Mobile apps: The IT pro's new power tools

Heavy-duty mobile IT apps for the iPad, iPhone, and Android devices have many IT departments on the move

Think the mobile revolution is all about word games and social networking apps? Think again. Heavy-duty apps for IT pros have arrived on mobile platforms and they're quickly changing the face of IT systems management.

Want remote desktop access from your Android? Need to initiate a terminal session from your iPad or build a virtual machine from your BlackBerry? Thanks to a rising tide of applications that provide (at a minimum) meaningful access to the Web interfaces of your favorite administrative and troubleshooting programs, you can do all this and more.

Although full-featured applications that match the true power and ease of use of their PC or Mac counterparts remain harder to find, smartphones and tablets with bigger screens and more power have many IT departments eyeing the long-term possibilities of an increasingly mobile IT work force.

Couple this with the desire to tap into native mobile capabilities such as location awareness and built-in cameras for mobile IT apps, and you can see why analyst firm Gartner has predicted that by 2017, 50 percent of Level 1 service desk analysts in large organizations will use mobile technologies to deliver service. That market will make today's mobile admin marketplace look puny -- and unlock new mobile capabilities for admins.

iOS and the iPad: IT's mobile platforms of choice

The iPhone and iPad remain the de facto mobile standards for most IT admins, thanks in large part to the breadth and maturity of IT-related iOS applications. Android smartphones and tablets come in a strong second among the IT set, with BlackBerry, the once vaunted king of business smartphones, a distant and some say fading third.

In fact, the large screen size and a robust IT application ecosystem have some IT pros even preferring the iPad over laptops and desktop machines. Loren Bement, director of network services for Gettel Automotive Group, says that, with the help of an external keyboard, his iPad has become his standard work device. "I don't even carry a laptop or go to a desktop for 90 percent of my work," he says.

Android also boasts an array of meaningful IT apps. Dell Kace's mobile app for managing physical servers and endpoints, for example, is best used on devices with screens of 4 inches or larger, such as iPads or Android smartphones and tablets, says Ken Drachnik, director of product marketing at Dell Kace.

Code 42 Software's CrashPlan and CrashPlan Pro mobile apps for storage backup work "equally well on tablet devices, laptops, and desktops," and are available for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone devices, says Code 42 CEO Matthew Dornquast. Even so, Dornquast sees the iPad as the "de facto mobile device" for which Code 42's apps were designed, noting that the iPhone with its limited screen size "wouldn't be your first choice" for full IT app support.

Yet the iPhone still has its proponents. Michael Kipp, principal engineer for the site operations group at Vocus, a SaaS vendor, says he is "quite satisfied ... [that] I can do almost anything I can do from my desktop" from the iPhone using remote desktop. "The screen is a little small, but it never hindered me," although he did admit that "an iPad is all the better."

Although the BlackBerry remains a favorite of certain corporate IT groups because of its security and email capabilities, it gets less attention from developers and many IT pros because of its relatively small screen size and, until recently, lack of touchscreen support. "They don't keep up to date with the applications" as much as the iOS, Android, or "even Microsoft with Windows Mobile" platforms, says Gettel's Bement. "I wouldn't want one if someone handed it to me."

However, the BlackBerry does boast applications for remote desktop access, server monitoring and management, and remote access to SSH servers, among many other functions.

Heavy-duty mobile apps for IT pros

Remote access is one of the hottest mobile application markets for IT -- little wonder, given what can be done with quick access to a management console or in troubleshooting a user's device.

Cloud services provider CenterBeam uses the native iOS version of Bomgar on the iPad because "it's more secure than other platforms," says Shahin Pirooz, CenterBeam's CTO. His staff also relies on Citrix Receiver to run management applications in Windows 7 on the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. Ericom Software's free AccessToGo for iOS and Android is another powerful tool for providing access to Windows applications, physical and virtual desktops, and Windows terminal servers.

Mobile virtualization management is another hotbed, with the various Nagios mobile apps for iOS and Android receiving frequent mentions among IT pros. Many cloud services providers offer their own mobile management apps. The Decaf EC2 Client for Android and iPhone provides updates "about trends and variations in average CPU performance, total disk reads and writes, and total incoming/outgoing network traffic" for Amazon EC2 instances, according to 9apps, the team behind Decaf.

The VMware vSphere Client for iPad allows administrators to monitor the performance of vSphere hosts and virtual machines; to start, stop, and suspend VMs; and to reboot them or put them into maintenance mode. VM Manager is among the many virtualization management options on Android.

Jason John Schwarz, CTO of pest control services provider MSC, says his team uses iVMControl on iPhones and iPads. They have found the app "far better than the native VMware Web interface, a quick way to jump in and troubleshoot our environment."

Android users can manage their Active Directory implementations with ActiveDir Manager, while iOS users have AD Helpdesk for iOS. Network Utility for the iPhone enables network administrators to check connectivity via Ping, TCP/IP Port Scans, GeoIP lookup, and to gather IP address information.

IBM XIV Mobile Dashboard for the iPhone and iPad monitor real-time performance of IBM XIV storage systems, allowing IT admins to monitor IOPS, bandwidth, and latency, among other metrics.

Mobile IT apps: Limitations and opportunities

As the capabilities of smartphones improve, customers are demanding the same capabilities in mobile administration apps as in their desktop counterparts, says Raj Dutt, vice president of technology at hosting and content delivery provider Internap: "[Customers] don't consider the mobile application to be some second-class citizen. This is no longer just a gimmick thing; people are really using it."

