Q&A: Deploying a Mobile Device Manager

The variety of mobile devices is growing, as is pressure on IT to support their growing mobile workforce. We offer tips to make IT's job easier.

The variety of mobile devices is growing, as is pressure on IT to support them securely and in accordance with existing company policies. It's a big job, so what's IT to do?

To learn more, we turned to Mark Gentile, CEO of Odyssey Software, a provider of enterprise-class mobile device management software products, for his recommendations and best practices for selecting, installing, and using a mobile device manager.

Enterprise Strategies: What are the first signs an enterprise needs a mobile device manager?

Mark Gentile: Just about any enterprise that utilizes mobile devices for line-of-business or communications can achieve value in a mobile device management solution. What varies is how quickly and how much of a return they achieve on the investment. The following key data points play an important role in answering the ROI questions: the number of mobile devices the company has or plans to deploy; how geographically dispersed the work force; how many line-of-business applications are or will be used; and if there exists an enterprise management platform (such as Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager 2007) in place that is managing the desktops, notebooks, and servers.

Gartner reported in their last TCO study for PDAs and smart phones, that a properly deployed mobile device management solution could reduce operational costs by 49 percent.

When companies decide they need such a solution, what are the first steps they should take?

If the company is currently using a solution to manage desktops, notebook, and servers, they should decide if they want the mobile management solution to integrate into their present enterprise management platform. Most companies prefer this approach as it reduces training costs and allows companies to leverage their existing infrastructure, a significant cost savings.

In addition, they should look at what line-of-business application(s) they want to extend to their remote employees, and over what type of network -- wide area (WWAN), WiFi, etc., and what kind of bandwidth limitation might come into play. They should take into account migration plans and timing to new management platforms (for example, from SMS 2003 to Configuration Manager 2007) and how easily the products they are evaluating will migrate as well.

How should IT prepare for and deploy a mobile device management solution?

Many IT project leaders perform the traditional matrix comparison to narrow the vendor choices, and then install the selected products in a lab environment they can work with and test (at least cursorily). This process does not reveal some key issues that could delay or jeopardize the production rollout to the field. A pilot should be run to understand if the products can scale. There is no set rule of thumb on how large a pilot should be, but make sure it is in relative scale to the eventual size of your deployment.

In addition, do not assume your environment or situation will always be ideal. Run test scenarios based upon everything going wrong -- which usually happens at the worst possible time -- such as connection bandwidth being very slow/low, the application that needs updating is in constant use, or the updated application requires the update of shared files or other major software subsystems to be updated as well.

What kinds of remote access and security features can companies implement with a mobile device management solution? Are there ways to keep track of employee activity?

Remote access and security features are really different issues. Remote access is critical to a comprehensive mobile device management solution. In order for IT staff and help desk personnel to effectively manage, troubleshoot, and repair devices, they must have remote control as well as access to device subsystems. Security features such as lock and wipe help an enterprise protect sensitive data available on or through the devices.

Application control is another essential management feature. Typically for line-of-business mobile device deployments the enterprise will choose a whitelist application control method. General communications deployments often have a blacklist application control method. Monitoring employee activity has many facets. Management tools exist that track phone, message, and e-mail usage. More sophisticated tools include GPS tracking and cell tower association to monitor the location of a device.

What kinds of rainy-day situations or "bumps in the road" should companies be aware of when deploying a mobile device management solution?

When compared on paper, most mobile device management solutions appear to perform similar tasks, but when something goes awry in the field and the environment or situation is not ideal, many solutions fail. When it comes to software provisioning, for example, some very typical but less obvious situations arise, such as the inability to update software subsystems or applications that rely on shared files if the .NET Compact framework or SQL Server mobile needs to be updated for the new application to run. Another common software provisioning operation is the ability to update a program that is running or detect and fix corrupted applications without user interaction. These can be major bumps in the road but easily avoided by selecting the correct mobile device management product.

What benefits can companies expect to see right out of the gate when implementing a mobile device management solution?

More up-time and improved operational efficiencies. There are many benefits -- here are just a few:

  • The ability to provision and update devices on an “as needed” basis, and while the device is still in the hands of the mobile user creates efficiencies on both the management and user end.
  • Being able to repair the device without having to return it from the field significantly reduces downtime, eliminates shipping and labor costs, and reduces the number of spares kept on hand.
  • For companies that need to be Sarbanes-Oxley compliant, mobile device management provides significant savings in monitoring, inventorying, and reporting the usage of corporate assets.

Some benefits of mobile device management can, at times, be less concrete or difficult to measure. What can companies do to keep track of return on investment?

Ideally, the best way to measure ROI is to have measured your current work processes and tasks to know when you implement a change what the net benefit is. Many companies do not know their current cost structures, so calculating ROI is difficult. Planning ahead and recording processes and costs before implementation is the key to truly understanding the real ROI on any mobile device management investment.

As an example, companies should track the costs associated with their help desk operation. After implementation they should see a significant cost savings from a reduction in call volume as well as duration due to faster and improved first time call resolution, which leads to improved employee morale and increased productivity.

Where are mobile device features and technology headed, and how can companies prepare for these trends?

Technology gains will result in devices with faster CPUs, more memory, better quality screens, and better browsing capabilities. Devices are going to be more complex and require better management for enterprise deployments. GPS will become more commonplace in all devices used in the enterprise. There will be no one single OS; the mobile device environment will be heterogonous.

Mobile devices are more critical to enterprises as they accommodate a growing mobile work force. As enterprises extend beyond the “four walls” to the mobile work place, mobile device management becomes critical. Planning ahead is essential, making mobile device management an important part of IT’s strategy. Corporations will look to duplicate what has become the management norm for desktops, notebooks, and servers and apply that solution to remote devices while keeping costs in alignment. What products or services does Odyssey Software offer for mobile device management?

Athena by Odyssey Software is unique in that it is an on-device agent that is designed to integrate directly into leading enterprise management platforms such as Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007. It adds critical device management functions including extended asset and health reporting, interactive support functions such as remote control, and automated provisioning and unattended installation of updates -- features that aren’t native to these enterprise management platforms.

Enterprise customers utilizing Athena for comprehensive remote device management benefit by leveraging their investment in these enterprise management platforms and their inherent scalability, security, and reliability. In addition, Odyssey’s Support and Maintenance Program facilitates migration to new releases and supports new enterprise management platforms as they become available with no additional licensing costs.

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