Mobile data technologies -- done right -- can make your company more agile and competitive

Some basic concepts and valuable tips for productively and securely implementing technologies for wireless Internet access.

By Will Luden

Some basic concepts and valuable tips for productively and securely implementing technologies for wireless Internet access

Wherever your company resides on the footprint spectrum between a four-walls business and a global operation the sun never sets on, you stand to benefit from the latest advances in mobile communications and data access technologies for Internet access.

An array of new business-optimized mobile technologies provides convenient, reliable, two-way, real-time access to productivity applications such as email, contacts, calendars, notes and tasks, as well as your company's critical databases. Leveraging standards-based mobile communications, employees at all levels can communicate productively and access the most current information available for effective decision-making.

Advances in mobile technology are at the heart of today's agile corporation. The maturing of cellular and Wi-Fi mobile network technologies -- both of which provide immediate access to the Internet -- spell the end of the temporal and geographical constraints of 'wireline' communications.

PDA devices can dramatically increase productivity at little cost

Handheld data-centric cellular devices such as Treos and BlackBerrys are actually always-on, always-with-you computers. Upwards of 90% of companies that envision a "mobile productivity solution" for their employees actually want mobile email. For these companies, a personal digital assistant (PDA)-type device is really all they need. Providing employees with both voice and email on an instantaneous basis is probably the number one contributor to remote employee productivity.

Happily, the cost factor for implementing these solutions has now fallen to a point where it's feasible for even the smallest companies. Today, for $4,000 or less for a completely implemented solution, a company can give its mobile employees a stay-in-touch solution with a worldwide cell phone, email, Web browser and PDA functions.

To the extent that PDA-class mobile communications presents difficulties, it's largely a matter of choosing the right functionalities out of a growing range of options beyond the basics of cell phone and email. Fortunately, there's a race underway among vendors to provide more and more functionality in handhelds. Devices are now coming to market that provide access to spreadsheets, workgroup documents, contact lists, as well as text messaging. The only "problem" consists in learning to live with the limits we have at the moment in terms of how much functionality can be packed into the handheld form factor. In the not too distant future, this conundrum will disappear.

The growing functionality of PDA-class devices is enabling them to replace laptop PCs for many users. For example, a Treo is ideal for a highly mobile executive who needs to be connected 24/7 to his or her company's Microsoft Exchange Server. The Treo's small size, as well as the fact that it is always on and does not have to be booted up, also make it preferable to even the smallest laptop. Yet another advantage is the virtually limitless 'range' of a PDA device, which can function wherever there is cellular coverage, unlike a PC which requires proximity to a Wi-Fi access point.

Wi-Fi connected laptops allow mobile users to perform data-intensive tasks

While most companies are adequately served by utilizing PDAs for mobile email, others need to provide their remote users with access to large amounts of data on their corporate servers. Because a cellular 'pipe' is too narrow to efficiently transmit hundreds of megabytes of data, PDA devices are inadequate for data-intensive tasks. Rather, users need a laptop PC equipped with a Wi-Fi card for accessing a Wi-Fi base station, or "hotspot," commonly found in hotels, restaurants, and airports.

Laptops outfitted with Wi-Fi are able to connect to a company's servers via the Internet like a PC with wireline link to the Net. Having implemented a wireless Internet link, the company then faces the quintessential IT decision of how best to provide its remote users with access to corporate data. The two basic approaches are thin-client technology and virtual private network (VPN) technology.

With a thin client connection, the laptop functions as a terminal to a centralized server. What's routed to the laptop is only an image consisting of screen pixels; all of the actual data and processing power reside on the server. This option is preferable for users who must work with very large amounts of data since it eliminates the need to transmit the data -- a time-consuming proposition, even over a high-bandwidth DSL or T1 link. A chief disadvantage of thin-client solution is that a robust implementation such as Citrix is expensive, in part because it requires larger -- typically multiprocessor -- servers with lots of RAM. A key advantage is that it allows centralized management of data and users.

A VPN allows businesses to use public Internet lines to create a virtual network that functions like a company's local area network. Remote users can download data and files, use the laptop's local processing power to modify them, then upload them back to the server or route them to colleagues, etc. -- just as if the user was in the office. Accordingly, VPN is preferable to a thin client link for users who typically need to work with complex documents over extended periods. VPN is also inexpensive compared to thin client: the basic Point-to-Point Protocol (PTPP) at the heart of VPN comes free with every copy of Microsoft Windows.

VPN technology comes in different flavors, distinguished primarily by their degree of security. Beyond PPTP, there are more secure VPN versions, which are thus the ones you will be most likely to use. These are Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption and IP Security (IPsec). SSL is the most commonly used secure VPN protocol; IPsec provides the same capabilities as SSL, with an additional security level for some key applications like Voice over IP (VoIP) and streaming media.

Steps for reducing security risks

No discussion of mobile connectivity would be complete without touching on security issues. It's critically important to understand that the freedom and flexibility that come with 'untethering' your employees also entail risks for data integrity and security.

For PDA-class devices, security is relatively good at the moment, with little hacker activity targeting cell phones and handhelds. Important caveat: this could change as these devices become more popular, and if so, users will need to be educated about the appropriate measures to prevent attacks.

For Wi-Fi, security is currently weak at best. Be very wary. Here are three must-do's:

  1. When using a public hotspot be sure that you don't have any open fileshares.
  2. If you have Wi-Fi in your offices, implement a "DMZ" firewall so that visitors cannot access any data on your internal network.
  3. Make sure your users run the Security Pipe default when they purchase and install a Wi-Fi access point for use at home; security is initially open on all of these devices.

Getting the most out of your mobile communications infrastructure -- while ensuring its security and integrity -- requires specialized IT expertise. Companies whose in-house IT staffs are not knowledgeable in these areas will typically want to bring a consultant or outsource services firm on board.

If your company is looking to outsource this aspect of your IT operations, insist that the provider have a solid track record of customer implementations in the mobile technology that's right for you. Both cellular and Wi-Fi technologies can make your employees more productive and your company more profitable and competitive. If you want to stay ahead of your competition, give this IT imperative a high priority.

Will Luden is CEO of Info Partners, providing 24 x 7 outsourced, on-site and remote computer and network support for small businesses in the San Francisco Bay area. Find out more at 650-294-2081 or

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