Wireless gateways pave road to enterprise

Much like the grass-roots introduction of the PC changed network infrastructures forever, the proliferation of mobile computing gadgets in corporations is having a similar effect.

Corporate road warriors who are depending more on mobile devices now desire access to enterprise applications over wireless WAN links.

A recent Gartner Inc. study shows that during the next three to five years, corporate users expect to access the Internet through a variety of wireless devices, including modems, phones, PDAs and laptops.

To satisfy that desire, IT executives will have to evolve their network infrastructures with wireless access middleware, or gateways, to help securely and efficiently deliver existing Web and legacy applications and data.

The mobile e-business market, including devices, gateways, carrier services and software, is expected to balloon from US$9 billion in 2001 to US$25 billion by 2004, according to IDC.

Gateways, which sit between enterprise systems and corporate firewalls, broker connections with wireless devices and provide protocol and content rendering, security and workflow. Gateways also provide queuing services to compensate for wireless latency issues. The evolving gateway contrasts with single-purpose mobile environments built to support access from one wireless device to a single application.

“These gateways are kind of like a great big multiplexer between corporate data and the diversity of wireless clients,” say Bob Norton, senior manager of Lotus Software Group’s mobile wireless product group.

While gateway technology is still immature, companies such as IBM Corp. with its Everyplace Wireless Gateway are developing multifunction gateways that integrate with Web application servers. Others, such as Broadbeam Corp., Cysive Inc., Fenestrae BV, iAnywhere Solutions Inc., iConverse Inc., iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions, Microsoft Corp., OpenWave Systems Inc., Oracle Corp. and Wireless Knowledge Inc., also offer multifeature wireless gateway products.

In the Enterprise

In the enterprise, IT executives are looking to take wireless access gateways out of service providers’ hands and bring them within corporate firewalls to maximize control, security and performance of wireless delivered data and applications.

“The trend will be to use the service provider as a bit pipe and put the middleware on the enterprise side behind the firewall,” says James Kobielus, an analyst with The Burton Group Corp. and author of a recent white paper “Mobile Application Architectures”.

The gateways are starting to feature more sophisticated operations – beyond simple conversion from HTML to Wireless Markup Language (WML) – such as content rendering, content security and filtering, messaging routing, virus scanning, workflow, data synchronization and identity and access management.

Kobielus, who also is a Network World (US) columnist, says rendering of protocols and content as well as security are key issues for companies.

Today, wireless gateways are used most often for e-mail delivery and synchronization to handhelds with microbrowsers. But the infrastructure becomes more important, especially when 2.5G and 3G wireless technologies begin delivering always-on, high-speed connections.

“The real wireless game is to provide connections to existing intranets and applications,” Kobielus says.

Some corporations are already exploring that avenue.

Real-time Wireless Access

Central Hudson Gas and Electric in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., uses a gateway to add real-time wireless features to a line-up of homegrown mobile data collection applications.

“Now we have the opportunity to communicate what is going on out in the field all day long,” says Sue Aber, supervisor of IS development.

Central Hudson uses Broadbeam’s Axio wireless access gateway running on Windows 2000 to provide access to its back-end systems. The gateway feeds data to a set of application folders stored on a file server. The file server is used to update the company’s mainframe system at various intervals throughout the day. Previously, the update could only be run once a day after data was downloaded from field devices and returned to the office.

“Now our customer service representatives can see up-to-date data when they deal with customers,” Aber says. Central Hudson chose Broadbeam for its store-and-forward feature so data could be queued until a wireless device was in a coverage area.

“The gateway was easy to integrate into the infrastructure, and we didn’t have to make major changes to the applications to go from the download process to the wireless feed,” Aber says. She estimates the infrastructure runs US$200 per user. “The greatest costs are still in the [wireless] communications.”

In the future, Aber wants gateways to support other applications and securely push those out to various field devices.

Broadbeam and other wireless access gateways are designed to meet that need and more.

Content rendering and security are two important emerging gateway functions.

The gateways can render content for any device after it has been converted from a wireline format such as HTML, to wireless formats including Handheld Device Markup Language, WML and Compact HTML. An emerging format called XML HTML is designed so all content can be written in one format for accurate rendering to client devices using XML-based stylesheets.

Fenestrae is one vendor already using XML at a gateway and converting data using stylesheets. It also plans to release this year specialized connectors for enterprise applications, the first being SAP.

“You only convert the data once to provide access to all sorts of devices,” says Vaylor Trucks, product manager for Fenestrae’s Mobile Data Server.

Security is another major feature of gateway products, letting companies take encryption and decryption chores behind the firewall. That will be made easier with the Wireless Application Protocol 2.0, which incorporates Transport Layer Security.

While use of gateway products is in its infancy, it will evolve to support sophisticated functions such as personalization, text-to-speech conversion, speech recognition and location-based delivery, Kobielus says. Mobile code management is likely to become another feature with automated, rules-driven software distribution.

The wireless access infrastructure will also require management features and services such as VPNs to enhance security.

“You can put a wireless front end on any application but it will not be extensible and flexible. It will be hardwired to that application,” says George Faigen, Broadbeam’s vice-president of strategy and marketing. “You want reusable and flexible technology such as a gateway. You want IT people familiar with one architecture that can serve many needs.”