Meeting the Demand for Mobile Computing

By Joe Mullich

Many users need access to company networks and data from far beyond the office. Providing it is a challenge that will grow with the demand.

Remote access to data through mobile computing is one of the fastest-growing areas in networking. For example, the market for remote access servers, routers and access concentrators used for dial-in grew from $1.1 billion in the first half of 1995 to $1.5 billion in the second half, according to research by Dataquest of San Jose, CA. And that robust growth rate only hints at the full story.

Once reserved for only a few classes of workers, mobile computing is becoming common throughout the ranks of large corporations. "Before, remote access was available to top executives, salespeople and remote support people, but the average employee did not have a remote link," says Bobbi Murphy, director and principal analyst of remote LAN and Internet access for Dataquest. "That's changing in part because of telecommuting laws, competitive and outsourcing pressures, contract workers and advances in the technology itself."

At the same time, mobile computing is becoming mission-critical, even if it's just used for electronic mail. "Many companies are now e-mail-centric, and if the system goes down, the people can't work," says Chris Andrus, director of collaborative systems in Arthur Andersen's advanced technology group consultancy in Atlanta. These circumstances are reshaping the focus of and requirements on information systems. According to Andrus, 60 percent of the total support effort of IS departments he works with now goes toward supporting modems.

"This has all put a lot more strain on IT," says Murphy. "Remote access is a complex application to support, because so many pieces are involved. This includes the software run on your computer, the modems, phone network interconnections and the applications being accessed. That lends itself to a lot of error and basic mistakes."

Mobile computing is sure to increase even more. According to the Meta Group of Stamford, CT, 50 percent of personal computers in corporations will be mobile or laptop devices by 1998, compared to 25 percent now. Dataquest's Murphy says the boom in hardwired remote access (that is, plugging a laptop into a phone line, rather than using wireless technology) can be traced to three primary trends.

The boom has been spurred also by the development of the Internet, which allows workers to routinely make calls through their office networks or Internet service providers (ISPs).

The second piece of remote access is wireless applications. Because of bandwidth constraints, wireless mobile computing tends to be for vertical and customized applications, such as companies that dispatch personnel to remote locations, like FedEx or UPS. While smaller than the boom in hardwired mobile computing, the wireless arena is growing as well.

Key Decisions

Mobile computing--and IS's response to managing it--are being spurred by consolidation of technology. Until recently, enterprises would routinely buy modems, remote access servers, routers and frame relay switches piecemeal from different vendors. "There would be racks and racks of equipment cabled up to each other in ugly configurations," says Murphy. Now, however, the direction is toward complete systems. This reduces debugging time, while saving on floor space and reducing interoperability and compatibility problems.

Supporting the systems approach to managing remote access is standardization. "The extent to which you can control what laptops, software and modems are being used in the field will make your life easier," says Murphy.

Among the first decisions for the IS department is what kind of modem support to provide to remote users, such as 19.2 kilobits per second (kbps), 38.6kbps or Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN). This choice will impact the quality of service and probably user satisfaction. For casual workers at home on the weekend, a 28.8kbps modem might be fine. However, for engineering contractors who move large files around under tight deadlines, investing in an ISDN server might make sense.

Because of the complexity of remote access, experts suggest carefully selecting a VAR or direct service organization to work with through the installation. "Defining remote access and setting up the security, the modem string, the modem pooling functionality and the firewalls can be complex," says Murphy. An IS staff that has not done this kind of installation for a large enterprise may have problems because of the long learning curve that is involved.

Learning on the fly is not recommended in this kind of environment because of the security aspects. In Murphy's view, mobile computing is "as much a policy issue as anything else." The cornerstone to a remote access plan is to decide which employees or business partners will have access, when, to what resources and how. "That sounds trivial, but you have to map individual users to individual resources, perhaps by time of day," she says.

Other key decisions to consider include how rigorous the company will be in terms of security profiles and whether to allow some remote users to have system administrator functionality. "This is a decision of what you will and won't allow," says Murphy. "Make sure the system meets security requirements but also personnel requirements. You don't want to create a system that's so secure no one can get into it."

