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Senior Editor

Taking business apps on the road . . . and accessing them wirelessly

Aug 23, 20048 mins
Network SecuritySmartphonesTechnology Industry

Advances in wireless nets and mobile computing now make it possible to separate line-of-business applications from enterprise desktops.

The truck driver makes a right turn while his partner uses his Intermec 760 wireless handheld to punch up data on their next delivery. Besides directions and order details, he finds a text note: “Beware of large dog.” Calling the customer from his cell phone, he tells her the truck is just a few minutes away – and asks her to leash the dog.

Small details like these are adding up to a big competitive advantage for The Bekins Company’s HomeDirectUSA division and its network of 75 independent delivery agents. With accurate address data and a real-time, two-way cellular data link, Bekins’ new Service Tracking Automated and Routing System (STARS) is boosting efficiency by about 20% at Cardinal Transportation, says Gregg Bennett, president of this Richmond, Va., Bekins agent.

“That’s a tremendous plus for us. The [traditional voice] communications between drivers, dispatchers and [route] planners is very time-consuming,” says Bennett, who participates in a committee overseeing this Bekins project. The wireless data connection automates much of this, simplifying and speeding up these information exchanges.

Bekins expects STARS to smooth “final-mile” delivery processes such as picking up products and checking customer availability, says Randy Valentino, CTO at the Hillside, Ill., company. While at the agent’s distribution center, the delivery team can tap into a wireless LAN (WLAN) to access routing and dispatch data on an enterprise server running Microsoft SQL Server. On the road, the delivery team uses a cellular data link to access order and shipping manifest data in an IBM DB2 database at Bekins’ mainframe data center. And at delivery, handheld at the ready, drivers can confirm other services such as unpacking, setup and cleanup; note exceptions or returns; and take an electronic signature from the customer as proof of delivery.

STARS reflects the growing sophistication, affordability and simplicity of wireless technology. And it shows the growing willingness to use wireless for line-of-business applications, the lifeblood of business. As Valentino says of STARS, “This project was conceived as wireless from the start.”

Mobility-enabling the enterprise

Indeed, network executives increasingly are making mobility a part of their new data center architectures. Like at Bekins, they’re delivering applications to mobile workers, either pushing data out to them or collecting new data from them via WLAN or cellular data connections.

“Mobility is about bringing business applications out to the point of activity,” says Jeremy Platt, national mobility practice director for Dimension Data, a systems integrator in Reston, Va. The point of activity might be in a truck or a customer’s facility, or it might be within the company, such as wireless support for doctors at patient bedsides or for tech support staff servicing desktop PCs and network gear.

Willingness to push mobility and wireless-enable corporations comes with maturation of necessary technologies, Platt says. “You can create a much more stable environment for [wireless] users, and you don’t have to worry so much about managing it,” he says.

Particularly important has been the launch of middleware products – and approaches – developed especially for mobile and wireless computing. Today, middleware is streamlined into relatively easy-to-deploy, third-party applications or extended to mobile clients from the existing enterprise middleware infrastructure.

Wireless middleware is typically lighter weight than the traditional middleware products used to connect landline clients with the back-end infrastructure. Such lightweight middleware can greatly simplify the task of creating smart client applications that connect to enterprise data and applications.

A traditional middleware layer, including communications servers, proved to be a problem for Bekins and its wireless deployment. “It was taking 15 to 20 minutes to get data from the handhelds to the back-end databases,” Valentino says. “We couldn’t afford those time delays.” So Bekins stripped out that middleware in favor of a newer approach. Now transactions created on the handhelds are funneled to the DB2 database, for example.

Making middleware mobile

Mobile middleware from Aeroprise is proving a healthy solution for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which needed to give help desk and tech support staff wireless access to the Remedy trouble-ticket system it has long used for reporting PC problems, network faults and application glitches. While a helpful tool, Remedy had been anchored to IT desktops, which caused problems.

