Manage This: How IT Deals With Complex Mobility Environments

By  Susan Nunziata — March 01, 2010

There are few mobile environments more heterogeneous than the campus of a higher education institution. Just ask Rick Mickool, Executive Director / CTO IS at Boston's Northeastern University.

The school, which encompasses six different campuses, has a student body of 26,000-28,000. Students enter with a wide array of wireless smartphones, notebooks and netbooks. In addition, faculty and staff primarily use BlackBerry smartphones through Microsoft Exchange servers, although here, too, iPhones, Windows Mobile, and Palm devices are starting to crop up, says Mickool.

"We describe Northeastern as anytime, anyplace, any device," says Mickool. "We've said, 'ok this is reality, so how can we leverage the fact that students will be buying these things we can't lock down?' That has shaped our strategy."

Such a strategy is rapidly becoming reality for IT executives at enterprises across all verticals, as the floodgates open to a diverse array of mobile and wireless devices (See sidebar, page 15).

There are myriad options for managing mobility in the enterprise. Most mobile enterprise application platform vendors, including Sybase, Antenna, Syclo, Spring Wireless and Pyxis Mobile, among others, offer mobility management components to their solutions.

In addition, there are a number of vendors that specialize in mobility management, including BoxTone, Conceivium, Zenprise, MobileIron, Visage Mobile, Odyssey Software, Trellia, and Wavelink, to  name just a few.

Mickool was challenged with developing applications that could serve students and faculty and be accessible on a wide array of devices. "We were already starting to see and hear of different departments on campus hiring their own consultants to write an iPhone app," he says. "If you don't get ahead of that, you have a problem at highest university level, where there are 20 different Northeastern apps out there on iTunes."

An added factor is that departments were contracting to get apps written without planning for a second generation, or how to support the apps.  "We wanted to make sure we were able to provide a mechanism for departments to get this stuff developed and supported with a long term strategy in mind."

After a pilot with 60 students involving netbooks and iPod Touch devices that started in summer 2009, Mickool is rolling out Pyxis Mobile as the platform of choice for the university. "With the Pyxis [Mobile] platform, we can create role workflows. We can create one application and, depending on how the person is identified [as a faculty member or student] we can give them access to specific mobile services." In addition, the solution enables Mickool's team to perform mass application updates. "We can add, delete or modify applications without users having to do anything. The next time they log in they see the service."

Mobile and wireless tools offered at Northeastern will incorporate everything from admissions applications to educational services to alumni development. "Pyxis [Mobile] allows you to integrate [mobility] to many systems behind the scenes," says Mickool. For Northeastern, these include online educational tool Blackboard, Microsoft SQL databases, Oracle, and Salesforce.com.

 

Lifecycle Support

Even those IT executives who are tasked with supporting a relatively homogenous mobile environment -- for example a large field force deployment standardized on Windows Mobile devices -- are seeking to improve the way they manage mobility for their employees.

Windsor Foods is a manufacturing and distribution company with 27 production lines in nine plants across six states. Headquartered in Houston, TX, the company provides food services to restaurant and industrial accounts, as well as the consumer market.

The company has more than 100 smartphones deployed, and initially chose to standardize on Windows Mobile devices, says Stephan Henze, VP of IT. While Windows mobile management tools addressed such factors as setting enterprise policies, Henze says he needed a solution that could address the entire lifecycle of mobile devices in his enterprise, from procurement, configuration and security through ongoing user management and support.

In February 2009 the company began testing MobileIron, and deployed it enterprise wide three months later. "Any phone needs to be authorized before it connects," says Henze. "[MobileIron] has remote wiping capabilities, we can retire phones and we can apply policies so users are only authorized to install certain applications."

For troubleshooting, Henze says, "MobileIron gives us the ability to see the phone's screen, remotely control it and see, in real time, the configuration on that phone, how much memory is there, how much data are stored, and which data are stored."

The next step is to lessen the user burden on IT, notes Henze. "[MobileIron] are putting a portal in place where the cellphone user signs on so they can see their calls, their SMSs, can wipe the device themselves, they can locate their own phone if they lose it, we can publish apps and the users can drag and drop the apps. They are also working to integrate filesharing."

 

Managing BlackBerrys

Even ensuring the health of a homogenous BlackBerry deployment can be an ongoing challenge. For many companies, a mobile management solution such as those available from Conceivium, BoxTone, Zenprise and others can make the difference between handling issues proactively and simply waiting until users call in with problems.

Faced with the challenge of managing a global deployment of approximately 30,000 BlackBerry smartphones, Dawson Daley, wireless IT architect for IBM Canada, settled on Conceivium's mobile infrastructure and device management solution.

"We were getting calls from our executives telling us that their BES server was down, or wondering what was going on in the environment --  and from an IT perspective, that's not very good," Daley says.

What's more, Daley says, they often still had trouble determining the cause of the problem. "We would have to scramble to find out what was going on, then eventually understand what the issue was, and then try to resolve the issue -- and then bring the service back online," he says.

Thanks to Conceivium's tight integration with the BlackBerry log files, Daley says he's able to stay on top of issues as they come up. "There are a number of times that we've been called about an issue with our BES server, and we can respond, 'Not a problem -- we're aware of it -- it will be back in five minutes,'" he says.

Device activation is another common source of issues, Daley says. "With Conceivium, we're able to track the full activation process, so our tech teams can say, 'Here's the problem: your carrier didn't set up your account for BlackBerry services,' or 'You didn't enter the password correctly,' or 'The BES server doesn't have access to your email file,'" he says.

Rob Holloway, director of information technology at the law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, faced a similar range of challenges before he implemented BoxTone's management solution. With a deployment of 900 BlackBerry devices, Holloway says, "We were reactive -- we had to wait for people to call in with issues."

Holloway says BoxTone has transformed the way his team deals with issues. "In some cases, second-level guys can take a look at the BlackBerry environment and see if there are issues cropping up. It allows us to be a lot more proactive in dealing with issues: if people call us, we are ahead of them," he says.

And justifying the cost of the BoxTone implementation, Holloway says, was simple. "[We] were not able to be proactive, we were constantly swapping out devices and incurring costs for devices that were dormant. It was pretty easy to justify that we needed this kind of management tool in place," he says.
 
 

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