Wireless in IT: Still a brave new world

You have probably seen the TV commercial in which a wine salesman is talking with a customer, getting ready to quote a price from an inventory list on his handheld. Back at the warehouse, a forklift bumps a row of wine racks and starts a domino disaster that sends a big chunk of inventory crashing to the floor.

Fortunately, with the warehouse and sales rep connected wirelessly, the manager -- now literally wading in unusable vino -- can dash off an update that appears instantly on the rep's handheld.

That is the promise of wireless data technologies for the enterprise: Untethered workers, both mobile and local, with real-time access to corporate applications and content. Wireless holds other promises, too: cable-free offices, for example, and a range of consumer-oriented applications arising from plans to implement wireless LAN ''hot spots'' in airports, hotels and restaurants. But it is the ability of this technology to extend business processes wirelessly throughout an organization and beyond that is making salespeople, service crews, warehouse staffers and roving executives more productive.

For some industry segments, this promise has been fulfilled. Early-adopter verticals like public safety, transportation, utilities, health care, courier and personal financial services have been adopting wireless data apps since the early 1990s. Even a few horizontal applications, such as field-service dispatch and Internet e-mail access, have made significant gains recently.

The military has also been a trailblazer in this space. As of February 1991, the most robust mobile LAN ever operated was probably the wireless battlefield version used by the Marines during Operation Desert Storm. They transmitted 1.1 million messages in 36 hours.

But for many IT managers, this is still a brave new world. While wireless voice communication technologies have become an all-but-ubiquitous corporate accoutrement, deployments of wireless data solutions are not so widespread. Consider these statistics: A recent study from analysts at Parsippany, N.J.-based InfoTech Primary Market Research predicts that the U.S. wireless voice market (PCS, Cellular, ESMR) will grow from nearly 110 million subscribers in 2000 to almost 190 million subscribers in 2006. Meanwhile, InfoTech sees the wireless data market for businesses in the U.S. increasing from 2 million subscribers in 2000 to 38 million in 2006.

Still, the increasing mobility of the U.S. workforce is likely to drive significant development in this space. By some estimates, nearly 50 million workers with jobs that require them to be away from the office are currently hitting the road each workday. Truck drivers, insurance claims adjusters, police officers, business consultants, lawyers, realtors and many others spend most of their time outside the enterprise. And their numbers are growing.

Numbers like these have led industry consultant Doug McCulloch to conclude that, for IT organizations that have yet to face the challenges of implementing wireless data systems in their organizations, it is no longer a matter of if, but when.

''At some point,'' said McCulloch, ''you are going to need to put information into a mobile device that will make a worker in your organization not merely effective, but more effective than he is today.''

Wireless voice communications systems consist of two components: the telephone and the enabling network. Wireless data systems are much more complex, encompassing the target devices, wireless networks, wireless enablers, applications, connectivity software and middleware, and, of course, the data or content itself.

The content
As wireless data solutions proliferate, the line between internal enterprise networks and external data and applications is blurring. More and more organizations are using intranets to manage and distribute information among users inside the company, while offering specific and tailored applications and data to customers and business partners beyond the firewall.

McCulloch, who is principal consultant at PwC Consulting, advises IT managers looking to implement a mobile wireless data solution to take a big-picture approach. Start, he said, by looking at your organization's internal business processes.

''Keep in mind that what you're trying to do is to extend your business processes through mobilization technology,'' he explained. ''You can't just say, 'O.K., I've given my workforce Blackberries and now they can get e-mail.' A useful mobile wireless data solution is a complete system of components that work together to provide corporate applications and content to an organization over wireless networks. To put something like that in place, you have to look at the big picture.''

McCulloch uses the term ''content management'' when talking about enterprise data delivered wirelessly. ''You really have to get back to the content data management principles of your business,'' he said. ''To begin with, you have to look at the quality of your content and form a clear picture of the shape it's in. And you have to give careful consideration to exactly what types of content you're looking to deliver. Ask yourself, 'What exactly am I trying to accomplish?'''

And as always, you will want to consider what your needs might be going forward. ''If your mobile wireless rollout is successful, where do you think this group or area of your business will be in a year?'' McCulloch asked. ''How about five years? Ten? Even further out?''

For managers with limited access to a crystal ball, McCulloch suggests looking at early adopters. Organizations like UPS, FedEx and Sears have spent years working with the concept of a wirelessly connected workforce. ''All the challenges they've encountered and the different techniques they've developed to overcome those challenges are lessons you don't have to learn on your own,'' explained McCulloch.

