• United States
by Barry Nance, Network World Global Test Alliance

Mobile middleware

Feb 09, 200414 mins
Cellular NetworksNetwork SecurityServers

Aligo's Omni Mobile Platform wins our test of four tools that mobilize your applications

We test four mobile middleware products from Aligo, Extended Systems, iAnywhere Solutions and JP Mobile.

Mobilizing your company’s core business applications requires more than just a wireless connection between a company Web server and users’ handheld devices. Somewhere between your back-end database and application servers on one hand, and your handheld devices on the other, you need mobile middleware.

Mobile middleware compensates for device disparities by rendering standard application screens in device-specific ways, interacts with client business logic in the handheld device, ensures security  and aids in application deployment. A mobile middleware vendor also can help you mobilize a workforce automation system by offering time-saving guidance and software tools. The tools help you build, deploy, run, troubleshoot and maintain mobile applications. The guidance helps you adopt mobile best practices and avoid the pitfalls that early pioneers encountered.

What mobile device should you use?

How we did it

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The ideal mobile middleware product should work with every type of wireless handheld device, run on any server platform in your shop, reliably deploy the application, automatically handle synchronization issues during periods of disconnection, be responsive and intuitive to use, offer the highest level of security and adhere to industry standards. The vendor should guide you through development, deployment and ongoing application management  with unerring expertise.

To find the best mobile middleware vendor, we invited several to submit their products to our Alabama lab for testing. We tested Omni Mobile Platform 2nd Edition from Aligo; OneBridge Mobile Solutions Platform 4.7 from Extended Systems; M-Business Anywhere 5.3 Application Edition and SQL Anywhere 9 (including UltraLite, a client-side relational data repository) from iAnywhere Solutions (a subsidiary of Sybase); and SureWave Enterprise Server 4.1 from JP Mobile .

We found that Aligo’s Omni Mobile Platform has the best environment for building, deploying and managing mobile applications. It supports virtually every type of wireless handheld device. It runs, by virtue of its Java application server  architecture, on many platforms. Its visual design environment makes building and reviewing the design of mobile applications a breeze – an important feature for network people. For these reasons, we award Aligo our Blue Ribbon Award.

However, we found that all four products were reliable and capable tools. Depending on your situation, you easily could incorporate any one of them into your company’s core business application mobilization strategy.

Mobilizing your forces

The easiest path to a productive, successful mobile application begins with tackling simple e-mail and calendaring. Appropriately, each vendor offers handheld client software that can access Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes groupware functions.

Starting with e-mail and calendaring not only familiarizes end users with the operation of the handheld device that you standardize on, but also gives you a head start on the handheld application user personalization that you will want to implement with future applications.

To avoid risks and headaches, we suggest you make liberal use of your chosen vendor’s guidance and expertise as you design and deploy an application.

Aligo’s Omni Mobile Platform sends device-specific screen data to handhelds; interacts with back-end servers and custom mobile client code; and gives application designers a rich, intuitive visual design environment. However, Omni Mobile Platform’s handheld data repository feature isn’t as capable as M-Business Anywhere’s.

Omni Mobile Platform consists of Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition (J2EE) components and is a comprehensive Enterprise Java Beans application server environment. Imagine an IBM WebSphere or BEA Systems’  WebLogic environment especially geared to wireless handheld clients. Now add a handheld client visual design development tool. Voilà! You have Omni Mobile Platform. Its platform-neutral Java underpinnings made Omni Mobile Platform highly scalable in our tests.

Creating wireless application business logic with Omni Mobile Platform was child’s play. Via its .Net-based Data Access Layer integration between Java servers and Microsoft .Net devices, Omni Mobile Platform made the wireless handheld retrieval and display of data from Java Database Connectivity data sources (such as relational databases) almost as quick and easy as that of M-Business Anywhere’s relational database option.

The Sync Engine component contains, among other modules, a Sync Cache module. The client and server have complementary Sync Caches for storing data on the handheld client and tracking its database operations. Omni Mobile Platform’s Sync Cache module requires a client-side Java Virtual Machine (JVM), such as pJava, MIDP or Personal Profile. In our tests, when we switched a handheld device from disconnected to connected state and back again, the Sync Engine modules transparently let our application continue running. If we wished, we easily could notify the user of the disconnection and ensure no database access attempts occurred until the handheld device reconnected to the network. Except for the Sync Cache JVM requirement, an application developed with and run in the Omni Mobile Platform environment, it works on virtually every available Web-capable mobile device, including Palms, Pocket PCs, wireless phones, Research in Motion  pagers, iMode phones and J-phones (Japan). If you have Microsoft Visual Studio, Omni Mobile Platform emits handheld client programs for Microsoft .Net Compact Framework just as well as it does for Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) or other wireless environments.

The M-Business Anywhere server component renders screen data for display on a mobile device and interacts with back-end servers and the mobile client software that your developers create. Sybase also offers a relational database for use in mobile devices. However, M-Business Anywhere doesn’t offer a visual design environment for building client code: We used CodeWarrior to specify how our handhelds should process the information sent to and from the devices.

