When it comes to managing an infrastructure, it's no wonder that many CIOs are nostalgic for the days when everything was contained in centralized data centers. While data centers certainly haven't disappeared, computing has become even more distributed, yet simpler to use.
Now, significant computing resources are scattered throughout departments and branch offices, and department heads can buy and implement technology without consulting the CIO, making infrastructure management more challenging than ever.
Perhaps nothing has presented more of a challenge than the advent of mobile computing, a segment of IT that has gained critical mass over the past several years.
"Mobile work is becoming very prevalent," says Jack Gold, vice president of mobile and pervasive computing at Meta Group in Stamford, Conn. "Within the next one to two years, 95% of notebooks sold into the enterprise will be Wi-Fi enabled," Gold said.
As the notion of taking one's computing resources everywhere takes ever stronger hold in companies worldwide, IT executive must face the reality that their computing infrastructures are changing once again, and take steps to ensure that they are able to manage mobile infrastructures every bit as successfully as they have more traditional setups.
"Mobile computing has changed significantly," and for several reasons, says Eugene Signorini, program manager of the wireless/mobile research service at Yankee Group.
The first is the proliferation of mobile devices -- instead of a laptop, mobile workers can choose from PDAs, BlackBerrys and smart phones, as well as laptops. In addition, connectivity choices have also expanded, altering the way workers go mobile. Instead of dial-up or fixed broadband connectivity, workers can use wireless choices such as Wi-Fi hot spots or even wireless wide area networks.
The result: Companies have mobile workers in the office, as well as on the road. And with the rise of Wi-Fi in the office, employees can take their laptops to meetings or corporate public spaces to get things done.
"You need to make distinctions between the different kinds of mobility, between people working outside the office regularly from a fixed location, and people who are truly mobile," says Gerard McCartney, CIO of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "If they're mobile, [managing their technology] depends on their state of mobility."
Agrees Gold, "Mobility can be something as simple as giving a person a laptop and having them dial up via modem to read e-mail; or it could be roaming a building with Wi-Fi." He says CIOs need to think in terms of access, connectivity, wired vs. wireless coverage, internal vs. external mobility, and the wealth of access devices employees can now use.
All this boils down to a fairly tangled mess. "It increases the complexity for corporate decision makers," says Signorini. "Mobile technology is a rapidly changing equation, but it's not going away, and IT executives have to start thinking about how they will deploy it into organizations."
As CIOs take on what many experts say will soon become a mainstream business computing stalwart, the following tips can make the transition less painful, and more productive for the businesses they support:
Build a strategy based on business use.
When it comes to mobile technology, both IT executives and users can be felled by the coolness factor, essentially implementing technology for technology's sake. Instead, says Gold, "You need to sit down and think, 'How will this affect our business goals and who's going to use it?' Let business requirements drive the project, and back-fill with technology. In the past, we've had that backwards."
"You need to try to understand the business processes of your remote workers," says Signorini. "What do they need in terms of information, and access to that information? That will help define what technology you put into place."
For example, does your field service rep need to have full-time access to corporate information, or is occasional synching up via wireless hot spots going to be enough? That would drive the decision on what scope of wireless coverage would be sufficient.
At the very least, CIOs should expect to convene a strategic planning council -- drafting members of the user community -- to decide on technology standards, and think about issues such as training and deployment in the context of mobile technology.
Make security a top priority.
Security is consistently the top priority of CIOs when it comes to mobile technology, all the more so in the wake of September 11 and new laws such as HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley, which mandate data integrity and privacy. According to the Yankee Group's annual corporate wireless survey of more than 600 companies, security is cited as the top barrier to the implementation of wireless solutions, says Signorini. "The CIO is more concerned these days about putting technology and security in a unified IT architecture," he says.
At Wharton, in fact, the ease with which people can buy and install Wi-Fi access points has prompted the school's audit committee to sniff for rogue access points. "It's so easy to buy and plug in," he says. "It's a potentially big hole in security. We have people with sniffers out looking for these things."
Another thing to keep in mind is how to authenticate users, particularly as they may access corporate information using more than one device. "You don't want the user to have multiple accounts," Gold says, "and you also have to protect the data that resides on each device."
Gold says that the best way to protect mobile data and users is to integrate mobile security into existing security plans. "Too many companies try to do mobile security as a unique, stand-alone thing, but it shouldn't be," he says.
How are you going to manage mobile devices?
Cost is also an issue for many CIOs contemplating a mobility project, and many are tempted to let users take some of the costs out of their hands by allowing them to purchase their own PDAs, cell phone, BlackBerrys and other handheld devices. But this also presents a risk of unproliferated and uncontrolled device growth, which could cost more in the long run in terms of support expenses.
For example, McCartney tells his staff at Wharton which devices his staff will support. "We tell them, 'We know about this stuff and not that -- if you buy that, you're on your own."
Match coverage to business needs.
CIOs should make sure that they consider what people will be doing with their mobile devices before they decide on coverage. "You need to think not only about depth of coverage, but does it have the bandwidth to get the job done," says McCartney. "It's of little use to have a signal if you can't do much with it."
In the final analysis, Gold says that mobile technology should boil down to one basic thing: ROI. "Don't let the immaturity of the market keep you from implementing if the ROI works for you," he says. "Mobile technology is a moving target and will be for the next few years, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't utilize it if it's to your business advantage to do so."