Wireless special report: Manage the explosion

End-users are enthusiastically embracing wireless connectivity, but IT directors need to take the initiative to ensure risks are minimised and opportunities are exploited, writes Cliff Saran

End-users are enthusiastically embracing wireless connectivity, but IT directors need to take the initiative to ensure risks are minimised and opportunities are exploited, writes Cliff Saran

All around we are witnessing the growth of wireless connectivity. From people using their laptops on trains and planes to reading e-mail from anywhere, it is clear that the wireless revolution is upon us.

For years users have been able to access e-mail and corporate data when away from the office using mobile data cards and modems built into their mobile phones to connect to the internet using a data service provided by their mobile operator. Today, most new laptops have some form of wireless access. And thanks to the availability of Wi-Fi hotspots, getting an online mobile connection is extremely easy.

However, it is not just laptop users who are seeing the benefit of an always-on internet connection. There has been a proliferation of smaller devices which offer wireless access. Although not as feature-packed as a laptop, it is here, with a simple device that fits in a shirt pocket, where users can find the biggest payback. It is therefore important to understand how such devices will be deployed, who will be given them and how they will be supported.

With cutting-edge wireless technology aimed at consumers finding its way into businesses, the first challenge for IT directors is how to manage the explosion of mobile devices. Clearly the IT department cannot support everything; nor is it realistic to mandate which devices to use.

The main problem is which devices should have access to the corporate network. Choice of device depends on what wireless applications are required. Some users need a fully-functional desktop-replacement laptop when on the road, others prefer a lightweight notebook PC, and a growing number are getting the benefit of wireless e-mail devices.

Access to the network can be controlled so that wireless devices that may not be using the latest security or anti-virus patches can be quarantined.

Device choice is being driven by the type of applications end-users need to run.

Research in Motion's Blackberry has become the preferred method for busy executives and staff to keep in touch at any time via e-mail which is conveniently pushed to the handheld Blackberry device. The latest incarnation of the Blackberry Enterprise Server moves beyond e-mail - now end-users can access enterprise applications such as SAP.

Although this was possible before, using an enterprise application from a handheld computer was awkward due to the unwieldy nature of the user interface, which was designed for desktop use. However, with the latest Blackberry Enterprise Server, the IT department can create a custom application, with a user interface optimised for the Blackberry.

Microsoft too has been busy with its wireless products. The software giant has finally introduced an alternative push e-mail service, which runs on its Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system and allows users to receive Exchange 2003 e-mail. A recent tie-up with mobile operator Vodafone will mean this service will be readily available to corporate users.

Along with corporate applications, people are also looking at how wireless devices can be used in areas such as mobile commerce and security. As handheld devices become ubiquitous, it becomes possible to use them as mobile cash machines or to provide a token for two-factor authentication.

The risk of data loss and data theft increases as business users connect to enterprise applications from handheld computers. It is therefore important that the devices can be disabled in the event of theft or loss.

Yet another problem that must be resolved within an IT director's mobile strategy is the cost of mobile data access. If end-users treat the mobile device in the same way as a desktop PC, mobile data costs will be significant. Accessing large Powerpoint attachments or video clips can quickly consume an end-user's monthly data allowance. Moreover the IT director needs to take into account the high cost of international roaming.

Businesses can no longer afford to ignore wireless technology. Mobile phones and laptop PCs have become essential business tools for staff who are frequently out of the office, and IT directors need to understand how best to make use of the functionality offered by handheld computers.

What is important is to get business managers involved. Wireless-connected handheld devices and laptops have the potential to change the way businesses operate. The IT director is in a unique position to seed the ideas for these changes, showing how a comprehensive mobile strategy will allow staff to perform tasks more efficiently, improve customer support and allow the organisation to operate with far greater agility.

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