One of the critical challenges in mobile and wireless today is managing and distributed systems that span across the globe. Within this larger problem, there's another issue plaguing administrators and corporate security types: Patch updating. We were speaking before a group of IT executives and systems integrators recently and happened to mention the "P word." We weren't surprised when more than half those people in the audience began shaking their heads and smiled knowingly as we talked about this problem.
Last year, Microsoft Corp. reported that its efforts to convince IT administrators to install patches and security updates across corporate networks had pretty much failed -- not because companies do not recognize the need for these safeguards, but most likely because there are just too many patches coming down the pike. Blasting patches and fixes across a wired network is challenging enough, but the effort is pretty much impossible when you are dealing with tens of thousands of mobile users who tap into management systems via wireless networks and the Internet. Microsoft and others are working to develop patch management programs that automatically deploy these fixes and virus protection routines, although Microsoft's planned delivery of such systems has slipped a bit and may not be ready until a little later this year.
Unfortunately, a lot of companies assign responsibility for getting these updates and patch fixes to each individual user. This means embattled mobile warriors not only have to keep their data synchronized and up-to-date -- which is becoming less of a chore in this wireless environment -- but in many cases must hunt down fixes and security updates from multiple vendors in order to keep the virus wolves at bay. For example, Symantec now offers a patch fix for a particularly nasty virus called Beagle, but you must go to the company's Web site to download and install the fix. All-in-all, this is a formula for failure since you shouldn't rely on structures that demand put too much responsibility on the mobile user.
In the past few months, however, there has been increasing interest in third-party solutions that offer patch and critical update capabilities over a mobile network. One of the long-time players in this market is XcelleNet, Inc., a company based just outside Atlanta that specializes in mobile device synchronization, remote security and management. In fact, XcelleNet was one of the first companies to offer a remote "kill switch" capability that wiped the information from lost mobile devices -- a feature that is now being touted by some companies as new and unique.
Just last week it was announced that Sybase, Inc. will acquire XcelleNet and absorb its technology and products into the company's iAnywhere Solutions subsidiary. Right now, more than 2,200 companies worldwide use XcelleNet's mobile management solutions to refresh their information and applications content. The company has a strong installed base in the retail market and within branch offices and long-standing partnerships with such companies as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Palm. Sybase is, of course, a leader in mobile databases so the union is a perfect fit.
One other company that is making a bit of a splash in patch updating and management is PocketSoft, Inc., which has developed a full-featured byte-level patching system called RTPatch. What the software does is give developers the ability to tailor the update process to their specific needs, and build upon the facilities already offered through the operating system's update procedures. The software -- which is available in various OS flavors -- comes with a number of out-of-the-box patch file distribution options, but can be easily customized with self-updating tools that are embedded into mobile applications. As a result, patch updates can be applied via your exiting distribution system, or automatically via these enhanced applications.
Last month, Mobile Automation Inc., another leader in mobile systems management software and services, released a new version of its Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite, which now includes a Patch Automation service. This is a feature that essentially provides an automated software patching solution for full Microsoft operating system and application patch compliance on all systems within an organization, says company CEO Doug Neal. The software relies on Parallel Patch Remediation Technology -- developed by Mobile Automation -- to allow uses to employ change control testing of their existing systems, while at the same time stage patch installations to remote access points and local hard disks of the target machines. The bottom line, says Neal, is that the time to deploy patches is cut in half.
"The software does remote scans of computers in an enterprise, and looks for which programs are installed and which are missing," explains Neal. "It then automates the process." The network administrator still has the final okay as to which software is updated and what patches are deployed, either manually or automatically, and it can also check for 'spoofing' so that mobile devices are not pumped with data from unauthorized sources, he said.
We like the fact that the Patch Automation Service can automatically determine which systems are vulnerable and accurately send out approved patches to the right machines. This is real time-saver when you are dealing with distributed office sites and hundreds or thousands of remote users. One other important feature included in the upgrade of Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite is SupportDesk Automation, which is a Web-based remote-assistance solution that enables companies to provide virtual onsite technical support for their customers and employees. This tool also lets technicians share control of their customer's computers and engage in live person-to-person help sessions.
In developing this latest upgrade, Mobile Automation looked carefully at how its customers were doing patch deployments, and found out that many relied on serialized methods. As a result, the product can do parallel patch remediation, or can deploy fixes while an administrator is performing testing of remote systems. Deployments can also be scheduled for off-hours.
The new upgrade of the Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite product is expected to ship on April 15, a well-known date for taxes and now a key moment for patch upgrades.
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.