Five steps to getting your road warriors in sync

To successfully synchronize your remote workers' data, begin by understanding the layers of products available and how to best use them in your enterprise.

Data synchronization can be extremely simple or very complex. And, it can be inexpensive or cost an arm and a leg. Generally, the one thing that isn't true anymore is that data synchronization applications are crude and poorly implemented. These days, most of the horror stories come from using products in the wrong applications.

Here are some guidelines on what you can do to get your remote workers' data in sync:

Step 1: Evaluate products on several levels.
While there are numerous products available, they are anything but identical. In fact, one of your first jobs in picking a data synchronization tool is to make sense of the synchronization landscape. You should divide products by function, completeness and approach.

The functional differences arise because "data synchronization" means different things to different people. To many IT professionals it refers to keeping data in sync among several geographically disperse facilities, usually over a WAN or Internet connection. Obviously, this is not at all the same as updating data to and from laptops in the hands of the salesforce, field engineers or other remote workers.

Even with remote workers there are important distinctions. Some workers can connect to the company network the entire time they are actually working. Many of them can't and have to reconnect and resynchronize at intervals, perhaps every evening. Another class of remote workers isn't really remote at all: They are employees like warehouse workers who are working in a limited geographical area, like a warehouse or construction site, who can be constantly connected by a Wi-Fi LAN.

Step 2: Decide whether to select a toolkit or an application.
Many products are toolkits for writing connectivity applications. For example, IBM's DB2 Everyplace includes tools for synchronizing the Everyplace database with an enterprise-level database. Such toolkits are useful for organizations that need to provide specialized connectivity for their remote workers.

Applications cover a huge range -- from highly specific products that support a single kind of application on a single kind of hardware (such as PeopleSoft Inc.'s BlackBerry salesforce automation application) to tools designed to synchronize applications like Microsoft Outlook. The more specific an application, the higher the performance is likely to be -- and the more limited its applications.

Step 3: Determine if you want to deploy an administrative tool.
Someone will need to administer your remote connections, and most of the time you will end up trading some ease of use for the users with ease of administration.

Generally speaking, there are two approaches to data synchronization for remote workers. One is to make the synchronization work as much like the user's desktop as possible. The other is to impose a level of management and control on what remote workers can access and how to access it.

For example, some products, such as Synchrologic Inc.'s iMobile Suite, allow administrators to control which files will be updated as well as pushing selected documents to the remote workers whether they ask for them or not. Others, like Mobiliti Inc.'s Network/Unplugged, attempt to imitate the user's desktop computer as much as possible with few limits on what the user can do.

Another issue, which is peculiar to synchronization products, is how the products handle updates. Some, like PeopleSoft's Enterprise Sales for BlackBerry, update constantly via a wireless link. Others update specific files every time the user connects. Some require the user to log in at specific times to synchronize the data. Which method is best for your organization depends on factors like how critical it is to have up-to-date information and the load imposed by updating remote users.

Step 4: Make sure it supports your hardware.
Not all products support all hardware configurations. If your remote workforce uses PDAs, your choices of data synchronization products are quite different, and much more limited, than if it uses laptops.

Another important distinction is the kind of connection the product supports. Many are designed to work over a Web connection or a VPN to the enterprise; others require a dial-up connection. While some products strive to be all things to all hardware, they are generally less successful than products that specialize in supporting a particular set of hardware. The trade-off, of course, is that you may need multiple specialized products to support your users rather than a single, more general product.

Step 5: Test it!
Because data synchronization products are so diverse, it is important to test any product thoroughly before you choose it.

It's especially important to make sure your assumptions about access methods and workloads are correct before you commit to a synchronization strategy. If you're going to use Wi-Fi to connect to the Web, for example, make sure that Wi-Fi access is really available where your workforce will need it. (Factories are notorious for Wi-Fi problems because of things like metal buildings and prodigious sources of RF interference.)

Rick Cook has been writing about mass storage since the days when the term meant an 80 K floppy disk. The computers he learned on used ferrite cores and magnetic drums. For the last 20 years he has been a freelance writer specializing in storage and other computer issues.

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