Security is an issue that cuts across all aspects of mobile computing. "If someone has your client list on their notebook computer, you have to consider what happens if they leave the notebook in the trunk of their car and it gets stolen," says Andrus of Arthur Andersen. That raises such issues as how much information employees are allowed to carry and what standards and procedures a company needs so not just anyone with a fully configured laptop can dial into the network. "Part of this is having an open mind to say the benefits of mobility outweigh the security risks," says Dan Croft, senior vice president of marketing of Ardis Co., a subsidiary of Motorola in Lincolnshire, IL, that operates the largest wireless data communications network in the U.S.

A Solid Base

IS must keep in mind that mobile computing is intended to make it easier for remote users of it to do their jobs. Users may be less patient than those who work in the office. "The biggest thing that will cause a remote access program to fail is the slightest hint to end users that it doesn't work," says Andrus. "If the end user has to phone someone to make sure the e-mail got there, that could be the beginning of the end."

IS must take steps to head off such crises of confidence. First, that means the architecture must be sound. "It's important to test applications before they are deployed in remote applications," says Dan Merriman, an analyst with the Giga Information Group in Norwell, MA. "Unlike being on a LAN backbone, this technology will operate on a skinny communications pipeline."

At the same time, IS must prepare for user demand for remote access. "If you are too successful, it could collapse under its own weight," says Andrus. Therefore, the plan for phase two of a mobile strategy should be in place before phase one is launched. "That is really a challenge for IT," Andrus says. "Building or designing the architecture with the standards and procedures to support users down the road may not be an easy investment to justify up front, based on the initial number of users."

Mobile computing also brings up new organizational issues. Obviously, the main beneficiary of wireless mobile computing tends to be the department using the application. But the IS department that has facilitated it should make sure it gets credit for success as well. "The question is, how is IT going to be measured in terms of the benefits they provide to the organization?" says Croft of Ardis. "IT needs to have a cost/benefit analysis and be recognized for delivering greater efficiency to the organization, which is not the typical way a LAN administrator has been measured."

Care and Feeding

IS has to take into account that mobile computing can raise the frustration level of end users who don't understand its technical limitations. Rich Egan, CIO of Ringier America, a large printing company in Itasca, IL, confronted this problem when his company gave salespeople laptops that allowed them to retrieve e-mail from remote locations. The salespeople became irate because the system stored e-mail from the road in a different place than mail received in the office, preventing them from accessing all the information they wanted. "Users get lulled into believing IT can do whatever they want," says Egan.

Egan had an analyst research this problem. He even secured a white paper from the e-mail vendor explaining that the only product that could meet the salespeople's request was Lotus Notes. "We told the sales staff we had invested so much in our e-mail system and weren't going to change for this one issue," says Egan. "They didn't like it, but they accepted it." Producing that kind of hard documentation can be persuasive.

"The biggest thing to keep in mind, when you go from [having] support people in the office to [having them on] the office end of the phone line, is that huge people issues come up," says Merriman of Giga. "These people will be self-supporting, or you'll have to talk them through some complicated things. It's not the same as when you can run down the hallway, have an expert sit at the screen and try to solve the problem."

User demand has expanded in other ways, too. According to International Data Corp. (IDC) of Framingham, MA, most portable users have problems with battery life or communications and networking. But their calls for support come in at almost any hour. "Before, calls to help desks stopped at 5 p.m. when everyone went home," says Andrus. "Now, in our organization, modem use from 9 p.m. to midnight is as high as in the busiest parts of the day. People are traveling, plugging in and sending back the day's work to a remote site."

Most IS departments, according to experts, currently support mobile users with in-house people who have worked their way through the system. As these mobile applications become larger, and as companies get more comfortable with security and remote access, experts expect many of these support functions to be outsourced.

