So, You Have Decided to Go Wireless … Now What?

More and more organizations are coming to realize the competitive advantages that can be gained by enabling an "always connected" mobile workforce. The fact is that business information today is changing in real-time, and in order to provide greater customer responsiveness, increase productivity and improve operational efficiencies, companies must provide their employees with the mobile tools to succeed.

Unfortunately, for many organizations the process of going wireless means that a new software application must be written which is complex and loaded with uncertainty. Investing in the wrong solution might not only mean a high-risk, costly wireless implementation with long deployment times – it could also require ongoing maintenance costs, intrusive application integration that effects your existing e-business infrastructure, or might result in poor end user adoption.

Many IT managers are left shaking their heads at the thought of embarking on months-long wireless projects that will interrupt existing IT schedules. There are so many considerations that must be made for wireless implementation that many do not know where to begin. For instance, in addition to interfacing with wireless networks that require proprietary data protocols, and running on wireless devices with different operating systems and browser requirements, there is also the challenge of getting an application originally designed for a desktop browser onto a small-screened, handheld device that may only read a particular mark-up language. Finally, key success factors to the deployment of your solution will be dependent upon performance and scalability, security and the overall mobile user experience.

What many organizations do not realize is that going wireless does not have to be a risky or expensive venture. In fact, most companies already have the infrastructure in place that will make mobilizing corporate applications a fast, easy process.

Buyers Beware: Hidden Risks and Costs Abound

There are several alternatives for wirelessly enabling enterprise applications. At a high level they may appear to be equally costly, complex and time consuming, but there are definitive benefits to choosing one solution over another depending on a company’s particular wireless strategy goals. For the purpose of this article and because of the significant number of vendor offerings, a high level set of categories have been defined and used to evaluate these solutions against the set of key considerations for going wireless. These solutions can be grouped into four basic categories:

  • Custom Application Development
  • Wireless Application Development Tool Sets
  • Transcoders
  • Wireless Application Service Providers

These solutions have varying levels of development, integration and maintenance requirements that can lead to lengthy times to deployment and high implementation costs. They can be examined according to the steps they hasten or eliminate on a standard development project timeline.

The reality of many of these solutions is that they do not offer an effective and seamless way in which your company can quickly and easily extend existing applications to wireless. Most require a significant development effort, either re-developing all or parts of the application for wireless or changing your entire application to make it compliant with proprietary wireless browsers using a combination of XML and XSL style sheets.

Consider a scenario where a fictional company, SmartForce Enterprises, has invested significant time and millions of dollars to create a complex e-business application, consisting of a database, business logic/application layer and a presentation layer. The presentation layer, like the majority of enterprise Intranet and Internet applications, is written in HTML and JavaScript and was designed for viewing on a desktop browser. SmartForce’s IT manager would like to leverage this existing e-business infrastructure and protect his investment and extend it to wireless.

In the case of performing a custom application development project to go wireless, SmartForce’s staff would embark on a long and complex development project that requires a separate software application developed from scratch in order to go wireless. This would leave them with two enterprise systems to maintain – one for wireless and one for the desktop – and offer no guarantees that both systems would function in an similar fashion. Custom application development projects may not integrate with their existing database and will require a new application layer with business logic and presentation layer for small-screened devices, and is often limited in its ability to support a wide variety of wireless devices and networks. SmartForce could expect to make a significant upfront investment and will have considerable ongoing maintenance requirements, including additional development to support the latest wireless networks and devices and they have not leveraged their e-business investments.

To facilitate some of the complex development and offset some of the costs and demands on their IT staff, SmartForce may choose to purchase wireless application development tool sets, also known as wireless application server platforms. A wireless toolset would provide SmartForce’s developers with APIs (Application Programmer Interfaces) and plug-in modules to speed up the development process. The developer’s environment may include a GUI (Graphical User Interface) for some components of the development process, various wireless network protocols, a markup language engine, and connectors to various enterprise databases. This approach requires SmartForce’s team to re-create the presentation layer and the application logic of their e-business infrastructure. Even though these tools attempt to accelerate the process of enabling enterprise data to go wireless, SmartForce is still faced with staffing and managing a development project with maintenance and all of the associated risks of a long project.