For most administrative functions, a Web portal that has been designed for easy viewing on a mobile device works fine, says Brian Alvey, CEO of Crowd Fusion. Few mobile apps require the finely tuned performance provided by native mobile apps. Still, limitations remain.

Regarding the Dell Kace management app, the lack of a native iPad application "doesn't allow me to use the VNC function," says Gettel's Bement. "It's just [that] the iPad doesn't have VNC installed by default." Bement gets around the problem by switching to Jump Desktop, which he says is "not too big of an annoyance."

CenterBeam's Pirooz would like to see mobile versions make greater use of the Microsoft Active Sync APIs to more easily "push" software to devices. "You can whitelist and blacklist applications," he says, but "there's no concept of pushing a piece of software, and doing an installation, from an administrative perspective, unless the user says yes."

This support would allow mobile admins to perform more of the management functions Microsoft has added over the years, such as enforcing policies or wiping data from mobile devices, he says.

The untethered life of today's mobile IT admin

Although the mad proliferation of mobile IT applications might be seen as tying admins to their mobile devices more than ever, it's actually good news, many say.

"We've had pagers and phones going on 15 years," says Gartner analyst Jeff Brooks. "The new apps mean it won't be so much 'I'm always working' as it will be 'I'm able to get done what I need to get done in a timely manner,'" he says. "If I'm able, before I go to bed ... to roll over, grab my phone, and answer a question for someone, and get that logged properly, that's one less thing [to do] when I wake up tomorrow and get to the office."

Vocus's Kipp agrees that today's mobile administration apps make life "much easier. ... For one, I'm not worried about whether or not an alert is going to go out. It's a worry that's been taken off our plate." Due to the service-oriented nature of Vocus's mission, "We're tied to those devices anyway. This makes sure we get alerts in a reliable fashion. It's a comfort level you can't put a price on in the industry we're working in."

Gettel's Bement also sees little downside to the rise of mobile IT. "It makes my life easier because I don't need to be at my office to do my job," says Bement. "I can use [the built-in] Cisco VPN client on my iPad to connect to my network, and launch whichever application I need, and remote into my PC, remote into the server, and make any changes I need." If he didn't have the mobile access, he would have to drive 40 minutes round trip to work for something as simple as a user locking themselves out of their account. Now, he does the five minutes of actual work from home.

With all the benefits of smartphones, alerts can still get lost in a flood of emails and texts. Onset Technology is one company targeting this glut. The company's OnPage priority messaging technology triggers an alarm on the user's device "until you attend to it," says CEO Judit Sharon. The service is available on iOS and BlackBerry, with Android support coming soon.

Vocus's Kipp has been working with OnPage for more than six months. His 13-member site operations team finds OnPage on the iPhone to be more reliable than the pagers the firm used up until last year. OnPage's two-way communications also provides notification when a message is delivered and read.

Overcoming mobile security jitters

As a "trusted user," an admin can, of course, become a threat vector if someone attacks corporate systems via their mobile device. A number of vendors offer ways to separate the work and personal "personalities" of mobile devices, either hiding or hardening the "work" personality to make it more resistant to attacks.

Open Kernel Labs uses virtualization to create separate operating systems on Android, Windows Mobile, and Symbian operating systems, and it recently announced a partnership with LG Electronics to produce "defense-grade" mobile devices using its OKL4 Microvisor. The first such devices are expected to reach the market this fall, with carriers charging a premium of anywhere from $20 to $400 for the added security, says Carl Nerup, vice president of business development at Open Kernel Labs.

TelefA3nica Digital and EMC VMware are expected to offer TelefA3nica Dual Persona service later this year. The service will allow IT departments to securely create and manage a "corporate mobile workspace" to run administrative applications on Android devices over the air. The Samsung Galaxy SII will be the first handset to support the service, according to the companies, with Samsung expected "to offer service compatibility with all of its devices in the coming months."

Gettel's Bement says he can create similar "profiles" using the Dell Kace software, but he's never seen a need for it. He believes mobile devices are no more inherently prone to hacks than PCs, and he must enter three passwords to access his iPad, VPN, and then his management applications. He can also remotely wipe data from his mobile devices if they are lost or stolen.

The mobile future

While many admins are happy to log in via a Web interface or even a Windows emulator running on a tablet, Gartner's Brooks looks forward to applications that can use mobile features such as location awareness and cameras to provide new features.

For example, an admin could snap a picture of the error message on the screen and compare it to a known library of error messages, or use a photo of the bar code on a server or PC to access its last known configuration and service history. A location-aware mobile device might alert a technician already working on the fifth floor of a building about a new trouble ticket on the fourth floor, reducing travel times for the tech and wait times for the user.

Another possibility, he says, is mobility-enabled techs providing "white-glove service" to executives and other important customers, using their mobile devices to quickly check databases of known errors to speed service.

"The evolution of mobile technology will result in close integration between the IT service desk and the desktop support team, forming a unique support function," Brooks predicted in a recent report. This, he wrote, "will result in a focus on providing superior support to end-users, rather than a preoccupation with the classification of support roles."

Until then, resetting a user's password from the couch without scrambling for their laptop might be progress enough for the average administrator.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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