Reach Out & Fix Something

By  Peter M. Ferenczi — May 01, 2007

Traditional telephone-based device support is like digging a ditch with a teaspoon. You could do it, but why? .

One comment I got from a staff member who I've turned onto this technology," recalled Chuck Deaton, IT security manager for Humana health insurance, "was, 'If you wanted to take it away from me, you'd have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.'"

It's a ringing endorsement for Bomgar's Bomgar Box, an appliance that simplifies the help desk task of supporting computer users in the field or on the company LAN. As mobile employees carry an ever-increasing arsenal of devices, supporting them is becoming more critical, and troublesome, than ever before.

IDC Mobile Enterprise Program Director Stephen Drake traces the current mobile device management (MDM) and remote support market back to the first enterprise laptop deployments. "There was a need for specific mobile-based management that the LAN-centric solutions from the biggest guys--CA, IBM, Novell--just weren't addressing," he said. In 2006 IDC valued the MDM market at $230 million and projects it will grow to $700 million by 2010. Drake pointed to the relatively small part that mobile applications play across the board--there are only 10 million to 12 million mobile email users worldwide, for example--to explain the gradual adoption.

"It's been a slow, grinding ride, frankly, as the market is still fairly in its infancy," said Drake. But that's all changing as enterprises step up mobile rollouts. "The idea of getting device management out there at the point of deployment," said Drake, "is taking off."

Handing over the Reins
Phone-based technical support has never been efficient or pleasant, and the service model falls apart when the mobile workforce grows beyond a certain size. Remote control systems allow a technician to interact with the afflicted device over the Internet (or company LAN), often providing as much control as having the device in-hand. "Because trends in mobility and connectivity are causing this huge support burden, [the enterprise] can either double the number of tech support reps or add remote control technology," said Joel Bomgar, CEO and founder of Bomgar. "It's cost-prohibitive to add reps, so remote control is the obvious pick."

Solutions exist targeting PC hardware as well as handheld devices such as smartphones and wireless PDAs; some, like Odyssey Software's Athena, can handle both. "You're able to do live remote control. You can see what the screen is showing, and control the remote device by clicking on the screen or watching what the user is doing," said Mark Gentile, CEO of Odyssey. "You can also see under the covers to what's going on in the operating system, what processes are running, or view the registry."

Remote support can also head off problems before they result in a disabled application. "Customers can set up thresholds that say, if I ever see values outside that range, I'll alert the supervisor because we have an unhealthy device and that will probably lead to a support call," said Gentile. Another handset-focused product, Pervacio's Freedom Suite, features Smart Agents that automatically regulate device functions and affect repairs, when possible, without intervention.

Remote support applications can often also do routine set-up and provisioning, further simplifying the IT department's job. Doug Stovall of TeleCommunications Systems (TCS), a wireless application provider that also manages its clients' mobile devices, said that his company employs a variety of remote support vendors--including Odyssey, Pervacio and Sybase--depending on customer needs. "Pervacio lets us load large numbers of devices very easily," he said. "We use them a lot for that."

In the wirelessly mobile environment, remote support must often operate across low bandwidth connections, so products should be optimized for this. "We run it over cellular, over dial-up," said Humana's Deaton. "It's obviously slower when you have very limited bandwidth, but it still functions, which is a beautiful thing when that's all you have." TCS' Stovall observed that Pervacio works "as well as any of the other guys" over spotty wide area networks, noting that "there are always problems with connectivity, wireless or not."

Remote Control Freak
If the idea of remote control ports on corporate mobile devices sounds dangerously like the backdoor access a hacker might slip onto a vulnerable PC, fear not. Most remote support applications are engineered around security.

Deaton selected Bomgar partly due to security concerns. His company had previously used a motley collection of remote desktop tools to provide support, but he was uncomfortable with the security picture they presented: "You have all kinds of connections being made, and there's no central place to go for an activity log," he said. "By going through the Bomgar appliance, we have centralized control and we can record all the events on the log of the appliance. That keeps total visibility and control of who's doing what and how." The Bomgar appliance can also record videos of each session, which provides an effective audit trail, noted Deaton.

Analyst Drake isn't worried about security for either PC or handset-focused remote control applications. "I think the technology is very mature and one that's been known to address security without any issues," he said.

Remote Support, Close Savings
Remote support can pay in many ways, but the richest is probably the reduction in problem resolution times. "Most customers experience a reduction in average call time of 25 to 50 percent," said Bomgar. "That means it saves them roughly 25 to 50 percent of what their support costs are."

Dennis Nelson, a support systems analyst for Bomgar customer KODAK Dental Systems, said the solution has cut call times by about 24 percent. A case study performed by Odyssey on a tier-1 retailer found call durations reduced by 87 percent. The increased efficiency provides room to grow. "It means I can scale to new devices and applications without adding new people," said Tom Robinson, executive VP of sales and marketing for Odyssey.

Other metrics that contribute to ROI include fewer onsite visits and equipment returns. "If I can reduce my rate of devices returned, that don't actually have problems, by as much as 50 or 60 percent, which is the norm, I can reduce my [pool of reserve] devices by a significant amount," said Robinson. In Odyssey's case study, the number of devices returned without problems dropped from 70 percent to 5 percent, enabling a 45 percent cut in reserve device stock. "Onsite visits are typically decreased by about 80 percent, since the only time someone needs to take a machine to the IT department is when something is physically wrong with it," said Bomgar.
"Based on our calculations, we're seeing results that produce the return on the investment in between six and nine months," said Odyssey's Robinson. KODAK Dental's Nelson said the Bomgar Box "paid for itself almost immediately-- we estimate that we're saving about $5,000 per day based on time reductions."

When it comes to considering remote control, "the key point is cost of support," said TCS' Stovall. "Anything we can do remotely is better for us, and at the end of the day we pass that savings onto our customers." Stovall isn't too worried about ROI numbers. "With people time and travel time, we've never calculated it because we know it's huge," he said. "It's almost the way you have to do business." //

Peter M. Ferenczi is a freelance writer who splits his time between Los Angeles and Paris.

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