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Mobile applications: Making the most of managed mobility

Mobile enterprise applications, services for managing mobility, are solutions for server hosting, managed applications hosting, and shared hosting environments.

So far in this series on managed mobility, we've outlined services for managing mobile devices, email, mobile telephone services, billing and vendor management. In this penultimate section, we address the services at the core of managed mobility: mobile enterprise applications.

Many mobile enterprise applications vendors offer some form of managed applications hosting. Some like to use the cumbersome Software as a Service moniker, but though that term may identify TurboTax for the Web, it fails to delineate between server hosting, managed applications hosting, and shared hosting environments. All three types of solutions exist for enterprise mobility.

We'll host it for you
We've heard the pitch before. The software vendor is trying to close the deal, and that's when they throw in the offer to "host it for you."

Applications vendors are in the business of licensing software. License renewals happen sporadically, so these vendors have figured out that it's better to have a subscription service to even out cash flows. Instead of paying up front for the software, you're on the hook for a monthly service fee into the foreseeable future.

And for many applications, hosted software is simply a matter of hosting the same software you'd have in your data center in the vendor's. Now, there are several pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, the application is managed 24/7 by a team that knows the software extremely well. The software vendor may also work closely with wireless operators to maintain dedicated connectivity between the carrier data networks and their data center and ensure uptime and performance. On the minus side, if the hosted application works closely with a set of enterprise applications resident in your data center, then you're already on the hook to manage network connectivity and performance.

Most mobile enterprise applications do not stand alone. Instead, they rely heavily on existing customer relationship management (CRM), sales force automation (SFA) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications. If you're already managing these applications in-house, you have to evaluate the benefits of having a managed server hosted by a third party.

Dedicated hosting platforms
Some managed services are designed from the ground up, and they are intended to be hosted as part of a managed service. In a shared hosting environment, the application supports multi-tenancy, which means that the same application supports multiple customers and their data while ensuring secure partitioning between each hosting customer. The advantages of shared hosting platforms are cost and scalability.

For example, in the hosted server model, the managed services provider has a version of your applications software (let's say Siebel) and runs an instance of Siebel on a server with your data and applications logic. The next customer gets another instance of Siebel (perhaps a different version) with his data, logic and customization. This approach offers few cost advantages over an in-house solution, and hosting providers can quickly run into scalability issues of their own.

While some companies will be averse to the idea of a multi-tenant application, many others readily see the cost advantages of a mobile application designed to be hosted.

Service level agreements
A discussion of managed applications hosting is incomplete without mention of service level agreements (SLAs). The vast majority of services have clearly defined SLAs and the option to pay more for higher levels of service. Determine the appropriate level, and make certain that's precisely what you get. In the budgeting processes, it helps to allocate resources to testing, auditing and rectifying SLA issues along the way.

Architectural roadmap
It's one thing to find a managed mobile enterprise applications vendor that meets your needs today; it's another to find one that will meet your needs as your enterprise architecture evolves. Over time, any mobile solution will be under two primary pressures: devices and enterprise architectures.

The device question is whether your company plans to standardize on a single platform or wishes to support multiple device types and operating systems. There is no correct answer to this question, but it is important to be aware that some applications platforms support only a limited number of devices, while others support the full range of available devices. Is Palm OS important to you? What about Windows Mobile? Will you roll out services to regular (not smartphone) mobile telephones?

The issue of the enterprise architecture -- one school of thought says -- is that enterprise architects will take a look at mobility in the next few years and attempt to extend existing architectural plans to the mobile space. Good examples of this are Web services and service-oriented architectures (SOAs). The good news about approaches like these is that all application components and resources, hosted or otherwise, are available to corporate devices and work well with managed (hosted) environments.

Now -- or later?
If you take the time to evaluate a hosted mobile enterprise solution today and decide that it's not for you, it may make sense a few years down the road as your organization makes greater use of Web services and distributed computing architectures.

Daniel Taylor
About the author: Daniel Taylor is managing director for the Mobile Enterprise Alliance, Inc. (MEA), and he is responsible for global alliance development, programs, marketing and member relations. He brings over fourteen years of high technology experience and is well known as a subject matter expert on many of the aspects of mobility, including wireless data networking, security, enterprise applications and communications services. Prior to the MEA, Dan held a number of product marketing and development positions in the communications industry.

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