How to solve the enterprise mobility puzzle

Virtualization, SOA, security, management and network access must be part of a comprehensive mobility strategy

Smartphones and handheld devices with increasingly sophisticated capabilities -- and a mix of mobile operating systems and network technologies -- are complicating IT’s efforts to secure and manage corporate resources.

IT budgets are tight and some projects are in limbo, but there's one area Dave Rudzinsky isn't cutting back: mobility.

Read a story of five tips for an effective mobility strategy.

"Our mobility project is one that hasn't skipped a beat," says Rudzinsky, senior vice president and CIO at Hologic, a $1.6 billion medical devices company specializing in women's healthcare. "We've got to do more mobility because we want our guys to be able to work wherever they are, and keep our systems going."

Hologic has nearly 4,000 employees, and 1,500 of them require mobile access at least part of the time. Field service and sales teams in particular require tools to work on the road, so Hologic outfitted them with BlackBerry devices running Oracle CRM applications. (Read a story that asks if your mobile device is enterprise-ready?)

The CRM deployments are one aspect of Hologic's master mobile plan. The Bedford, Mass., company has in place a mobility strategy that covers everything from device options and service plans to usage policies and mobile application development. But most companies fall short of having a mobility master plan.

"Most companies are approaching mobility in a very tactical way, unfortunately," says Paul DeBeasi, senior analyst at Burton Group. "Mobile technology is changing so fast, and the expectations of new workers are changing so fast, but enterprises have not organized themselves to really be able to deal with any of this. There's no strategic view on how to integrate mobility in the enterprise."

That lack of strong policies leaves the door open to a mix of smartphones and handheld devices with different capabilities, operating systems and network technologies. As these devices pop up unannounced in corporate environments, IT's efforts to secure and manage corporate resources get more tricky.

Today's handheld devices are becoming almost as powerful as laptops, but "people are much more rigorous about managing their laptops than they currently are with their handheld devices," DeBeasi says. Two-factor authentication, encryption and VPNs are common on laptops, for instance, yet many handheld devices don't require any authentication to access the device or network, and local encryption on a handheld is possible, but not often implemented. "Where we are with mitigating against data leakage on handhelds has a long way to go to catch up to laptops," DeBeasi says.

"That's one of the big risks here."

Dave Rudzinsky

The way some see it, not having a mobility strategy is not only risky, but also a lost opportunity to refine existing security, application and management infrastructures. "If you, the enterprise, come up with a mobility strategy for IT, you're basically addressing all of your IT needs going forward, including in the office. Because even in the office, people are mobile now," says Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group. "If you solve your mobility strategy, you're solving your overall IT strategy."

Beyond e-mail; deploying business apps

Road warriors these days are looking to do more with their smartphones, and enterprises are beginning to assess which applications make sense to enable on handheld devices. Most companies start with e-mail and calendar-related tools, and more than 50% of organizations have already fully deployed these commodity applications, says Chris Silva, an analyst with Forrester Research.

The next priority for many businesses is deploying applications that feed structured data and collateral information to workers, such as sales and inventory applications. But mobility gets more interesting when enterprises look to deploy applications that allow employees to actually conduct business: Feeding market analytics to an investment banker, or enabling an underwriting process for a loan officer in the field, for example. When employees can conduct business, or initiate workflow back at the home office through a mobile device, that's revenue-generating activity, says Todd Christy, president and CTO at mobile application specialist Pyxis Mobile.

Such projects are starting to appear on forward-thinking companies' mobility agendas. "Over the last year or so, the level of sophistication from the buyer's side -- the questions that they ask, the problems that they're trying to solve, and the breadth of their mobile objectives -- has gotten much more advanced," Christy says.

At Hologic, IT deployed salesforce automation software from Oracle onto end user BlackBerrys, which not only makes sales staff more effective, but also provides a tool for management. "From a management perspective, it's allowing us to keep track of valuable sales and market information so that we can manage the business better. And if we have salesforce turnover, we don't lose that intelligence," Rudzinsky says.

Oracle's field service application, meanwhile, lets engineers provide closeout information for service calls -- such as parts used, time spent and resolution -- using their handheld devices, which speeds follow-on processes such as billing, Rudzinsky says.

Deployment options

Of course, choosing which applications are best suited for mobile employees' handheld devices is only part of the effort. Deploying them is a whole other issue.

In terms of application architecture, there are a few different approaches companies can take, each with upsides and downsides. A company can wait for, say, SAP or Oracle to introduce a mobile version of a specific application, but then the enterprise is at the mercy of the vendor in terms of delivery and platform support, Forrester's Silva says.

Enterprises also can opt to adapt an application to their mobile environment, but then IT winds up managing two applications, a desktop and a mobile version.

Specialty vendors such as Antenna Software, Pyxis and Sybase are another option, offering application platforms designed for handheld devices. "Now you have a purpose-built application that is designed from the ground up for mobile devices, but it's another application to manage, another license to manage, another piece of software to support," Silva says.

Hologic went the middleware route, choosing Antenna Software. However Rudzinsky admits he initially wasn't sold on the approach. "I wanted fewer moving parts, not more moving parts," he recalls. But Antenna's ability to simplify the user interface and to port PC-designed processes to a handheld won him over. "I'm hooked on it now."

