IT gets a grip on handheld devices

IT managers used to concern themselves with laptops rather than PDAs and smart phones when it came to managing mobility. But as mobile devices become more pervasive — with computing power equivalent to some older laptops — they can no longer afford to overlook them.

The challenge for today’s IT manager is to deal with different mobile devices — from PDAs to smart phones — on different platforms, including Palm, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Symbian. While desktop PCs and laptops typically run on a Windows platform, there isn’t the same consistency with mobile devices — making them much more complex to manage. A number of management tools are available on the market, but without proper policies in place, these tools won’t be of much use — and could leave an organization with security holes.

“It used to be the IT shop didn’t care about the mobile phone, but there’s more computing power today in a Windows Mobile device than there was in a laptop two years ago,” said Sean Seaton, director of Windows Mobile, Microsoft Canada. “These little devices that come in multiple form factors are really mini-PCs.”

There’s a shift away from haphazardly adding mobile devices to the network to more of a formalized approach. And as part of this shift, organizations are looking to consolidate and standardize on one platform. Enterprises typically use one point product for security and another for remote management.

“Standalone utilities and tools seemed to have been the order of the day up until now,” said Carmi Levy, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. “We’re moving away from individual point solutions for mobile security and administration…toward a suite-based reality, which is similar to what we see in a conventional infrastructure.”

The HP Enterprise Mobility Suite, for example, provides mobile device management capabilities with a consistent user interface and interoperability with other administrative tools (this product will be available in Canada this summer). “If other vendors want to remain competitive, then they certainly will follow,” said Levy. HP’s management suite is built on the Open Mobile Alliance Device Management and Download specifications. OMA is a membership-based organization that aims to provide open standards and interoperability between various devices and operating systems, with broad-based support from more than 300 companies.

“It’s a recognition that today’s devices are much more networked than the standalone devices that defined the first generation,” said Levy. Now users want to be able to VPN into the network and access their inbox, for example, or connect their personal BlackBerry to the network, even if the organization hasn’t yet defined a BlackBerry policy.

“We’re really starting to see suites move into the market,” he said, adding that management of mobile devices is going to determine whether deployments will succeed or not.

Security has also come to the forefront, and IT administrators are looking for the ability to administer policies and push out updates. “Over-the-air delivery and management is key, rather than place the burden on the user to sync into the desktop to apply updates, whether it’s security or application updates,” said Eddie Chan, research analyst for mobile/personal computing and technology with IDC Canada.

Related to this is a move toward Web portals and intuitive user interfaces. “Everything is migrating toward those types of consoles for managing and setting policies for these devices,” he said.

Enterprise customers are looking for seamless integration of new devices over the air, such as setting up devices without having to ask the mobile professional to come by the office to do the setup, said Marwan Al-Najjar, product marketing manager for HP iPaq in Canada.

This is becoming more critical as these professionals use business applications on their mobile devices — so there’s a requirement to troubleshoot devices intelligently.

The objective is to provide a unified interface for all enterprise devices, from wired and wireless, said Al-Najjir of HP’s management suite, which is device-agnostic. “We all know there’s a lot of device proliferation out there — if you look at any business environment, a lot of staff buy their own mobile device.”

Microsoft is also taking a unified approach to management, and a lot of those capabilities are built into Exchange Server, said Seaton, such as the ability to push a mirrored e-mail to the mobile device. “They can extend that from the PC arena to the mobile device arena,” he said. “The more standards you open up, the more effort it takes and the more cost it takes to manage.”

In the short-term, it’s a business process challenge as opposed to a technology one. In the past, mobile devices were bought at retail, a few at a time, and individuals saw them as much as status symbols as productivity tools.

“We’re seeing a dramatic shift from that era to a more structured procurement approach,” said Seaton. “The CIO and chief procurement officer are now talking and looking at these converged smart devices as an extension of their telecom services.”

What you need to know…

Before deploying management tools, take a good look at your mobile environment. Are you dealing with more than one operating system? You may have to support different platforms, and different platforms have nuances in terms of the level of security and control they offer, said IDC analyst Eddie Chan. Research in Motion, for example, supports BlackBerry, but has limited support for other devices.

Also consider workflow. Who are your users? Are they road warriors or are they work-at-home professionals? How do they connect to the organization — wireless or over the air? You can simplify management by standardizing on a particular platform and limiting what users can bring into the corporate environment, said Chan. This can help combat the back-door syndrome, where employees bring in their own devices — whatever those devices happen to be.

“Now there’s much more concerted effort to streamline some of those decisions and device platforms,” he said. “That eliminates the need for cross-platform support.” At the same time, there are always users who want the latest and greatest, so you have to be able to manage that process.

What your users need to know…

Before deploying mobile devices to your end-users, it’s critical to have some kind of policy in place to govern how those devices will be used within a business context.

“It’s inconceivable that an organization would just hand over these devices to end-users without telling them how they should be used,” said Info-Tech analyst Carmi Levy. Organizations should not only have a policy framework in place, but acceptable use policies that are signed off by every end-user.

Firms must also require their IT department to sanction the deployment of these devices. Without proactive IT involvement, said Levy, companies run the risk of significant impact to the support organization when things go wrong.

If, for example, rogue devices are being used, but the help desk isn’t equipped to deal with these devices, it can affect the help desk’s ability to provide effective support to the end-user community. This raises support costs and reduces productivity across the organization.

“Never deploy mobility unless you have the process framework in place,” said Levy. “It’s a common mistake that most organizations make, [where] they think the technology will solve all of their problems and in reality technology needs to be deployed hand in hand with acceptable use policies.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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