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That meant a team of about 20 technicians had to trek back and forth across a seven-building campus to deal with support calls. As a result, doctors and staff complained of long waits. By late 2003, those users were close to revolt, says Bruce Steinberg, Remedy administrator at Fred Hutchinson.

The Aeroprise Mobile Application Gateway has a set of ready-to-use adapters, or programs, that talk to the back-end application, in this case Remedy, via that application’s programming interface.

The gateway includes a rules engine and one GUI for network administrators and another for end users. Using these graphical tools, users can design their own task workflow and select for each step a subset of Remedy data that is to be sent via the center-wide 802.11b WLAN to client handhelds.

Fred Hutchinson has equipped the tech staff with Dell Axim handhelds running Windows Pocket PC 2003. “Our technicians log into a Web page [over the WLAN] and get the information they need in an easy-to-read table format,” Steinberg says. “They can drill down for more information, make notes and then update or close the trouble ticket.”

Since the tech support group received wireless Remedy access in January, it has met service-level agreements nearly 100% of the time, Steinberg says. This compares with 85% of the time in the past. “You can’t find our tech support staff here in the office [now] because they’re always out in the field,” he adds.

Mobile middleware also is proving essential at Marshfield Clinic, a healthcare group practice of 39 centers serving much of Wisconsin. “We want to take the patient’s electronic medical record and bring it into the examining room,” says Carl Christensen, CIO for the clinic in Marshfield, Wis.

Marshfield Clinic is pilot-testing a deployment that gives doctors wireless access to object-oriented patient-care and clinical applications via Fujitsu wireless PC tablets running Microsoft XP Tablet Edition. Object broker middleware provides connectivity between the tablet-based applications and an array of back-end servers and databases.

Mobility middleware from NetMotion Wireless lets doctors move freely about clinic facilities without losing their wireless connections. NetMotion Mobility, client/server software, creates a VPN that lets wireless clients roam across wired and wireless nets, and between subnets, while keeping the session intact. “My goal was to let our physicians roam seamlessly anywhere on our campuses,” Christensen says. With NetMotion, doctors can access medical data via a clinic or partnering hospital WLAN, from a desktop docking station, or even while at home.

The clinic has created cellular-like WLANs – almost doubling the number of access points you’d find in a typical WLAN – to create a pervasive wireless blanket at each site. Wherever they are or whenever they want, doctors can access forms and records. The design also ensures doctors have a wireless link even if their initial access point fails.

WLANs unleash apps

Just as some WLAN designs become more cellular-like, cellular nets are becoming more LAN-like as their bandwidth increases. Cellular data services such as Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution and Code Division Multiple Access, with respective data rates of up to 130K bit/sec and 300K to 500K bit/sec, make it possible to ship more data, or ship it faster, to support more complex applications, and to execute many transactions nearly in real time.

In the Bekins case, cellular data connection gives drivers instant access from almost anywhere to the mainframe-based order data. And when a driver captures a customer signature, billing is triggered immediately. Until now, this was a manual process that usually waited until the next day, after the driver had returned, filed paperwork and keyed the data into a computer, says Bennett of Cardinal Transportation. “With the new system,” he says, “we’ll speed up our cycle time by at least 24 hours.”

Advances in wireless nets and mobile computing now make it possible to unmoor line-of-business applications that until recently could be used only by workers at desktop PCs. Now those applications with their data and transactions can be shifted into the hands, or even one hand, of workers on the move, via WLANs or the new generation of cellular data nets.

Forward-looking network executives already are exploring potential business benefits such as increased revenue, lower costs and improved customer service.

Senior Editor

I cover wireless networking and mobile computing, especially for the enterprise; topics include (and these are specific to wireless/mobile): security, network management, mobile device management, smartphones and tablets, mobile operating systems (iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry OS and BlackBerry 10), BYOD (bring your own device), Wi-Fi and wireless LANs (WLANs), mobile carrier services for enterprise/business customers, mobile applications including software development and HTML 5, mobile browsers, etc; primary beat companies are Apple, Microsoft for Windows Phone and tablet/mobile Windows 8, and RIM. Preferred contact mode: email.

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