Small size and big demands

CTOs and other senior executives have high hopes for deploying mission-critical applications over wireless. Concerns about the venue abound with issues such as security, infrastructure and PDA limitations hampering acceptance.

Vendors have made progress in addressing some of these issues. PalmSource Inc., the OS division of Palm Inc., will offer many new security features in OS 5, the upcoming version of the Palm operating system. Microsoft Corp. also uses a client VPN and will soon offer client firewalls as well.

Further, the outlook for management of handheld devices looks brighter. Xcellent, a mobile system management company based in Atlanta, will announce this week plans to acquire Ehand AB, a Swedish software company. Ehand’s over-air synchronization application will now become Afaria Sync Manager and will be added to the Xcellent suite of Afaria management products.

With Sync Manager, IT managers will be able to schedule synchronization sessions on a time or event basis and determine what changes have occurred. The product synchronizes with both groupware products such as Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino as well as corporate applications using any ODBC (Open Database Connectivity), COM Object, or XML-based databases.

Also this week, mFormation Technologies in Edison, N.J., announced that its managing and monitoring application, mFormation Enterprise Manager, will be certified to work with Computer Associates Unicenter.

Enterprise Manager tracks wireless latency and application degradation and isolates the fault in real time.

Although system management and monitoring are key to convincing enterprise level companies to use wireless, other issues remain.

For J. R. Bibb, innovation advisor at Shell Oil IT International, based in Houston and operating in more than 130 countries, integrating wireless with everyday work processes accessed via corporate applications is key. Whereas the number of platforms Shell uses is minimal, the number of applications unique to the oil and gas industry is high.

Bibb and others want to move beyond making entries on a PDA and sending information wirelessly — or even synchronizing with a cradle — toward using a PDA to extend the enterprise. “Our challenge is to be able to integrate these mobile devices with the back-end applications to bring value to our workflow process,” Bibb said.

According to Hollis Bostick, CTO at Seattle-based Boeing, companies such as NexPrise in Carlsbad, Calif., are trying to overcome PDA limitations and make the devices useful for the enterprise.

The company’s ipTeam program management, for example, come with preset responses to certain crises, allowing a user start a business process on the back end from a wireless device.

Many IT managers agree that, due to the limited capabilities of PDAs, truly enterprise-worthy applications need to reside on the back end. The devices haven’t reached the stage of having rich enough platforms to seamlessly move from desktop to handheld.

“You don’t have a PDA that can hold half a gig of info, and that’s how big the environment needs to be to track everything you need to track,” Bostick said.

According to Sun Microsystems CTO Hal Stern, applications have to be recoded, separating the wireless delivery of the application from the application logic, so that the resolution of all communication calls, the “heavy lifting” as Stern calls it, happens back on the server side.

“You need to refactor, that’s the hard part, and it needs to happen inside the data centre. Once you’ve taken care of the delivery, then you don’t care what device you are on,” Stern said.

Delivering the application reliably from the back end to the PDA is another enormous obstacle. Concerns about interrupted transmissions, and making sure the same ones and zeroes that are sent are the ones received, need to be resolved.

Until the wireless infrastructure becomes more reliable, mobile workers will continue working offline when they get disconnected. Many CTOs agree that the biggest factor limiting the value of wireless is the lack of reliable, ubiquitous coverage.

“The technology on the handhelds is there, but the infrastructure is bad,” said Gary Robertson, CTO of Delphi in Troy, Mich.

Even amid the hype of 3G (third generation) technology, wireless carriers promise data rates in the megabit per second range, yet none talk about reliability or coverage area.

Security concerns remain, although according to an IDC study released this month, security will be less of a concern over the next 12 months. IT managers agree that software vendors, for the most part, grasp the import of security, and will increase the levels of security to make deploying mission-critical applications over wireless appealing.

Though issues of infrastructure and PDA shortcomings have yet to be resolved, Sun’s Stern said that companies ought not abandon their current wireless dreams. “We are not saying, ‘Don’t use wireless.’ But first you do the ROI analysis of separating the delivery environment from the application environment. If you can’t do that, then it doesn’t make sense to use wireless,” he said.

Wirelessly challenged enterprise apps

The use of mobile devices requires us to rethink how we architect enterprise applications. For starters, there are myriad post-PC device types out there, from phones to handhelds to wearable computers. Their input options will vary from hardware-and software-based keyboards to touch pads and microphones. Available memory can be as little as 5K to 128MB or more, depending on whether Compact Flash is available. Storage options will also vary to limited built-in, memory-based storage to external Compact Flash drives that are now approaching 1GB.

The differences in device types and footprints means that your business either has to control the types of devices accessing enterprise applications or re-architect applications to assume the lowest common denominator among all available device types.

A number of tool kits are available to help enterprises re-architect existing applications with wireless devices. Vendors such as Nokia, Motorolla, and Sun Microsystems supply software tools that help developers transition end-user access onto mobile platforms. The most typical scenario is to split out a lightweight user interface onto the mobile device while enabling access to the underlying business logic of the application, which is implemented on one or more middle tier application servers.

Running application logic on the middle tier can certainly ensure transactional integrity between the middle tier and back-end data sources. However, successfully completing the leg of the transactional journey from the mobile device to middle tier can be a little dicier.

There are two main integrity issues that developers need to account for when creating transactional applications that will be implemented on mobile devices. The first is device identity and the second is mobile connectivity.

Aside from authenticating the user, developers will need to validate the identity of the device – not just once, but throughout the course of the transaction. For the transaction to be successfully completed, the application must be architected in a manner that ensures that the user and device that started the transaction are identical to the user and device completing it. With bits traveling through the air, link interference and mobile attackers are the leading causes of corrupted device identity.

Mobile connectivity presents yet another challenge to ensuring transactional integrity. Throughout the course of a mobile-generated transaction, developers will need to add functionality that checks to be certain the user and device are still connected. This may include routines that retry transaction completion if the device loses connectivity momentarily, as well as roll backs if the connection is lost altogether.

Although these issues are not insurmountable, developers building or re-architecting enterprise applications to support mobile access will need to take extra steps to split out mobile device access and ensure end-to-end transactional integrity. Until these issues are addressed, enterprise applications will remain wireless-challenged.