Eric Hermelee, vice president of marketing at Wavelink Corp., agrees that taking a cue from early adopters is a sound strategy, and he knows whereof he speaks. Wavelink is a wireless computing middleware and development toolmaker that has operated in this space for nearly a decade. The Kirkland, Wash.-based company counts among its customers mobile wireless trailblazers like FedEx, and CostCo.

''These companies have proven that you'll get the quickest [return on investment] in the supply chain area,'' Hermelee said. ''Imagine a person in a warehouse with tens of thousands of products or SKUs that they're trying to track with inventory sheets on a clipboard. All of a sudden, you give that person a portable device with a bar-code scanner. You immediately eliminate all of that manual tracking and the errors that come with using a manual data-entry system. You get a lot of speed and productivity gains just from eliminating the manual tasks in a warehouse or inventory environment. Anywhere you have lots of goods or materials passing through a supply chain, you'll see wireless come in to provide a very quick ROI.''

The devices
Another thing early-adopter organizations have in common is that many of them employed custom-designed target devices in their wireless data systems. The next wave of companies that adopt mobile and wireless, observed Greg Rollins, usually do not have that luxury.

''The thing that has most people tearing their hair [out] is the sheer number of devices they find themselves having to accommodate,'' said Rollins, director of product management at Cysive, a Reston, Va.-based e-business architecture provider. ''A lot of organizations specialized on a certain set of handheld technologies early on. UPS is a good example. They have a customized brick that they designed in conjunction with a hardware manufacturer and a network provider. It took a lot of money to come up with that solution, so that's a barrier. Nowadays, IT managers tend to find themselves supporting a bunch of off-the-shelf devices. Even if they carefully chose and thoughtfully integrated a specific set of devices into their systems when they first went wireless, they're likely to find themselves called upon to support an entirely different set of devices from acquired organizations. It's the kind of thing that drives people nuts.''

For example, the capabilities of cell phones are changing; many come with high-resolution screens and input mechanisms that go beyond a traditional phone-pad. Similarly, two-way paging devices are a popular choice for short e-mail messaging. Both devices are evolving into two-way capable devices that allow for input with innovative technology.

But the most likely target devices for the majority of wireless data systems are handheld and notebook computers, often both. Notebooks have greater computing power, and they are the devices users are most likely to be familiar with. But notebooks are bigger and more expensive than their pocket-sized device counterparts.

Enterprises that must support more than one type of device will have to deal with such issues as linking new handhelds to existing notebooks and installing more highly automated software management for real enterprise-wide implementation planned around the content.

Basic target device issues to consider include cost, screen resolution, battery life, size, degree of ruggedness, compute power and storage capacity, and applicability to the end-user application. The critical thing here, said Rollins, is to understand the capabilities and limitations of your target devices. ''This is what people missed during the first wireless enablement wave,'' he said. ''It's important to know not only what the device is, what its form factor is and what markup language it supports, but also how it is connected and what its compute capabilities are.''

The networks
Many of the earliest wireless data systems were implemented over wireless LAN networks, said Wavelink's Hermelee. They were often deployed in environments like warehousing, retail and manufacturing plants. They also allowed many of those kinds of supply-chain functions to move from fixed terminals to handheld terminals.

Wireless LANs are likely to continue to serve as a driver of growth in the mobile wireless data market. Analysts at InfoTech Primary Market Research believe ''increasing comfort levels of users with WLAN technology, which will evolve as a robust, secure and convenient option, the establishment of 2.5G services with broad coverage and good reliability, and the availability of 3G technology for more narrowly-defined applications ...'' will be significant factors in this growth.

When they truly arrive, so-called 3G (third-generation) wireless networks will fulfill yet another promise: high-speed data transmission and increased capacity for overburdened 2G and 2.5G wireless networks. (First-generation wireless networks used analog technology to transmit voice; 2G went digital, expanding network capacity, improving voice quality and making room for data; and 2.5G allows packets of data to be sent separately from voice, for always-on data connectivity.) The intensity of the buzz surrounding this much-longed-for technology notwithstanding, true 3G is not here yet, and many industry watchers agree that 2.5G is good enough, so there is no reason for organizations looking to do something with wireless data to wait.

