iPads in the field - Powerlink Queensland

While iPads tick many of the boxes for mobile computing, Powerlink Queensland engaged in a pilot to see if Apple's tablet wunderkind could cut it in the field

The utilities industry is one of the oldest and most conservative businesses in Australia. For about 100 years it's fundamental product delivery model hasn't changed - produce energy in the form of a current of electrons somewhere and then move that energy to where it's needed along some conductors. Powerlink is a government owned entity that provides the transmission network that take energy from generators to distribution networks. They service an area that starts near the Queensland/New South Wales border to north of Cairns - a distance of about 1800kms.

Along that route, there are areas that are quite remote. Line inspections are carried out by helicopter with staff needing to send and receive data from places that are largely uninhabited. Aside from the need for comms equipment, there's limited space to carry computers when in the field.

Warren Darragh, the Group Manager of IT Services for Powerlink, saw some issues with early observations of the iPhone with senior IT people from other businesses. "CIOs and senior IT people said that the they wouldn't allow iPhones into their organisations. If their CEO asked them to introduce this technology then they'd point blank refuse". Darragh didn't see this as a wise course of action so he embarked on a pilot program in order to better understand the devices and so he could offer advice to his peers in the management team.

"This was an opportunity to get on the front foot and have a solution before we were asked or told to do something" says Darragh.

One of the challenges that Darragh wanted to overcome was the time it took for a laptop to start up, log in to the VPN for mobile users and be ready to use - up to a quarter of an hour in some cases. "If there's an electrical outage in part of the network, 15 minutes is a long time" said Darragh.

When the pilot started, Powerlink already had a smartphone platform in place. Although it delivered email, calendar and some Internet access but there were some shortcomings with that platform. Looking at the App Store, Darragh and his team saw potential solutions to some of their business problems available at a far lower price than he could deliver with his own team.

As the iOS pilot progressed, Darragh starting contacting iOS developers whose off-the-shelf software delivered 80% of Powerlink's requirements for some functions. For relatively low development costs, he was able to pay those developers to deliver the missing 20%.

With hardware, the ability to issue staff with a standard corporate desktop and an iPad was cheaper than handing them a corporate-grade laptop. With desktops costing about $1000 and iPads running at around $700, that's cheaper than a $2500 notebook or $8000 ruggedised device for field staff.

The BYOD, or Bring your own Device, trend was something that Darragh and his team saw on the horizon. Again, rather than waiting and reacting, his team got on the front foot and started putting the pieces in place so that he was ready to answer the business' questions when they inevitably asked about bringing their personal tablets into the corporate LAN.

Powerlink started deploying iPhones about two years ago. At the time, enterprise use of the devices wasn't widespread and there was limited technical knowledge to draw on in the market. However, following some networking with colleagues in other companies Darragh was able to piece together a deployment solution through information sharing. That knowledge held Powerlink in good stead when the iPad was released in 2010.

For example, read-only versions of data intensive applications were created for the iPhone. When the iPad was released, Powerlink had a head-start in getting important business information in the hands of users. Other corporate applications were delivered using Citrix so that the iPad could be used as a complementary system without compromising access to critical applications.

Another important initiative was getting the management team to understand how the iPad could be used in a viable business context and not just as an executive fashion accessory. Management meetings became paperless with applications such as Diligent Boardbooks used as a way of distributing meeting papers. These tools made it easy to deploy solutions that would have otherwise taken many months of requirements gathering and development. Similarly, Dropbox was used for distributing meeting minutes and iAnnotate was used for marking up PDF documents.

Eventually, once the utility of the iPad became clearer, Darragh and his team embarked on using VMware's View as a vehicle for delivering the Windows 7 desktop to the iPad. With a Bluetooth keyboard, the iPad became a mobile desktop.

Security

"We created a separate wireless network for the iPads. This enabled us to segregate the traffic so people could get Internet access without piggybacking on the core network. It also enabled us to go away from the $900 3G iPad to the cheaper WiFi model and use the iPhone as a hotspot" explained Darragh.

Powerlink's view was to treat the iPads as untrusted devices. That meant that the devices use VPN connections to access corporate systems - there's no direct iPad-to-application access.

All iPad connectivity and application data access is secured by keeping the information is a secured segment of the network. So, even if an application is being accessed remotely, only the portion of the data that Powerlink deems necessary for iPad users can be accessed.

Cyclone Yasi

When Cyclone Yasi hit north eastern Queensland Darragh was faced with a challenge. All of Powerlink's emergency management staff were going into the field with an iPad. Darragh explains that "we needed to get all of our emergency management documentation out to the devices so that they could conduct all of their business in that environment and that there may not be any telecommunications services.

The documentation was taken from the source document management systems and a secure one-way link was created to the cloud-based SugarSync system so that staff could grab the documents themselves rather than require IT to load the devices. This was important as there was very little notice as to when staff were told they would be going out to the disaster zone.

"We'd been used to doing file extractions from other applications but we'd never done it for this form factor before. We created a set of instructions for staff. Staff got off the plane, checked their email, followed the hyperlinks and downloaded the application" said Darragh.

Even though staff would, once they were in the field, be without communications they would have access to their emergency documentation when once they in the operational field.

Device Management

Until portable devices became a regular part of the Powerlink IT landscape, systems were managed using automated deployment tools to distribute an SOE. However, none of their existing toolkit was iOS friendly and that introduced some interesting challenges.

For example, with a pool of hundreds of thousands of apps, Darragh was concerned that staff would "come and ask one of your IT people how to make it work. 99.9% of the time your IT staff isn't going to know what the application is, how it works or provide the support they need".

In addition, there are the problems of application ownership and licensing. Apple's volume licensing system is currently only available in the United States. Furthermore, what apps are the right apps? Which is the best office suite tool? How are they to be distributed? These are issues that are still being grappled with.

Outcomes

Interestingly, one of the things that Darragh found was that while the iPhone was universally accepted, there was less enthusiasm in the business for the iPad. People with more technical nous integrated the iPad into their work faster than less tech-savvy colleagues.

There were significant enhancements to staff mobility with remote access to data now easier. Log in and connect times to systems when out in the field moved from being measured in minutes to be measured in seconds.

Executive management and board meetings became paperless which meant that documents were distributed earlier and more cheaply. Another benefit was that meeting papers were read more often before meetings as some of the distribution challenges were overcome.

The iPad also offered a security benefit. Whereas USB sticks are unsecured and easily lost, the iPad can be passcode locked, stores its data in an encrypted form and is less likely to be left lying around.

Not all corporate apps work on the iPad. In particular, Darragh highlighted than none of the Microsoft Office analogs offered the Track Changes functionality his organisation required. The only way around this was to run a virtual desktop with a full version of Office.

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