M-Business Anywhere is a family of three products. The full-featured M-Business Anywhere Application Edition works with transaction-oriented, data-driven applications that need custom-written mobile device clients. The moderately capable M-Business Anywhere Web Edition Pro supports non-transaction-based data collection applications on mobile devices. You would use this edition to distribute read-only Web content to mobile devices. Sybase also offers a version of its SQL Anywhere relational database software, called UltraLite, for storing application data directly on the handheld device. UltraLite comes in handy, for example, when you decide it makes sense to store ancillary, read-only application data on the mobile device instead of retrieving the data across the Internet. For our test, we used Application Edition and UltraLite.

On your centrally located servers, M-Business Anywhere runs on Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Solaris 2.6 and Red Hat Linux 7.3. Its client component runs on Pocket PC with operating system Version 2000, 2002 or 2003, Palm OS Versions 3.5.2, 3.5.3, 4.X or 5.X and RIM 857 and RIM 957 BlackBerry Wireless Handhelds (although the RIM client supports only M-Business Anywhere Web Edition). IAnywhere Solutions says M-Business Anywhere will support tablet PCs and notebook computers sometime in the first half of this year.

The M-Business Anywhere handheld client operates in offline (disconnected from the Internet) and online (connected) modes. In offline mode, the client retrieves Web pages, forms and database material from an internal cache of saved information, whose size is device-dependent. In online mode, the client accesses information over the Internet and can take part in real-time transactions. If a client momentarily disconnects from the Internet, the M-Business Anywhere client automatically switches to offline mode. Designing the application to detect the mode switch and behave appropriately (continue working based on just the cached information or notify the user and stop working until the handheld reconnects) is easy. In our tests, the M-Business Anywhere client seamlessly flipped to and from online and offline modes. Furthermore, the handheld’s UltraLite relational database option integrated tightly with M-Business Anywhere’s offline and online mode changes.

Extended’s OneBridge Mobile Solutions Platform translates application screens into device-specific displays, interacts with back-end servers and offers a Windows-based visual design environment for building handheld dialogs. While it offers excellent synchronization services, it doesn’t have a handheld device relational database option.

Like Omni Mobile Platform, OneBridge Mobile Solutions Platform runs on Java and is J2EE-compliant. The system consists of a Mobile Data Suite, Presentation Server and Integration Server. The Data Suite subcomponents are Synchronization Server, Synchronization Server Administration console, the OneBridge mobile client software and programming specifications for building mobile applications in the OneBridge environment. Table-driven to quickly and uniformly accommodate the widest range of handheld device types, the Presentation Server formats and renders screen data to each specific handheld device. Developers use CodeWarrior or an equivalent application to create the actual handheld client business logic. Like Omni Mobile Platform, OneBridge Mobile Solutions Platform supports virtually every type of mobile computing device.

The OneBridge Synchronization Server subcomponent provides server-side access to Microsoft ActiveX Data Objects and Object Linking and Embedding Database data sources, Lotus Notes custom databases and the OneBridge Integration Server. In our tests, the handheld successfully switched from connected to disconnected states without corrupting our database or letting the user think a transaction was complete when it wasn’t. However, we had to assume considerable responsibility for data integrity in our custom client code by programming several “Are we connected?” checks in strategic locations.

Extended has a formal process, which it calls a “facilitated discovery process,” for expertly and safely guiding customers through the risks and dangers of shoehorning the client portion of a business application into a handheld device.

Similarly, JP Mobile has a process for building handheld-accessible business applications with SureWave Enterprise Server. Fortunately, the company has formalized its guidance into a process it calls the Rapid Assessment for Mobile Productivity (RAMP) program. A customer fills out a JP Mobile questionnaire that the company evaluates. Then, over a two- to three-week period (on average), JP Mobile experts work with the company to document a handheld application strategy; quantify the application’s costs and benefits; document both the general and detailed design; and produce an action plan for developing, deploying and managing the application.

We concluded that both Extended’s facilitated discovery process and JP Mobile’s RAMP program are invaluable aids for a company making its initial foray into mobilizing an application. Both vendors make sure you thoroughly contemplate the effect on each individual application data item of transitioning between connected and disconnected states. A data item such as “quantity on hand” might be out-of-date and unusable in a disconnected state, but “today’s discount rate,” once obtained, may live, unscathed, through several disconnections.

SureWave Enterprise Server runs on Windows 2000 Server and requires that you have Microsoft SQL Server 2000. On the client side, the handheld devices it supports include Palm, Pocket PC, RIM 950, RIM 957, Kyocera 6035, Kyocera 7135, Handspring Treo (180, 270, 300 and 600 series), a smart phone running Palm 4.X or 5.6, a Pocket PC smart phone running Pocket PC 2002 Phone Edition, the Nokia Communicator 9290/9210, Nokia 3650 and WAP devices.

