Wireless: Seeking new management

Enterprise IT managers are getting a glimpse of the wireless future. Hundreds – and in some cases, thousands – of their companies’ employees have begun carrying wireless-enabled Pocket PCs, Palm devices and an array of other handheld computing products that can run multiple applications. It’s a trend that could create administrative nightmares.

More than a dozen IT managers interviewed by Computerworld (U.S.) who are deploying wireless applications say they see a growing need for wireless management tools for small devices. But wireless support in enterprise management suites such as IBM’s Tivoli and Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates International Inc.’s Unicenter is still evolving, analysts say. So for now, users rely on a broad mix of homegrown tools, more limited tool sets from smaller vendors or nothing at all.

Great Expectations

Cendant Corp. has 31 subsidiaries, and each has thousands of workers carrying handheld devices, many of which are wirelessly enabled, says CIO Larry Kinder.

For example, service workers at Cendant subsidiary Avis Group Holdings Inc. in Garden City, N.Y., use ruggedized handhelds to check in rental cars via a wireless LAN. And many executives are using Palm VIIs or BlackBerry handhelds from Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion Ltd. for wireless e-mail, inventory checks and calendar updates.

New York-based Cendant has management tools for its desktop systems that monitor hardware, operating systems, applications and assigned users and also automate software updates and virus scans. Kinder says he would like that same capability for wireless devices.

“Absolutely, central management is essential,” Kinder says. “But on handhelds, the management is more sporadic.” Avis’ only management tool is synchronization software from Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y.

IT managers say much needs to happen before large organizations can successfully install and use wireless management software. For one thing, software vendors need to make products with better wireless support, they say. And wireless bandwidth needs to increase so IT can push software upgrades and virus signature updates to devices and capture data for backup.

“We feel there’s a lot more we can do someday with pushing information to handhelds,” Kinder says, suggesting centralized user and device configuration profiles would be helpful. And, he adds, CIOs would “feel a lot better if the big management software vendors were doing more with wireless.” Truly effective tools for wireless and mobile devices are probably two years away, he predicts.

Bracing for the Inevitable

That may not be soon enough for some IT managers. “The point is that the handheld devices are out there, and IT may be a little slow to support or monitor them, but they are there, and they are no longer toys. IT needs to recognize that fact and rein them in,” says Stephen Drake, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Management of wireless devices “is not so much of a problem if you have 15 devices, but what if you have 15,000?” says Jack Gold, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Southboro, Mass. “Wireless management is going to be a big issue in the next few years,” he says.

Managers at large companies are just beginning to confront wireless management issues, Gold says. They are deploying the piecemeal management tools of the various wireless portal integration companies instead of integrating the devices into the existing, centralized management software they use for desktops and servers, he says.

Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Group PLC in London has implemented wireless management software. About 300 of its risk assessment engineers use laptops that can synchronize wirelessly or via dial-up connections. Using iMobile synchronization and management tools from Synchrologic Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga., IT staffers can retrieve Windows Management Interface asset information about the user and laptop hardware and software. The tools can even find and remove unauthorized software but only over a wired connection.

The biggest players in enterprise management tools all claim to support wireless devices. “But the question is whether their solution really does connect to all wireless devices and let the central administrator know what’s there, what operating system it has running, what application, and can you upgrade it centrally?” says Gold.

While offerings from the enterprise management tool vendors are limited, smaller vendors have stepped in, according to Drake. “Most of the (smaller) management companies have hooks into centralized management tools” and can function effectively alongside them, he says.

A dozen smaller vendors, including Aether Systems Inc. in Owings Mills, Md., have developed wireless management software or have plans to move mobile management software to wireless devices. And in some cases, says John Girard, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., the big players are relying upon partnerships with these smaller vendors to provide wireless support.

Management Alternatives

Sprint PCS Group in Kansas City, Mo., isn’t waiting for these partnerships to mature. The company has authored its own tools to manage wireless devices, including Kyocera Corp. smart phones, carried by its 1,200 salespeople. The homegrown software lets administrators see the last time a user logged in, the devices he’s using and some of the information he’s accessing, says Anita Otto, director of business sales and distribution.

For companies with simpler wireless applications, management tools are less of an issue. Merrill Lynch and Co., in Princeton, N.J., has distributed about 3,000 BlackBerry devices to employees, primarily for receiving e-mail, says Kevin Adams, vice president of mobile technologies. Because the company uses only one standard device with one primary application, Adams says, “the management resides with LAN support and computer support teams” without any special tools.

Adams says he hasn’t yet seen a “real business case” to have a centralized console that would allow management of wireless devices alongside PCs and other parts of the IT infrastructure. Enterprise management software makers “don’t have any proven solutions yet, and you could end up spending $300,000 for it and then ask yourself, ‘What did I get myself into, now that times are tight?’ ” he says.

But at Pitney Bowes Office Systems Inc. in Trumbull, Conn., new applications are making management a concern. Some 1,200 service technicians use BlackBerry devices over a Motient Corp. wireless data network for receiving dispatch information and ordering parts. Now the company is expanding its enterprise resource management and customer relationship management systems to support wireless devices for salespeople.

“I do see a need for a central management console” that looks at the wireless devices as a part of the entire IT infrastructure, says John Chillock, vice-president of customer service operations.

Tools for Wireless Device Management

The enterprise management suites available today offer limited support for wireless.

Wireless management software should be able to detect and monitor wireless end-user devices, but it should also monitor the wireless network service and support automated downloading of software and device driver updates to mobile devices. While all of these services aren’t fully available in enterprise management suites today, the top three vendors are promising full support or are providing it through partnerships to add the missing pieces.

IBM’s Tivoli Systems Inc. division in Austin, Tex., offers the Smart Handheld Device Manager (SHDM) for Palm OS or Windows CE. SHDM works over synchronization servers or across wireless LANs and WANs. Its functions include device discovery, software distribution and configuration management. The SHDM technology, which has merged into Tivoli’s Personalized Services Manager, includes technology from IBM partner Extended Systems Inc. in Boise, Idaho.

In the first half of next year, IBM plans to announce a product based on open standards to allow enterprises to manage all devices, including wireless ones, from a central console. It will be available as part of WebSphere or separately, says Jeff Griffin, market manager for client solutions at IBM’s Pervasive Computing division.

Computer Associates International Inc. offers limited wireless management capabilities in its Unicenter software. Unicenter can monitor a wireless device’s status and location, and it allows downloading of software updates, says Taoling Xie, director of brand management in wireless at CA.

Hewlett-Packard Co. has announced that its flagship management software, OpenView, will be able to monitor and provide security for handheld devices. HP officials say the company plans to introduce server-based management tools that reach out to wireless nodes through application servers. However, none of those capabilities are available today.