Managing the mobile workforce

Rick Davidson, vice-president of new technologies at the Bank of Nova Scotia, has been getting calls lately from Scotiabank employees who want to take part in a new pilot program. Using software from MobileQ, Inc. of Short Hills, N.J., those taking part in the pilot will be able to check e-mail and use the bank’s Lotus Notes applications from any Web browser on a desktop computer, a notebook, a handheld device or even a cell phone.

That will be good news for Davidson and his colleagues in the IT department, because they won’t have to worry about what devices the employees are using. “It takes all that administrative work away from us,” Davidson says.

The new software won’t replace virtual private network (VPN) connections that give some Scotiabank employees more complete access to corporate systems so they can work from home or elsewhere. But it is one example of how companies are coping with the technology and management challenges a growing mobile workforce presents.

London, England-based technology research firm Ovum predicts the worldwide market for wireless enterprises could be worth US$29 billion by 2006. And International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd. in Toronto says nearly three million Canadian households – or roughly a quarter of households – include one or more people who work at home at least sometimes. About 1.2 million of those are mobile corporate workers, says IDC Canada analyst Warren Chaisatien.

“Most people now are becoming mobile,” says Don Chapman, vice-president and general manager of Novell Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont. Road warriors who want access to data and applications from wherever they are create new challenges for corporate network managers, he noted.

Technology progresses

Notebook computers have matured and don’t present as many problems as they once did, notes Alex Dhanjal, senior manager in the emerging business solutions group at Deloitte Consulting in Toronto. When notebooks first appeared in business, Dhanjal says, there was no way to create a really secure connection between a remote portable machine and the corporate network. Today, it’s fairly easy to set up a VPN link. Dhanjal’s own notebook, for instance, can make a VPN connection to Deloitte’s internal network either by phone or using the cable modem in Dhanjal’s home. Only an authorized machine, operated by someone with a valid user ID code and password, can log in to the network.

The main hole that leaves, Dhanjal admits, is data on the notebook itself. Unless data is encrypted, a notebook lost, stolen or just “borrowed” long enough to look at confidential files could mean a security breach. While encryption software exists, making sure users use it depends largely on education.

It is a bit easier to make sure the data on the notebook is at least backed up.

Left to themselves, most people won’t do back-ups as often as they should and many won’t do them at all. With desktop computers permanently connected to the network, network administrators can automate back-ups. With notebooks it’s harder, but also possible. IBM subsidiary Tivoli Systems, for instance, provides software to let mobile workers back-up notebook hard disks to the corporate network. The package can also flag directories for automatic back-up at set times. The notebook only needs a network connection, says Hugo Garcia, senior systems engineer at Tivoli Canada.

Automatically mobile

As the number of computers in organizations has grown, installing and updating software has become a chore. In the office, network administrators now use automated installation and update processes. Automating installations and updates on mobile computers is trickier – but it can be done.

Tivoli’s software can wait for a notebook to connect and then notify the user that new or updated software is available. The user can choose whether to download the update or not, but an administrator can also designate an update as mandatory. In that case, the user gets several chances to postpone the download – useful for a road warrior hurrying to check e-mail before a meeting – but after a certain number of delays it will download anyway.

While most mobile workers still communicate over wires, wireless communication is increasingly within reach. Yet it can raise technical headaches.

Sport Hawk International, a charter jet operator, abandoned plans to use Palm handhelds to send flight and expense reports to its Toronto headquarters when it found North America’s patchwork of cellular systems presented too many compatibility problems.

“We had problems getting the information back so we abandoned the project,” says Steven Simmons, vice-president of operations at Sport Hawk.

For now, Sport Hawk has gone back to using notebook computers to transmit reports over phone lines to its head office, where they are printed and data re-keyed into corporate databases. Simmons says plans to eliminate the re-keying are on hold while Sport Hawk deals with bigger logistical problems following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Wireless networks also complicate security. Mike Lazaridis, founder, president and co-chief executive of Research in Motion Inc. (RIM), the Waterloo, Ont.-based maker of BlackBerry handheld communications devices, says companies buying handhelds with wireless communications capability should insist on certified secure connections to back-office servers. They should also make sure data remains encrypted when passed from a wireline network to the wireless network.

A noteworthy point

Notebooks are still the most popular portable hardware for road warriors, but IDC predicts half a million to 600,000 handheld computers will be sold in Canada this year. And, while he has no hard numbers on who makes the actual purchases, Chaisatien says that historically, individuals rather than IT departments have bought most of the handhelds used in business.

Matthew Hickey, director of partner and enterprise sales at Palm Canada Inc., agrees.

“A lot of people buying them at retail were corporate people buying them on a credit card and then expensing them down the road as maybe a Daytimer,” he says.

The good news – from the network manager’s point of view at least – is that this maverick purchasing has begun to change.

“The IT side of the house is getting more active in terms of centralizing these purchasing decisions,” Chaisatien says. So at least the network manager will have a better idea of what handheld devices are out there.

The bad news is that handheld computers are not as well adapted to the corporate environment as notebooks. Mechanisms to handle remote access to corporate systems, data synchronization and security are just beginning to appear. For instance, companies such as Certicom Corp. have created versions of their encryption and VPN software for Palm devices, Hickey says. As this happens, Hickey says IT people are growing more receptive to the idea of handheld units connecting to the corporate network.

Palm’s HotSync Server software offers management functions for handheld devices. Able to work not just with Palm devices but with the Microsoft Windows CE or Pocket PC architecture as well, HotSync Server tracks information about every device that connects to it, including model, serial number and even battery level. It can also push data and software updates out to mobile units when they connect to the network, Hickey explains. Other companies, including Novell, Tivoli, AvantGo Inc. and Extended Systems Inc. make similar software.

Chaisatien says many IT departments are still grappling with choosing a handheld platform. He likens it to the early days of personal computing, when many companies were still trying to choose between the IBM PC standard and the Apple Macintosh. In the handheld world, the Palm system had a strong head start, but the backing of Microsoft is helping the Pocket PC technology eat into Palm’s market share. And other devices, such as RIM’s BlackBerry, have strong niches too.

Every organization needs to decide on standards for handhelds, Dhanjal says. While no employer can stop its employees from buying what they like with their own money, it can and should refuse to pay for or support devices that deviate from the corporate standard.

Staying connected

Notebooks and handheld computers are obvious tools for the mobile workforce. But a mobile worker doesn’t always mean a mobile computer. Instead, users can simply use what’s available wherever they are. The obvious example is the employee working at home on his or her own home PC. Business travellers can find PCs in hotel business centres, Internet cafes or even clients’ offices.

The difficulty with this is, how does the user get at his or her data, including e-mail, from someone else’s computer?

The answer seems to be for the network to support a single login, ideally through an ordinary Web browser, which then gives the remote user access to whatever he or she would normally be able to see at the office. The MobileQ software being tested at Scotiabank is an example, though restricted to working with Notes or Microsoft Exchange.

Novell’s OneNet software includes iFolder, an electronic folder that can hold any material to which the user will need remote access. Log on to the network, and you can work with any files in the iFolder from any computer – either downloading them or opening them over the remote connection. A synchronization capability compares copies of files on a notebook or home computer to those in the iFolder and replaces older versions with newer ones.

Mobile workers have used notebooks for a while now, so most issues they raise have been worked out. Handhelds and wireless communication are newer, so challenges are still being addressed. The problems of access from any device, anywhere will be resolved in time too.

“We see a growth in the number of mobile workers and that trend I believe is going to continue,” says Dhanjal. “In this mobile society that we live in, everyone wants to be able to stay connected.”

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