Since SmartForce wants to garner a competitive edge they require rapid deployment of their wireless capabilities, so time is of the essence. SmartForce may choose to evaluate a transcoder-based solution that claims the ability to "leverage your existing e-business infrastructure." Transcoders rely on a technology-based solution that on the outside appear to be easy to implement, but one look under the hood of an XSLT engine and SmartForce’s IT team will find they really just leverage their existing enterprise database, and require re-writing the existing application so that it is XML-compliant. While transcoders may claim to work with HTML applications, in reality they require static HTML or XML in order to apply a XSL style sheet since the XSLT engine requires statically defined structured content. Unfortunately, like most enterprises, SmartForce’s HTML e-business application is personalized in nature and dynamically generated on the fly, so they would be required to re-develop their application in XML to work with a transcoder – resulting in yet another expensive development project.

Given static HTML or XML input, implementation of transcoders can speed up the process of going wireless because the design and development of a separate application is not required. The focus on implementing this wireless project is on developing XSL style sheets to properly render the presentation of content on wireless devices. However, implementing style sheets can be a complex task, requiring SmartForce to employ experienced programmers with advanced knowledge of three different programming languages within XSL and may take significant time and development effort. Furthermore, many style sheets have to be developed for an application since each presentation view on a device requires a unique style sheet. While this may not be as time consuming as developing a custom wireless application from scratch, there is still considerable software development, and the required maintenance of updating style sheets as the application content changes is excessive.

Wireless ASPs (WASPs) provide wireless solutions in the form of a service that involves everything from hosting wireless applications, to managing and maintaining the wireless infrastructure for their customers including wireless network connectivity, to supplying handheld devices and software. While WASPs may offer professional services to adapt an organization’s application for wireless and sometimes integrate corporate back-end systems to interact with their own proprietary wireless applications or platforms, SmartForce is still going to be delayed in deploying their solution and incur the expense of having the WASP perform custom application development or adapt the application for use with transcoders. Lastly, behind the firewall protection is not possible in the WASP configuration because the wireless component is exposed on the Internet.

For each of the in-house solutions, once the application has been wirelessly enabled, SmartForce has the added consideration of integrating wireless middleware to manage the connectivity between the wireless networks and the corporate application, and finding an appropriate client-user interface for the wireless devices they choose to deploy. These are additional components that require multi-vendor integration and testing, further extending project costs and timeline.

Furthermore, performance is a critical consideration. Systems should be highly efficient in the CPU time required to perform content adaptation if such a process occurs. This ensures that SmartForce’s given hardware configuration used to deploy the wireless server software supports the maximum possible number of concurrent users. Similarly, wireless solutions should be optimized to deliver the lowest possible response times to typical user operations, such as "load a page" requests. This helps SmartForce in minimizing the total cost of ownership and contributes to a quality mobile user experience. For instance, most XSLT engines require a significant amount of CPU time to apply style sheets to an XML document when a user accesses the application. In addition to creating unacceptably long system response times, this poor server performance can impair a company’s ability to scale without incurring significant additional hardware costs.

Does this all sound complicated? It is. Re-developing applications and integrating them with existing infrastructure can make going wireless a risky venture. Commercial wireless application development projects require significant upfront and ongoing maintenance budgets. The earliest SmartForce could begin to see any return on investment would be after the application is ready to be deployed, which can take an average of six to 18 months. Finally, the overall costs and demand on SmartForce’s resources are very high for development projects. With the additional challenge of ever-changing wireless standards, SmartForce found little protection of their long-term investment from these single- application, single-device, and single-network solutions.

It would appear that the costs, time and labor required to enable wireless e-business can be a true burden on any organization’s IT staff. But this approach is not the only approach that can be taken.

Technology-Based Solutions Quickly Deploy Wireless E-Business

An ideal wireless solution will enable organizations like SmartForce to quickly and securely extend existing e-business applications to wireless devices without re-developing them.