It's a trend Gartner sees continuing. The research firm predicts that by 2010, 50% of enterprises will have migrated away from tactical mobile application silos (supporting a single application) to strategic platforms that can support multiple applications, manage devices, and secure data and transport.

Industry experts say the migration is a necessity.

"A lot of mobile applications over the last several years have been custom, one-to-one apps -- meaning one device type talking to one system," says Jim Hemmer, president and CEO of Antenna Software. "But with the proliferation of devices throughout the enterprise, the IT organization has had to step back and take a more strategic role."

"While they may only be deploying an application for their field service organization today, they know that tomorrow it's going to be the help desk, and the next day it's going to be somewhere in the supply chain," Hemmer says. "Companies need a central way to design, build and then deploy these applications, and then manage them as well."

How SOA, virtualization fit in

Third-party middleware isn't the only option for supporting multiple mobile applications on a common infrastructure, however. Farpoint's Mathias advocates a service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach, so reusable application components can be exposed as services without being tied to any specific user interface.

"Porting applications to individual handsets, individual platforms, is ferociously expensive. You shouldn't have to do it," Mathias says. If you deploy mobile applications in a Web services environment "all you'll worry about is provisioning your applications within the Web services metaphor. You don't care if the network is wired or wireless, you don't care if the client is a notebook or a handheld."

Marking an even more dramatic departure from yesteryear's fat-client architecture is the notion of using virtualization technology on handhelds. Enterprises today are using virtualization technology on laptops, says Burton Group's DeBeasi.

"In this particular context, virtualization is the ability to have the operating environment of the laptop virtualized such that the applications reside in the data center," DeBeasi says. "A laptop user can connect to the network, have a small kernel loaded on the laptop, and run their desktop environment right there. When they're done logging out, all remnants of what they just did get wiped away."

A virtualized desktop can offer greater security, because data isn't stored on the device, as well as business continuity and desktop management gains -- advantages that could carry over to the world of handhelds. In theory, a mobile hypervisor could abstract applications and data from the hardware, so developers could deploy the same application on multiple devices, regardless of underlying differences in mobile operating systems.

It's an emerging approach, fueled by VMware's launch in November of a hypervisor for mobile phones. VMware says it is working with mobile phone makers to embed its virtualization technology directly onto smartphones, and that the first such phones could be available by late 2009 or early 2010.

But convincing device makers to embrace the idea may not be easy. "It will be interesting to see if that actually takes hold," DeBeasi says.

Don't forget network access

Another element of enterprise mobility is the network: Having scores of application options on a handheld device won't amount to much if users can't connect.

Even as service providers lay plans for faster cellular networks with better coverage, availability remains a challenge, Mathias says. Dual-mode phones can help bridge the gap, offering Wi-Fi access when cellular networks fail. "By 2012 we think well over 40% of handsets sold will have Wi-Fi built in," Mathias says.

For enterprises, these devices offer new challenges and opportunities.

"The No. 1 challenge we hear from our customers is that, to date, the network that allows an individual to be mobile has always been siloed. Either it's a public, cellular-based network or it's an on-premise, within-the-business-walls network, typically pervasive wireless LANs," says Ben Gibson, senior director of mobility solutions at Cisco.

The idea of bringing those public and private wireless networks together, to enable not only converging services but also seamless roaming between networks, raises key infrastructure considerations for enterprises.

For starters, enterprises need a network that's ready for a massive influx of Wi-Fi-enabled devices, Gibson says. "Wi-Fi has been widely adopted, but not too many businesses have truly pervasive wireless LANs within their organizations today."

Bridging private WLANs and a public cellular network requires an investment as well. Cisco is among a handful of vendors (along with Avaya, Agito Networks, DiVitas Networks, NEC, Tango Networks and Siemens) offering a platform for fixed-mobile convergence. The idea behind FMC is that a mobile device can use either a Wi-Fi or cellular connection, and automatically shift between them, and make use of enterprise PBX functions such as directory capabilities and extension-based dialing.

Fresh-produce distributor Anthony Marano Company is an early adopter of fixed-mobile convergence. Keeping its salesforce of 50 connected is key to its business operations, and cellular coverage is unreliable in its facilities.

"We buy and sell fruits and vegetables and we take physical delivery of them by truckload here in Chicago, then we sell them by the case or by the pallet. The vast majority of our business depends on same-day shipment," says Christopher Nowak, CTO at Anthony Marano Company.

When buyers and sellers miss calls, business suffers. "If we can reduce that element, then hopefully we're catching deals from vendors and customers a little bit faster and being a little bit more responsive," Nowak says. "That helps us operationally."

The Chicago company is using a SIP-based RoamAnywhere Mobility Router from start-up Agito Networks and Nokia dual-mode smartphones. In addition, staff who need in-building cellular coverage but don't require PBX functionality are using an Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) service from T-Mobile that tunnels GSM calls through WLANs.

FMC is a fit for Anthony Marano Company because it enables more seamless business processes. That's what makes a good mobility project, even when times are tough and IT budgets are strapped, experts say.

"Now is the time when businesses have to find ways to do things better," Hologic's Rudzinsky says. "Mobility is a way that we can do things better, offer a better process to serve our customers and to save money for the company."

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

SD-WAN buyers guide: Key questions to ask vendors (and yourself)