wireless capabilities of the concept phone and a single OLED display will provide mobility and options to suit all users.

However, the key issue for IT managers to consider is the desirability of going mobile. It may be that the benefits gained will not justify the cost. Technology churn is probably higher in the wireless world than in any other IT sector. The justifiable system today will soon be outmoded, but how will that affect return on investment? Thorough research bringing together internal intelligence is the only way to ensure a good solution - but remember, when the target is reached, the goalposts may have moved.

What to consider before going wireless

When planning to move to mobilty

  • Consider the software and hardware costs
  • Individual preference may affect the possibility of getting a bulk discount
  • ADSL and ISDN lines might be needed or standard modem speeds may be sufficient.

Security

  • Choose from dial-in, dail-back or web access
  • Set up virutal preivate network connections
  • Encryption and firewall will be needed or standard modem speeds may be sufficient.

Total cost of ownership

  • Find out how the billing will be handled, bearing in mind the personal use of devices
  • Include costs of upgrading, management, insurance, allocating spare or replacement power cells and assest depreciation
  • Don't forget software licensing

Considerations

  • Will data storage be on the device or at the datacentre?
  • Can you find suitable applications and will data need to eb migrated?
  • Who will do web server maintenance?
  • Do you have a policy on usage and security for employees?
  • Have staff been trained adequately?

Local versus remote storage strategies

Local storage: Advantages

  • The ability to work with data at any location
  • More scope for immediate analysis of data

Local storage: Disavantages

  • All company accounting and customer information becomes highly vulnerable to theft
  • Dependance on reliable telephone connection means data transfer interruption may cause synchronised problems
  • Laptops will have to be recealled for upgrades

Remote storage: Advantages

  • Information is always up-to-date
  • Information is only stored at head office
  • Ability to update software centrally without recalling machines
  • Simple and relaible method of connection

Remote storage: Disadvantages

  • Data not stored on a laptop limits offline functionality
  • Users have less control of information
  • Data can only be accessed when a phone connection is available

Read more on Voice networking and VoIP

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