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Changing face of mobile management software

Solutions move beyond traditional tracking and control and focus more on security, reporting and ROI validation.

Not too long ago, if you brought a group of IT managers and executives together to discuss mobile management, you would probably talk about issues like asset control, loss prevention and virus protection.

Today, however, things are different. While asset management and control are still important, they have been eclipsed by concerns such as creating a thin-client environment where as little information as possible is stored on mobile devices, and managing mobile systems that connect to a central server through an 802.11Wi-Fi hot spot and virtual VPNs. An increased reliance on handhelds and PDAs as direct replacements for notebook PCs in mobile applications has also changed the way some vendors approach the development of mobile management products.

A lot of enterprise clients are looking for a single management platform that can handle all types of mobile and fixed systems, ranging from wired desktop PCs to slim and lightweight messaging devices, says Doug Neal, CEO of WestLake, Calif.-based Mobile Automation, Inc. They also want systems that are scalable -- able to handle tens of thousands of clients -- and can be programmed to automatically sense when systems are due for an applications update. In addition, these management wizards also have to go way beyond traditional reporting methods and techniques.

"Many of our customers want to see every little detail and produce incredible reports for their bosses," explains Neal. "Cost justification and cost savings are important, but it also has to look nice."

Islands in the management stream
Earlier this year, Mobile Automation unveiled an enhancement to its flagship Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite, a collection of modules that are designed for 'cradle-to-grave' control of all types of mobile systems, from handhelds to notebooks and tablet PCs. The most recent module upgrade is a graphical reporting engine that includes a business model analysis tool -- just what's needed to insert a key chart into a presentation to the board and provide a rationale for that suggested increase in mobile IT spending next year.

Other firms take a more security-minded approach to managing mobile systems and assets. One of these companies is Senforce Technologies, Inc., which provides tools that allow administrators to deploy centralized systems that control assets and their use according to defined security policies and the location of a mobile device. Boston-based Newbury Networks, Inc. is another vendor that uses location-aware technology as a platform for developing systems that can be used to control access and identify mobile users in a building or campus-wide network.

Doug Neal sees a lot of opportunity in developing solutions that take into consideration the different approaches a typical enterprise user might take in creating an integrated mobile management system. The 'islands of management', as he calls it, include everything from simple asset management and data migrations to sophisticated security tactics that are spread across tens of thousands of mobilize devices. The goal is to "easily deploy a homogeneous management system that is very much plug-and-play."

So, with all these changes and shifts in the works, just what should an enterprise user look for in a mobile management solution?

  1. Users should look for a solution that not only can handle a variety of systems and networks from a single platform, but opt for one that is scalable enough to easily adapt to changes in the future.
  2. Most mobile management solutions can interact, or at least exchange data, with most popular wired network management systems. However, look for those that take that interaction to a different level. For instance, there are some that can use the Microsoft Installer technology to push applications updates out through the Internet to a mobile workforce.
  3. Check out solutions that can not only automatically detect inventory and assets, but can be pre-programmed to issue critical updates once the remote systems meet certain criteria. These systems can also check to see if a user has complied with a specific update request, or is using a mobile device stocked with outdated applications and information.
  4. The use of wireless hot spots and tunneling VPNs to send and receive information using a mobile device has become more mainstream within the enterprise. It has also created some unique challenges in terms of management, security and data integrity. So, any system that you investigate should take into account the Wi-Fi coffee shop approach to interactive with a central information resource.
  5. Finally, check out those systems that go beyond basic management to offer sophisticated reporting capabilities, which can ultimately be used to track the return on investment (ROI) benefits of a mobile management solution. The Nevada Power Co., for example, is using reporting capabilities of Mobile Automation's Lifecycle Management product to measure the system's ROI in juggling the activities of more than 1,500 mobile devices. The goal is to cut about 20% in costs from their mobile IT budget.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.

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