The building blocks of a mobile/wireless strategy

Your employees are more productive and are able to work in a more flexible environment, with key corporate information at their fingertips. The warehouse workers receive incoming shipments from suppliers using wireless PDAs, and your inventory system and other key business systems are instantly up to date. Mobile delivery personnel keep store shelves perfectly stocked using accurate routing and delivery information loaded on their wireless handhelds each morning and throughout the day. And retail clerks using the latest line-busting technology effortlessly sell your products to happy customers, who no longer have to stand in checkout lines.

At headquarters, your network operations center runs smoothly with no wireless network outages. Last year's embarrassing attack on your wireless network is a distant memory, and the hackers are no longer a threat. Your CEO has the company's key performance indicators available on her wireless PDA from any conference room, thanks to your foresight to wirelessly enable the executive offices. You have increased productivity and reduced costs, and you're in line for a big promotion.

Then, you wake up.

The Perfect World ...

In a perfect world, wireless LANs consistently deliver the high bandwidth required for the mission-critical applications you use to run your business. There is no threat of service interruption and therefore no loss of data. Users operate in a more flexible environment, transparently roaming from one WLAN access point to another with no loss of connectivity. The threat of hackers is nonexistent, every application is a bandwidth-friendly thin client, and employees never lose, drop or generally abuse their mobile assets. In a perfect world, the effort to manage wireless devices and the applications that run on them is no more difficult than managing your corporate desktop systems. But wireless LANs are far from perfect.

The reality of today's mobile world

For many businesses, managing wireless devices and designing applications for a WLAN environment is a significant challenge that must be addressed to gain the full advantage of this promising technology. In the real world, a successful mobile deployment involves much more than placing the latest and greatest wireless device in your employees' hands. Specifically, organizations must create thoughtful strategies to manage their mobile bandwidth, applications, devices and security. Even in the seemingly always-connected world, you still have issues that need to be addressed with management technology. While 802.11 sounds good and is good, you must operate within certain parameters. These restrictions are real and must be addressed for the real-time enterprise to exist as envisioned.

Bandwidth

With 11Mbit/sec. of 802.11b bandwidth, there is more bandwidth available on WLANs than on your old 10Mbit/sec. LAN. This means there is plenty of network capacity to run applications designed for a high-speed, always-on network. Or is there?

The actual throughput of a WLAN is dependent on several factors, such as the quality of the radio signal emitted from the WLAN access points (AP). And signal quality is affected by several factors, such as distance from the APs, obstructions between the APs and the devices, radio interference, among others. As the signal degrades, bandwidth reduces until finally there is no longer a connection between the wireless device and the APs. This loss of a network connection can prevent even the best-designed applications from functioning, especially if they rely on an always-on, high-bandwidth network environment. And if your WLANs are at remote locations, the actual bandwidth available to a remote device communicating with headquarters servers is limited by the lower speed of your WAN. An 11Mbit/sec. WLAN device may actually seem slow if communicating over a 64Kbit/sec. frame-relay cloud.

An infrastructure with built-in efficiencies for moving applications and data across networks of all speeds, and of differing reliabilities, will pay off in the long run. In such an infrastructure, file transfers pick up where they left off when a network failure occurred. Updates to software packages are faster, thanks to byte-level differencing technology. Device management tasks dynamically adjust the bandwidth they consume to allow mission-critical tasks to be performed. But what about the applications mobile workers will depend on to do their jobs? How much bandwidth will they consume?

Applications

The thin client vs. thick client battle is far from over. One would think that a network providing high bandwidth with always-on connectivity would lend itself to thin-client architectures. But since consistent high bandwidth and persistent connections aren't guaranteed in the wireless environment, application architectures must include the possibility of a lost network connection.

Thick client architectures must also consider whether there is reliable high-speed access to corporate databases. If the network must be available for an application to access a database, you may be negating the benefits your WLAN brings to the corporation. Workers end up struggling with running applications rather than doing their jobs. Application architectures that include both online and off-line approaches may be the answer. In the off-line world, the application is always available and data is refreshed once a day, periodically throughout the day or on a transactional basis. Efficient synchronization and transfer of database records between the handheld application and the headquarters database will be an important consideration when architecting these off-line applications.

Devices

So how do you manage thousands of remote wireless devices? Can't you use your existing enterprise management system? The total cost of ownership of a handheld device used for business purposes is estimated at $3,000 per year -- more than the annual total cost of ownership (TCO) for laptops. Experts blame the increased TCO on additional administration and training as well as additional maintenance services that must be performed by a team using management software designed for desktops and servers. Adding wireless connectivity increases the annual TCO per device to $4,400. If you have ever tried to install and configure a WLAN card on your laptop, you already understand the reasons for this leap in management costs. The myriad settings required to establish communications with a wireless AP make wireless devices much more labor-intensive than simply plugging your desktop into a network outlet.

And then there's software distribution and management. If your organization is relatively new to the wireless world, it's likely your wireless applications are new as well. This means more frequent software updates as new features and enhancements are incorporated. A solid policy on how you will distribute and update these new applications should be in place to ensure a successful wireless device rollout.

Devices running Palm and Microsoft operating systems have become as fun to tinker with as your kid's video games. This tinkering can lead to device configurations that make the device about as useful to your business as a video game. Defining and enforcing comprehensive device configuration policies can be another method of reducing TCO for these devices. One critical component of defining and enforcing device-configuration is establishing consistent and effective mobile security standards.

Security

WLANs have a built-in security technology called Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), which provides a measure of security for data flowing across the wireless portion of your network. However, there have been many reported cases of serious weaknesses in WEP that have been easily exploited by hackers. And since WEP encrypts only data over the WLAN, it travels in the clear from the wireless AP to its final destination.

Additional layers of security that provide data encryption from the device to the data center should be incorporated to ensure data isn't tampered with or read by unauthorized personnel. This may include Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption, virtual private network (VPN) technology, file encryption or other means. Companies are increasingly looking to "thin" VPN technologies like SSL as a solution that's more cost-effective and easier to implement than traditional "thick" VPN technologies that require client software to be installed on the device.

Finally, there's always some risk that a handheld wireless device will be lost or stolen. So a method of securing access to the device and protecting the data stored within the device is required to ensure that your private corporate information isn't compromised.

The Reality of 802.11

WLANs and wireless devices can help companies implement new ways of doing business. They can increase the productivity of employees in the warehouse, in your mobile fleet, in retail locations and in corporate management.

There are some unique challenges in managing wireless devices and architecting wireless applications. With a solid plan and the right infrastructure in place, maybe that big promotion will become more than just a dream.

Owen is the chief technology officer at Atlanta-based XcelleNet Inc.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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