Ease of use

Both the Omni Mobile Platform central console and visual design environment are a joy to use – they are intuitive and responsive. Through the central console, an administrator easily can add or delete users, view usage statistics and configure deployment options, such as choosing which files go to specific handheld devices. The visual design environment includes drag-and-drop interactive windows for specifying application client behavior, and it supports a device emulator for viewing and testing behavior before deployment.

The M-Business Anywhere management console is a Web-based tool that lets you add and delete users, add or remove applications from a user’s device, and view usage statistics. To our delight, we could integrate M-Business Anywhere with a Windows Server domain to automatically synchronize users (added or deleted) between the domain and M-Business Anywhere.

The OneBridge administration tools consist of Web-based screens – for example, you can configure the OneBridge interface(s) with back-end servers. The Sync Server Administration tools generate custom integration methods that OneBridge’s Sync Server uses to access back-end relational databases. Similarly, the Data Suite Administration, Presentation Server Administration and Microsoft Management Console-based Log Viewer adds and deletes users, and displays usage reports. OneBridge Designer wasn’t quite as sophisticated as Omni Mobile Platform’s design studio, but it was a great tool for building mobile applications and reviewing their design.

The SureWave Enterprise Server central console can add or delete handheld device users, and it displays useful statistics on users and devices. We especially liked the fact that it let us delegate administrative functions across the enterprise.

Security, installation, documentation

All four products support the full breadth of wireless standards and protocols, such as WAP and WML. While each product offers some level of security for authenticating users and maintaining confidentiality, you likely will need to implement an appropriate level of security inside the application itself (depending on the data’s sensitivity).

Omni Mobile Platform can use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) for network security, and configuring a mobile application to enforce password-based authentication takes just a few steps in its visual design environment. M-Business Anywhere uses SSL and can be integrated with Windows, RADIUS and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol  for user authentication. OneBridge can use SSL and FIPS 140-2 encryption, and can enforce handheld device power-on passwords. An administrator also can render a handheld device virtually useless when a device is reported missing or stolen. SureWave Enterprise Server also can invalidate a lost or stolen device, and the SureWave-based mobile applications easily can authenticate users in whatever way your company prefers. It also uses SSL to communicate with clients.

Installing each of these four mobile middleware tools was simple and straightforward. Aligo supplied us with “Getting Started” and developer’s reference printed documentation, and the remainder of the Omni Mobile Platform explanatory material, in online form, was clear and comprehensive. IAnywhere Solutions easily had the best documentation – all the manuals were in printed form, and they were clear and easy to understand. Extended and JP Mobile provided only online user’s guides and reference manuals, but the material was clear and easy to follow.

The bottom line

Handheld wireless devices and their capabilities have mushroomed over the past few years. Taking advantage of the devices in your business can free workers from their desks and give them a huge productivity boost.

We recommend taking a close look at Aligo’s Omni Mobile Platform. No matter what device best suits your business application, the Omni Mobile Platform likely will support it. Our exhaustive testing shows that it’s scalable, robust and easy to use, and has the best visual design environment for building mobile applications. While it’s pricey for small to midsize businesses to invest in, companies with serious “run-your-business-on-it” core applications will be able to recoup the middleware costs in short order.

With the right mobile middleware in place, you can take it with you.

Omni Mobile Platform 2nd Edition


Company: Aligo Price: $50,000 per CPU, includes one developer license. Pros: Scalable; supports virtually every type of handheld device; visual design environment generates mobile application code; server platform-neutral. Cons: Client-side data repository not as capable as M-Business Anywhere’s; pricey.
OneBridge Mobile Solutions Platform 4.7


Company: Extended Systems Price: From $150 to $300 per user. Pros: Excellent device supports; scalable; server platform-neutral. Cons: Visual design environment not as sophisticated as Omni Mobile Platform’s; requires more design and programming effort than Omni Mobile Platform does.
M-Business Anywhere 5.3


Company: iAnywhere Solutions Price: Application Edition, $299 per user; Web Edition Professional, $199 per user; Web Edition Standard, $69 per user; SQL Anywhere, $399 plus $119 each deployment. Pros: Well-designed management console, superior client-side data repository, scalable, excellent documentation. Cons: Lacks pervasive device support and a visual design environment.
SureWave Enterprise Server 4.1


Company: JP Mobile Price: $180 to $300 per user plus annual maintenance of 20%. Pros: Vendor has formalized its expertise to help customers build mobile appli-cations; central console can delegate functions. Cons: Not as scalable as the other products; runs only on Windows; doesn’t support as many handheld devices as Omni Mobile Platform or OneBridge Mobile Solutions Platform.
Omni MobileOneBridgeM-Business SureWave Enterprise

Device support 20% 

Ease of use 20%  5443
Standards 20%  4444
Security 10%  3333
Server platforms 10%  5543
Documentation 10%  4353
Installation 10%  4444

Scoring Key: 5: Exceptional; 4: Very good; 3: Average; 2: Below average; 1: Consistently subpar