The mobility challenge: Supporting multiple devices in the enterprise

As more and more mobile devices enter the enterprise, the IT department's task of managing and securing them grows more complex. SearchMobileComputing.com talked to panelists and attendees at last week's Interop Wireless and Mobility conference to find out their pain points and some possible remedies.

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Mobile devices, services and carriers are proliferating in the enterprise, creating a new management challenge for network administrators.

According to Rick Osterloh, vice president of products at Good Technology, a provider of wireless handheld computing software and services, some companies now use mobile products from more than 100 providers, and "if you can't find a vendor to manage them, you're going to be the systems integrator."

That struggle to support multiple mobile systems, including smartphones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and handheld computers, became the focus of discussion at last week's "Mobile e-mail and messaging" panel session at the wireless and mobility conference at Interop Las Vegas.

Companies use a variety of devices

Panelist Ari Backholm, vice president of products at Seven Networks -- a company whose mobile e-mail software now ships on more than 120 mobile device models -- said that about 80% of company devices are purchased through retail and then expensed back to the company, rather than being handed out by the IT department. As a result, the company has to find a way to support multiple devices.

Similarly, Purnima Kochikar, director of strategy and business development at Nokia, stated that it is often not the company's decision to mobilize the employees -- rather, the employees decide to mobilize themselves.

"They go buy a device, then ask how they can get access to e-mail and messaging," Kochikar said.

Management and support is difficult

A conference attendee pointed out that end users who experience problems with their mobile data access often do not know where to turn, because the problem might be originating from the carrier, the user's company network, or the device itself. He asked whether there might be a way to have one phone number to call for user support.

Backholm said that carriers are good at providing a single point of contact for support. This may be the case for companies that outsource their mobile services to a particular vendor. However, an informal poll by show of hands revealed that more attendees' companies were building their own mobile solutions, rather than outsourcing to a vendor for support.

Mark Coble, a network administrator at Wescorp, said that the decision to outsource mobility coverage through a vendor usually follows a company's e-mail policy: If the e-mail is handled internally, then mobile is also handled internally.

And having the carrier as the single point of contact isn't practical, according to Daniel Taylor, managing director of The Mobile Enterprise Alliance. "Users will call the internal helpdesk before they call the carrier," he said in a phone interview with SearchMobileComputing.com. "The carriers are going to have a tough time providing that level of support."

Taylor explained that within an organization, standard hardware is normally tested for use with a particular operating system, software load and applications, which the IT department can easily support. "The problem with mobile devices provisioned by users is maintaining that single image of the platform with the precise software load … if not, it's usually going to be denied access" by the network's management platform. "Because the user is going out and buying the device, they're inclined to start downloading whatever software they want," Taylor said. "IT can't see what software is installed on the device. There's a point at which an IT department can't provide support."

In an interview following the panel discussion, Steve Wylie, conference director for Interop and general manager of the Mobile Business Expo, said that the proliferation of mobile devices is "a real challenge for IT managers and one that they have to face. We're all being exposed to a variety of devices, and IT managers are having to embrace that and make it part of their world as well."

Multiple devices from a variety of vendors also require a variety of software installations on a company's servers, placing more emphasis on mobile middleware. Aaron Stuart, product manager at BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd., said that the reality for many companies is that they have multiple servers.

"You need to make sure the mobileware is flexible enough to handle change," Stuart said.

"Mobile middleware becomes increasingly important," Wylie added, "because we're trying to make these legacy applications available in a heterogeneous environment of mobile devices."

Security and support concerns

Security is the No. 1 problem with mobile devices, according to Michael Zucchi, a network administrator for a healthcare institution. Zucchi said that administrators have to consider not only physical (device/hard drive) security but also the security of wireless connections and applications.

Wylie also addressed the importance of physical security, recalling the scenario of a user losing his mobile device in a taxicab. "You need to be able to wipe the memory if a device is lost or stolen. You need that level of assurance," he said.

Other concerns for administrators include support, maintenance, upgrading, and security considerations, although these issues may fall by the wayside during an initial appraisal.

"If you do a TCO evaluation, carrier cost is about 75%," Osterloh said, adding that the second biggest cost would be maintenance and upgrades. As an example, he said that if an enterprise needed to implement a security policy change, it "had better figure out a way to change that without touching every device," or the cost would become astronomical.

Zucchi said that after security, the other top issues for mobile administrators were manageability -- including updates and authentication methods -- and remediation, involving network access control (NAC) issues.

Standardization would help, but...

Logically, if implementing only one type of device is not practical, companies and administrators would benefit from standardization among the multitude of differing mobile devices and their accompanying software. According to Backholm, however, "mobility has a long way to go toward getting standardized," because manufacturers focus on creating small devices with various features -- and different operating systems function better for different features.

"Nobody wants to give up their standard because they're afraid of Microsoft encroaching on their niche," Zucchi said.

Wylie agreed. "It seems that most IT enterprise folks have accepted that they're going to have multiple platforms in the enterprise," he said. "I don't see any efforts toward standardization in that area."

How can companies cope?

Mobile corporations can take steps to standardize and secure their mobile deployment by implementing effective policies. Stuart said that the scalability of mobile connectivity has to be policy driven. Also, "The devices are getting deeper access within corporate data centers," Wylie said. "They need to be corporate devices. There is a need for standardization on types that are allowable, or they may be creating security problems."

Coble said that the policies affecting mobile devices are created by cooperation among different parts of a company, creating a dialogue among the people who handle security, those who administer e-mail, and upper management.

Taylor felt that the answer to mobile management was to implement a policy that describes which devices are supported. "It's not a policy until it has been communicated to the workforce," he said. "It's like a big game of pool. You have to say what pocket you're going to shoot the ball into; if you say you're aiming for the side pocket but the ball goes into the corner pocket, it doesn't count. It's the same thing with a policy. The idea that everybody is going to be able to go out and buy any device they want is impractical because it's really costly for IT departments to support."

Taylor suggested that an IT department could develop an effective policy by stating specifically which mobile platforms -- for example, Windows Mobile 5.0 and BlackBerry -- they will or will not support. He stressed that users need to be directed by recommendations from IT. "This isn't a matter of technology," he said. "This is a matter of an IT department saying exactly how far they're going to go…. It's more about communication than what the policy is."

For now, there is no single easy avenue for mobile management. Wylie said, "It's sort of being approached from all angles," including what is provided by the mobile carriers and what is enterprise-based.

"Management of mobile devices is a paramount issue right now," Wylie said. "All the pieces are coming together nicely to push mobile in the enterprise."

This article originally appeared on SearchMobileComputing.com.

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