IT admins get help minding remote users

With the number of mobile users growing every year, new features are in demand to help desperate IT managers keep tabs on wireless devices. New features from Exchange Server 2003's SP2 provide some remote relief.

With more mobile workers than ever -- and more on the way -- IT managers are hard at work figuring out how to keep remote devices on the network updated and secure.

An IDC study released last week said the number of converged mobile devices hit a new high in the second quarter of 2006. The 20 million units shipped in the second quarter of this year mean a 42% increase over last year's number.

The mobile phones in the study included those that have high-level operating systems such as BlackBerry, Linux, Palm, Symbian or Windows Mobile. IDC said it expects that more than 100 million mobile devices will ship by the end of 2006.

The growing availability of email products that support a variety of platforms will continue to drive demand for enterprise-based devices for mobile workers, the study said. Keeping ahead of the complex task of managing them will require an even greater level of vigilance from IT managers who are still a little skittish about remote access.

"IT managers have a lot on their plates," said Rena Bhattacharyya, program manager for IDC's wireless business network services program. Added to their workload is the urgent need to get a handle on all of their remote users as they access the network through wireless devices, she said. And "there is a move toward configurations that will allow them to manage [these devices] more remotely."

In the enterprise messaging space, Microsoft dominates with its Exchange Server 2003 messaging and collaboration platform. With Service Pack 2 -- Exchange 2003's latest release -- IT administrators that use the standard edition can adjust size configurations to allow for up to 75 GB per database.

Other features include Direct Push Technology that uses an HTTP connection to push new email messages to mobile devices and local wipe, which dictates how many incorrect log-on attempts are permitted before a device is locked. In addition, remote wipe allows admins to delete information remotely from a lost or stolen device.

Two more major contenders in the messaging market are IBM's Lotus Domino server software that provides enterprise collaboration capabilities and Novell GroupWise collaboration software that offers email, calendaring, instant messaging, task management and contact and document management.

The variety of features available in today's products may be a draw for some IT managers. For others, however, the bottom-line concern seems to be getting the job done no matter where the users are.

"Our users are in areas where there isn't great reception," said Lisa Moorehead, director of MIS at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which sends its inspectors to all corners of the state.

"If we're pushing down a major software update, these are folks who don't want to wait," she said. "They'll cancel the update, and that means their antivirus software will be out of date."

Of the agency's 200 users, one-third of them reported using mobile devices this year compared with 20% last year, Moorehead said. Among the biggest challenges with her growing number of remote users was convincing them to be patient about updating their software.

In August, the agency took action and started using Exchange Server 2003 SP2 because of its improved mobile security features. With SP2, IT administrators can remotely manage, select and enforce IT policies on wireless devices. For example, IT administrators can set a personal identification number password for every device and control each device's access to the network.

Moorehead put SP2's Group Policy to the test after just two weeks during a virus threat. "Folks were told they had two days to update their antivirus software or bring their laptop in," she said. "If they didn't, they weren't allowed to access the network," she said.

Lost or stolen mobile devices make for another major headache for IT managers, especially when the data on the device must be protected under the law.

At the Helen Farabee Regional Mental Health and Mental Retardation Centers in Wichita Falls, Texas, Scott Reeves needs to know that patient data will stay confidential even if the wireless devices that doctors use go missing. Remote Wipe is a feature in Exchange Server 2003 SP2 that allows IT managers to force a device to delete its contents remotely.

"Remote Wipe is an especially important feature for us because we need to protect client and patient data under [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA] even if a device is lost or stolen," he said. The need to secure data over wireless devices is going to take on increasing importance at his organization, where the percentage of wireless devices among his 550 users will likely grow from 10% this year to at least 50% in the next five years, said Reeves.

"We're looking forward new features in Exchange 2007 that offer better capabilities to exert some control on end users," he said. Reeve's wish list includes features that "compress or encrypt in certain situations to keep spam and viruses down."

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