One reason for outsourcing is the idea of support seven days a week, 24 hours a day. In measuring the abilities of such vendors, Andrus suggests looking at the number of access points they supply, their fees and the simplicity of getting installed and billing. Requirements may vary depending upon who the remote access is for; employees typically will put up with more than business partners will. "My experience is if a company wants to connect to the rest of the world [its suppliers and customers], they [those suppliers and customers] want support that can be set up easily without a lot of up-front cost," Andrus says.

Going Wireless

Wireless mobile computing, though facing more technical challenges than hardwired mobile computing, is also on the rise. At the end of 1995, only 2 percent of wireless computing was used for data transmission. By 2000, that will grow to 12 percent, according to Ian Gilliot, a wireless industry analyst at IDC. One explanation is found in recent advances in software. Applications used on LANs now can be delivered wirelessly without reconfiguration on either the host application or the wireless application, says Croft. "The screen I see as a remote wireless user now has the same keystrokes and interfaces I'd see sitting in the office. In the past, users had to learn a whole new series of applications."

Wireless computing can be worth the trouble found in adopting any new technology. For example, Liebert Customer Service & Support of Worthington, OH, which provides maintenance for uninterruptible power source (UPS) units, wanted to provide its 300 field engineers with a mechanism to have realtime information. Liebert settled on a two-way Motorola radio over the Ardis network.

When a customer calls Liebert, the ticket information--providing the customer's name, contact information and problem--is relayed to a field engineer. Arriving at the customer site, the engineer can use the device to log into Liebert's network and find the customer's service history or the availability of parts. Before, the engineer had to telephone the office for this information. According to Jeff Bourn, Liebert's manager and field administrator, the pilot program revealed that an hour was shaved off each call, resulting in the company saving some 400 man-hours a day. This can be translated into improved customer service. "When a UPS has a problem in a big computer room, they need us to react immediately," Bourn says.

The biggest challenges in implementing the project, according to Bourn, were cultural. "We changed a process that people had been doing on paper for years," he says. Liebert polled the engineers to learn their computer literacy and discovered a wide range; some were power users, and some barely knew how to turn on a PC. For the day-and-a-half training sessions, Liebert aimed at the lowest common denominator.

In planning the project, IS used a cross-departmental group with input from finance, engineering, operations, administration and logistics. "The way data is captured and manipulated tied into the organization in many ways," Bourn notes. He was adamant that two full-time people be dedicated for support. The speeded-up service has become a selling point for the firm, and Liebert emphasizes to customers that the wireless coverage isn't available from everyone.

Into the Future

As noted already, remote access is a quickly changing arena. This fact forces IS to balance stopgap solutions for the present and better ones for tomorrow. "That's always going to be the case in these types of areas where you see dynamic change," says Merriman. "It's important when you lay out the technology and architectural solutions that you realize you may be putting in additional technologies and replacing things on an ongoing basis."

The biggest bottleneck in remote access today is between the user and the network, since users are limited by modem speeds. However, two emerging technologies--Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) and cable modems--may provide high-speed pipes to the home. (For more on this topic, see "Pipe Dreams" on page 20.) A cable modem is the equivalent of a large cable LAN, in which a home user shares access with neighbors and competes for bandwidth as on a regular Ethernet. Cable modems will require cable companies to make large plant upgrades to support data. Some companies are working with ADSL to provide high-speed access over phone lines. Unlike cable technology, this provides the benefits of point-to-point rather than shared communication. However, ADSL faces hurdles, too, such as determining how good the copper wires in the field are and whether suppliers can get high data speeds outside their labs.

These changes could have long-term implications for company backbones and line costs. If a company has hundreds of users connecting at 38.8kbps, what happens if they suddenly connect at five megabits per second? This may mean a company needs more servers, must install a higher-speed backbone or must rationalize resources to users. "If you are going to lock into a remote access vendor for the next five years, you should know what his plans are in this area and be flexible," says Murphy of Dataquest. "My advice is to have no religion at the moment." This challenge, like so many others, will only grow more insistent.

Joe Mullich has written for over 70 publications. He can be reached at