Typically, the specific network technology is dependent on the carrier, and the user will more often than not choose a carrier and not the underlying technology used by that carrier. Today, IT managers face an ever-shifting alphabet soup of network standards. The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) is the standard for most of the world, but General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is emerging as the 2.5G upgrade for GSM. Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution (EDGE) gives GSM networks the ability to handle 3G-level data transmission speeds. And a competing network standard, Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and its upgrade, 1XRTT, allow data speeds comparable to those of GPRS.

Network coverage is another issue for IT managers to watch. Wireless LANs are beginning to proliferate and overlap with WANs and MANs (municipal area networks), but by some estimates, the U.S. is about 18 months behind Japan and Europe in continuous wireless coverage. In other words, there is still lots of real estate in this country where even the most sophisticated and well-managed wireless data networks cannot connect an enterprise with its mobile workforce.

''What happened in the last decade,'' explained Wavelink's Hermelee, ''is that applications drove a lot of the [wireless data] business. Companies said, 'We have to get these workers running around a factory or retail environment untethered.' The networks were kind of an afterthought. But with the advent of new standards and a lot of attractive prices for wireless networks, which we've seen in wireless LAN lately, many more networks are being deployed.''

The middleware
Organizations implementing wireless data solutions will probably use a combination of components, interfaces and eventually a wireless server that will reconcile all the devices at use in the wireless or mobile wireless workforce. A wireless server can run from an otherwise wired enterprise out to its wireless components, and could serve as an interoperability junction for disparate mobile or wireless systems.

''You can't sensibly proceed by having separate software stacks to serve as your legacy enterprise, your Internet constituency and the specific characteristics of every mobile device, say, a Blackberry stack and a WAP stack,'' said Cysive's Rollins. ''Stovepipes are a very bad thing. They make your entire enterprise unmanageable eventually. Unfortunately, that's how many people have been trying to solve these problems. You need a consolidated architecture that will allow you to host the business on one platform and service all of these different client technologies.''

Rollins advises IT managers to look at mobile and wireless data technologies in the broad context of ''multichannel computing.'' ''If you look at the move into mobile and wireless from an enterprise perspective,'' he said, ''we're going from a synchronous, single-client world -- in which you supported a Web browser and had a synchronous connection paradigm -- to an asynchronous multi-client arena, where you're not always sure what kind of devices will access the data. And new ones are being added all the time.''

This thinking has led the company to embrace the concept of an ''interaction server.''

Interaction server is a middleware category recently defined by analysts at Gartner and Forrester. New products in this category are designed to integrate a complicated back-end architecture in a uniform way, and manage access from disparate client technologies.

''When things get really complicated,'' explained Rollins, ''software engineers tend to isolate that complexity into different layers of architecture and then build out in a multitiered fashion. If you look back, you can see that data access used to be a mess. SQL was able to standardize some of that access and promote that into its own layer of the architecture. The result was database server technology, and companies like Oracle were able to evolve.

''In the next phase, people realized the database was the very worst place to put business logic,'' he continued. ''So it got moved out into its own layer of the architecture, which was the application server. With those two concerns separated, the systems became more flexible, less tightly coupled and easier to change.''

Added Rollins: ''I think we're at the point where this asynchronous, multichannel environment is going to kill us if we try to accommodate it in our application server architecture. It needs to be promoted into its own layer of the infrastructure. That's what we've done with the interaction server.''

Cysive's Cymbio Interaction Server isolates interaction and presentation logic in a separate tier to manage the flow of data and complex, staged transactions between enterprise applications and employees, customers and partners. It delivers data and functionality to new channels, including Web, wireless, voice and Web services, from a single platform.

Availability and reliability
As organizations begin to deploy wireless data solutions, availability and reliability are increasing in importance. According to Michael O'Brien, president of the Service Availability Forum (SAF), these issues are important enough to drive organizations to create ''five-nines'' platforms that deliver what his organization calls ''carrier-grade'' availability. Five-nines refers to the 99.999%, near-perfect availability that is the standard for the public switched telephone network and traditional PBXs. Carrier-grade in this context means on-demand and uninterrupted accessibility.

''A company might be prepared to tolerate bad availability from their internal IT department,'' said O'Brien, ''but as soon as you start exposing yourself to outside customers, the cost of downtime becomes a very different equation. What a lot of organizations fail to realize is that if salespeople out in the field can't get at the information they need when they need it, costs can be significant. When it comes to wireless data in the enterprise, there's definitely an expectation that apps will be running on a carrier-grade system.''