Both the risks and associated deployment costs for wireless can be dramatically reduced when IT departments realize that just like a desktop browser, wireless devices offer another presentation mechanism for end users to interact with corporate applications. Yet wireless e-business adds the value of anytime, anywhere access to the most up-to-date information. The challenge is to deliver the same quality in the wireless user experience that is experienced by desktop users, without having to re-develop an application.

Software vendors have already introduced non-intrusive, easy-to-implement technology that handles all functions necessary to take web-based business applications wireless. By using technology to automatically adapt web content for presentation on small-screened wireless devices with quick and easy fine tuning capabilities, a mobile workforce can wirelessly access business information with the core functionality of a desktop browser, with added offline functions. A completely integrated technology-based solution is easier to implement and least intrusive than the alternative development/service-based approaches because the software directly interacts with existing web-based applications, incorporates wireless connectivity management and often interacts with existing web browsers or provide one of their own.

There are also fast and simple administration tools that allow organizations to fine tune the mobile user experience by applying scripts to their existing applications so that a wireless device attempting to access that information will receive content organized for presentation on small-screened devices. These HTML-based scripts can be simply created with drag-and-drop GUI interfaces that can have a solution deployed in days or weeks, not months.

Similarly, there are creative methods of inserting simple mark-up tags that are ignored by a desktop browser but arrange for wireless browsers to display information in a particular fashion. Tags, although they are inserted into the presentation layer, are still less intrusive and more efficient than re-developing content for presentation on wireless devices.

Choosing Success for Your Wireless Strategy

As you prepare to plan your company’s wireless strategy and evaluate various wireless application solutions, there are several important considerations that will affect critical elements of your implementation, including protecting your investment for the long-term, network and device flexibility, and performance issues. These and other factors are key to the decision making process. They include:

Integration Complexity. The desire to manage the complexity of the solution and the associated integration/testing costs and risks will influence which solution an organization chooses to implement. Those solutions that adapt an existing e-business infrastructure to wireless typically require the least maintenance.

Time-to-Wireless. The relative urgency and importance of going wireless is a key factor in selecting the optimal approach in taking an e-business application mobile to meet business goals. If a company chooses a timeframe for deployment in less than six months, some alternatives will emerge as much more viable.

Total Cost of Ownership. While keeping the up-front expenditures low is an important consideration, the fundamental approach underpinning some of the alternatives is likely to result in varying development, operational and maintenance costs over the lifetime of the solution.

Mobile User Experience. A key critical success factor in deploying the wireless enterprise solution is ensuring a quality mobile user experience. This in turn will influence the rate of adoption by the end user community.

Targeted Wireless Devices and Networks. Depending on business plans for deployment, a wireless solution will need to provide a great degree of flexibility in wireless network and device support to provide the coverage and device preferences required by an organization today and in the future.

Performance and Scalability. The ability for a wireless solution to support many users with minimal hardware is important to consider, as your user base will likely increase over time. Furthermore, solutions vary in how efficiently information is processed and delivered over the network and to the end user. Therefore, the wireless solution should be evaluated based on how many users it can support, resource efficiency and its ability to perform the required processing fast enough to deliver low response time.

End-to-End Security. Communications between the enterprise and the mobile employee must be protected and consistent with security policies of the existing e-business infrastructure. Complete end-to-end security should consist of several enterprise and wireless security capabilities, such as:

  • User authorization
  • Basic authentication
  • Deployment behind the enterprise firewall
  • Secure Socket Layer (SSL) security
  • Elliptic Curve Cryptosystem (ECC) & Triple DES security

There is no longer a question of whether or not your enterprise should deploy a mobile strategy – it is widely accepted that an always-connected workforce will soon become an industry standard and will be required for any company hoping to maintain its competitive edge. The real decisions facing you are when your company will begin to capitalize on the benefits of a mobile workforce, and how you will wirelessly enable your corporate applications.

The value of implementing a wireless strategy outweighs the risks if you carefully choose a complete wireless solution that enables your company to protect its investments by leveraging your existing enterprise infrastructure. Mobile business should not replace e-business, but rather should complement and expand the applicability of the existing infrastructure that has already been invested in by the most successful corporations.

Matt Trapani is the Executive Vice President and co-founder of Novarra Inc.