How to Avoid Problems When Wireless-Enabling Your Application Infrastructure

From installation to security issues, experts offer suggestions for adding wireless access to your enterprise.

Considering implementing wireless infrastructures from the ground up? What may cinch your project's approval is the availability of wireless middleware software from IBM Corp., Microsoft, and others, which promises to accelerate the rate at which organizations can wireless-enable existing applications.

In spite of the inexpensive price tags of wireless infrastructure equipment—wireless access points (WAP) from Cisco Systems Inc., Trapeze Networks, and others typically sell for between $400 and $1,000—organizations have been slow to roll out wireless infrastructures. The worldwide market for wireless data solutions was expected to reach just over $2 billion last year, with consumer purchases making up nearly half (48 percent) of this total, according to UK research firm Infonetics Research. Wireless revenues associated with enterprise capital expenditures were at a respectable 43 percent, but it’s fair to say that consumer shipments of wireless devices are far outstripping the enterprise and service-provider market segments in terms of volume.

Joel Conover, a principal analyst with consultancy Current Analysis Inc., cautions that it’s difficult to arrive at a one-size-fits-all price tag for the cost of rolling out a wireless infrastructure for the first time, but suggests that $60 a user is a good ballpark price for most enterprise IT organizations, along with annual maintenance charges on the order of 15 percent of the initial acquisition cost.

This isn’t to say that all organizations are spending that much, however, Conover quickly adds. If anything, he says, there’s a tendency to under-provision during the initial acquisition phase, which ends up costing organizations much more down the road. “What’s happening is people are buying into these and are seriously under-provisioning, so they’re ending up spending as much if not more down the road for subsequent investment,” he explains.

Then there are the hidden costs. The best place to put a WAP, says Conover, is in the ceiling. Logistically speaking, this presents a challenge for many IT organizations—particularly those in aging facilities or high-rise buildings, or those that share floor space with other companies. “There’s quite a bit of overhead in physical places, because a lot of places aren’t tailored for dropping in an access point in the ceiling, which is where it needs to go,” he points out.

On business or university campuses, there are other concerns. Tony Fleming, a senior network engineer with Texas Christian University (TCU), says that many of the buildings at TCU were constructed in the 1960’s. While the materials that were used were cost-effective and efficient, he notes, they weren’t exactly picked with a mind to facilitating campus-wide wireless connectivity four decades later.

“Our walls are constructed with wire mesh and plaster. These walls weaken signal strength and quality, [and] it is difficult to determine [access point] placement in these buildings,” Fleming confirms, noting that TCU is working with a services team from Hewlett-Packard Co. to help it address this problem and others.

Coverage, Coverage Everywhere

Wireless service providers such as AT&T Corp., Cingular, Sprint Corp., and Verizon are aggressively expanding their wireless data networks, touting proprietary technologies—EvDO, EDGE, CDMA x1—and promising fast anytime, anywhere access to wireless data services.

The upshot, says Peter Jarich, a senior analyst with consultancy Current Analysis Inc., is that organizations that contract with major carriers essentially enjoy nationwide coverage, although he stresses that there are still availability holes, particularly with respect to next-generation network services that support faster wireless data speeds and other features.

“A couple of years ago, it was the question of whether I was using GSM or CDMA, and regardless, the rates were 10 KB/s,” Jarich comments, noting that Verizon’s third-generation EvDO wireless data network promises speeds in the area of 300 to 400 KB/s.

Then there’s the phenomenon of the Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) hotspot. Wi-Fi hot spots are popping up in likely—and unlikely—locales. While it’s probably an exaggeration to say that they’re becoming as ubiquitous in some urban areas as graffiti, it’s no stretch to argue that there are an awful lot of Wi-Fi signals bouncing around downtown.

Wireless-enabling the Application Infrastructure

When enterprise organizations first implement wireless solutions, they’re typically supporting field service or sales force automation applications, says Letina Connelly, director of pervasive strategy solutions for IBM Corp. “In the spirit of workforce mobility, sales enablement, and field enablement, sales force automation is the one that we see as the one that’s easier to track the ROI,” she observes. “But after starting out small, they typically begin to expand their commitment [to wireless applications and infrastructure].”

Nevertheless, experts say, organizations must typically resolve a number of issues involving wireless device support, wireless security, interoperability with heterogeneous wireless networks and protocols, and—of course—the problem of adapting applications that require persistent connectivity for use with wireless devices that are often only sporadically available.

IBM and other vendors—especially players that field e-mail, instant messaging, and groupware products, such as Microsoft Corp.—have worked to tackle the device support issue. For example, says Ed Wu, technical product manager for Exchange with Microsoft Corp., his company is working with wireless device manufacturers such as Research in Motion Ltd.—which markets Blackberry wireless devices that provide access to e-mail, Web, and other data—along with PalmSource Inc. and PalmOne Inc., which develop the operating system software and hardware used with the Palm line of handhelds. One result of this collaboration is the new version of Outlook Mobile Access that ships with Microsoft’s Exchange 2003, says Wu. Outlook Mobile Access features added support for full HTML browsers, as well as i-Mode devices (such as mobile phones and PDAs) from these and other vendors.

IBM, for its part, markets a suite of offerings under the umbrella of its WebSphere Everyplace product line designed to wireless-enable existing applications, support a range of wireless devices, and facilitate seamless access across heterogeneous wireless networks and protocols.

Like other WebSphere offerings, WebSphere Everyplace functions as a middleware integration broker between back-end applications and wireless client devices. IBM officials stress that it’s non-disruptive, such that even if it’s interfacing with back-end mainframe applications, it doesn’t have to be deployed on the mainframe, nor does it require much (if any) customization to these applications, particularly if customers are just looking to provide thin client access. “In that case [with thin client access], there’s no editing to the application at all, because part of the WebSphere Everyplace technology is that it has a portal-based application under the covers, which allows you to do a thin-based application using portlets,” confirms Connelly.

WebSphere Everyplace is complemented by IBM’s WebSphere Everyplace Access, a middleware component that provides client and server functionality for wireless devices, and includes support for rich client functions. “We’re trying to build some software middleware technologies to actually take the uniqueness of the device away from the consumer, the developer or the end user, so what you do is extend the application to the middleware, and the middleware which is a client on the device understands and knows about the capabilities of the device so they don’t have to,” she explains.

IBM has also notched deals with Palm, Nokia, Symbol, and other manufacturers of wireless devices to support its WebSphere Everyplace Access middleware. Big Blue’s WebSphere Everyplace Access client also supports virtual private network (VPN) functionality, which supports seamless connectivity across a variety of different networks and protocols, such that as a user moves from a Wi-Fi hotspot at the downtown Starbucks to the wireless data network of her company’s metropolitan provider, the change happens largely or almost entirely without her knowing anything about it.

“It gives you the benefits of the virtual private network and seamless roaming, which addresses the security issues that might prevent many customers from [giving users access to] Wi-Fi hotspots,” Connelly comments.

For transaction-oriented applications, IBM also markets a middleware offering called MQ Everyplace (MQe), which helps to ensure the integrity of transactions that originate from wireless devices. “If I place an order in an order entry system, during the process of transacting the order, at some point, I’ve lost connectivity, and at that point, what is the status of the transaction, is it okay? Is it going to go through? When connectivity is restored, what happens?” she notes. “The MQe technology stores the state of the transaction when you lost connectivity, it knows what happens to the transaction, it knows how far it got to placing the order into the back end, and when connectivity is restored, either forces you to redo the transaction or continues from where it left off.”