In the past, providing service at this level was expensive. Today, it is broadly available at much lower price points. According to O'Brien, companies can create a five-nines platform with total hardware and software costs of less than $10,000. And, he said, prices are going down with the advent of bladed servers and more widespread deployment. Telco-level expectation of availability and reliability can now be satisfied by anyone, he noted.

''This carrier-grade system is most important to the whole spectrum, from very small in-house IT organizations to vast utility data centers,'' O'Brien said. ''For people at that high end of the spectrum, this carrier-grade availability and reliability is an absolute 'must-have,' and it's working its way back toward the more traditional IT. That's a trend that we see over the next five years.''

O'Brien's company, Bellevue, Wash.-based GoAhead Software, is a founding member of the SAF, which was formed in July 2001 as an informal group and launched officially in December. The list of SAF founders includes Compaq, Force, HP, IBM, Intel, Motorola, Nokia and others. The group's mission is to create and promote open, standard availability interface specifications.

''The SAF is taking the best of what a number of the companies had in their existing products and creating a unified standard,'' O'Brien said. ''The SAF formalizes, modifies and improves them, and then publishes them.''

The SAF expects to publish its specifications in the second half of this year, but products built along the SAF ideas are already available from a number of member companies, including Intel, Sun and GoAhead. O'Brien's company, for example, is currently shipping service availability middleware. The second generation of the company's flagship product, SelfReliant 2.0, manages hardware, OS, applications and other system resources to enable high levels of availability and to maintain service continuity. It supports bladed servers, standard cPCI chassis and proprietary hardware, as well as multiple operating systems and CPU architectures.

The applications
Developing, deploying and managing apps for wireless devices is new for many IT departments. Both the devices and the networks present developers with protocol and technology complexities they may not be used to. When you begin to consider how you will develop and use wireless data apps, Wavelink's Hermelee recommends that users take some time to assess the skills of their developers.

''Many of the wireless data apps we see today are homegrown, often built by small development groups,'' he explained. ''So you'll want to address programming or skill set issues early in the planning process. The challenge isn't rewriting code to work well in wireless. It's being able to take your existing investments and business processes, and adapt them to work productively in wireless. And that's not about splicing off what you already have and placing it on a different-sized screen. It's about actually working with your existing business code and designing a system around the wireless workflow.''

Hermelee suggests users begin their plan for mobile or wireless data application development by documenting what they have and how people use it. Base the plan on what kinds of data you want people to have access to and how you expect them to use it. With that knowledge, you will be better able to manage, secure and control the new environment, he said.

And keep in mind that some implementations of wireless data systems involve more than one target device for a single application. ''Those kinds of applications are typically much more challenging for the developer,'' Hermelee said. ''They typically involve a lot of peripheral-type activities with the device.'' For example, Thrifty Car Rental, a Wavelink customer, equips its service people with an industrial-sized wireless LAN device, a printer that they wear on their belts, and a credit-card reader that is attached to the printer. ''All of those things need to interact at various points in the application,'' he said, ''and those are things developers typically don't have the skills to deal with.''

Many companies look at wireless as a new and increasingly inexpensive technology that will allow them to move their desktop applications to the wireless realm and capitalize on the benefits it provides. But Wavelink Product Marketing Director Brian Cohee believes that it is wiser to come at technology less from the standpoint of migrating existing apps to wireless, and more from a recognition of the unique requirements of wireless applications.

''Historically and traditionally, wireless data applications have more to do with transactions taking place at the point of activity,'' he said. ''Sometimes that means developers need to support some very specific requirements of specialized devices, bar code scanners, 'rugged-ized' environments. They will have to build apps that work in particular deployment scenarios that are unique to these kinds of vertical markets that are more industrial in nature.''

Wavelink's open architecture, server-based app development and management platform, Wavelink Studio, provides tools for the development and management of wireless enterprise applications. Federal Express used Wavelink Studio to develop the system that runs the company's ground sorting centers. It also provides tools for the mobilization of legacy host-based applications.

Finally, PwC Consulting's McCulloch recommends considering a trial deployment of your wireless data apps, which can help identify everything from important security issues to where the productivity boosts will be, making it is easier to cost-justify a mobile or wireless solution.

''The industry as a whole is going to do away with wired infrastructures and wired access,'' he said. ''Wireless opens up a huge door in terms of solving the last mile problems of optimizing the mobile workforce and offering a channel to the mass markets for access to information and all sorts of other capabilities that wouldn't be there without wireless technology.''

See related story 'The hot spot is hot.'


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