Wave of smart devices may drown mobile managers

Growth of mobile computing raises questions about privacy, security and the limits of wireless networks

Smart phones are becoming as powerful as PCs and as ubiquitous as the ballpoint pen. And as mobile devices proliferate and become smarter, they just as quickly become critical to an increasingly mobile workforce.

“I think mobile computing is going to be a part of our daily lives, like it or not,” said Imran Abbas, director of communications and collaboration at Force 3, a government information technology consulting company. Successful agencies will adapt to this development and not just react to it, he said. “It is being driven by the user, and IT has to embrace it.”

The potential long-term benefits are great. Tech-savvy young workers want to work in a flexible environment rather than being tied to a desk. Better broadband access and the ability to work remotely could help the government recruit and retain the best workers. Cutting the wires to a fixed office could help cut transportation costs for the worker, ease congestion in the community, and reduce real estate and utility expenses for employers. “There is a huge cost-savings factor,” Abbas said.

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But potential problems accompany the advantages. “The biggest concerns would be privacy and security,” Abbas said. Quality of service also is a concern, particularly as people use wireless devices to access critical Web-based resources and applications hosted in the cloud.

“Mobility is a challenge,” said Scott Cutler, chief operating officer of AppRiver, a software-as-a-service company that provides hosted e-mail.

SaaS is subject to the quality of a user's link, Cutler said. If that link is poor, the service will not be good. And that link typically is outside the control of the service provider and often is unmanaged. “That last mile for anybody mobile is a problem.”

The problem is that many common applications, such as e-mail, have been designed to work via a local-area network, which administrators can manage. When those applications move onto the Internet, they often encounter trouble, Cutler said. “If you can’t provide a LAN-like environment, SaaS stops working very well.”

But quality-of-service concerns have not yet slowed adoption of mobile computing. AppRiver supports 6 million mailboxes, and about 40 percent of those are for smart-phone devices, Cutler said. “That does not include laptops. It’s absolutely growing. The mobile explosion is well under way.”

A case in point is the Colorado Supreme Court. “When I started here about eight years ago, only the department head was interested in mobile computing and outside e-mail,” said Brett Corporon, the court’s systems architect. “Now, even the technophobes have embraced it. People hate e-mail, but they all want it.”

Smart Phones on the March

The lion’s share of mobile computing still occurs on laptop PCs, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Laptops consume about a gigabyte of wireless data capacity each month per user, compared with several hundred megabytes each for advanced smart phones, such as the iPhone and those using the Android operating system, according to the FCC’s national broadband plan released in March.

But the big growth is expected to come in smart phones. Gartner predicts that the number of smart phones in use globally will skyrocket from about 200 million to 1.3 billion in 2013. The FCC broadband plan cites a recent survey showing that only one-third of mobile service subscribers in this country have phones with Internet access, but that figure is expected to increase sharply during the next few years as the 67 percent of mobile subscribers who do not yet have advanced phones upgrade their service.

As existing service contracts expire during the next two years, “people are going to be faced with a decision about staying with an old-fashioned cell phone or moving to a smart phone,” said Brian Murphy, public-sector vice president of BoxTone, which manages wireless BlackBerry services for government users. A catalyst for adoption will be increased competition among advanced devices, such as the iPhone’s expected expansion from its former exclusive network, AT&T, to Verizon Wireless. The growth of Android phones and increased functionality of platforms such as the BlackBerry, which started with only e-mail access, also will spur mobile computing. New devices that depend on wireless connectivity for their functionality, such as the Apple iPad, also continue to come onto the market.

The growth in numbers and functionality is fueling a corresponding growth in wireless traffic, according to the FCC.

“Data traffic on AT&T’s mobile network, driven in part by iPhone usage, is up 5,000 percent over the past three years,” the commission’s broadband plan said. “Verizon Wireless says it, too, has recently experienced substantial data growth in its network.”

Much of this traffic is being carried by third-generation (3G) data networks, and FCC noted that most major carriers are planning for upgrades to 4G technologies, such as Long Term Evolution and WiMax.

“The next generation of mobile broadband networks will support higher data throughput rates, lower latencies and more consistent network performance throughout a cell site,” the broadband plan states.

For now, most mobile users must depend on existing 3G networks for connectivity, the enterprise networks that host the resources that users want to access, and public Wi-Fi networks. This means that no single organization has visibility into or control over the patchwork of connections that deliver critical services to users. That can lead to poor performance of those applications.

BoxTone focused on the BlackBerry initially because it was the de facto standard for mobile e-mail access in government in 2005, Murphy said. The BlackBerry still is dominant, and since 2005, the number of devices owned or used by the government has grown from about 100,000 to about 1 million. BoxTone manages them for a host of government customers, including the Environmental Protection Agency, House, Capitol Police, General Services Administration, Veterans Affairs Department and Army Corps of Engineers, in addition to numerous state and local governments.

“What is common to them is that somewhere along the line the device has moved from being an individual productivity tool to [an] agency productivity tool,” Murphy said. “The whole service quality improves by having an end-to-end service structure.”

BoxTone provides four software products that reside in an agency’s data center to manage BlackBerry use: the Incident and Performance Management module; Service Desk module; User Self-Service module; and Asset, Expense and Compliance Management module. The company is expanding its Asset, Expense and Compliance Management module to support the Apple iPhone and Android phones, and it expects to expand the rest of the suite to those platforms soon, Murphy said.

AppRiver also is addressing remote performance. The company was seeing an increase in technical support calls for its hosted e-mail service as the number of supported mobile devices increased and users were plagued with latency and packet loss via wireless links, Cutler said. The company responded to those issues by integrating the Akamai service into its offerings. The Akamai edge servers cannot eliminate the 35 percent packet loss often experienced on a wireless network, but by moving the servers delivering content closer to the user, they can minimize latency.

“With Akamai in place, it’s just retransmitted from the edge, so you are much faster,” Cutler said.

Case in Point

The results are evident at the Colorado Supreme Court, Corporon said. Even the lawyers who work at the court, a group not known for its adoption of technical innovation, depend on remote access to Outlook e-mail and calendars hosted by AppRiver.

“The attorneys live and die by the calendar,” Corporon said. “All of their data is in the Outlook cloud. If they can’t get to the calendar, I’m the first to hear about it.”

The court moved to a hosted e-mail service shortly after Corporon’s arrival eight years ago. “I inherited very old servers when I came to the job,” he said. They did not have anti-spam, anti-spyware or antivirus software. “When I started costing out the different options for the level of security and the infrastructure we needed, it was really attractive to do outsourcing.”

Having a hosted e-mail system also offered some added security with a growing number of users who remotely access their e-mail. “Remote computing is always a security issue,” he said. With a hosted system, “I don’t have to let them onto my network to get their e-mail. It creates a layer of separation that lets me sleep at night.”

But that sleep did not come easily at first. “We had a lot of problems with our connectivity with Outlook, both in the office and outside,” Corporon said.

Those problems disappeared when the court moved to AppRiver, which was using Akamai to optimize its mobile connections.

“Wireless networks are lossy and oversubscribed,” said Neil Cohen, product marketing director at Akamai. “You can’t make packet loss go away on the Internet,” but by reducing the number of hops from server to user and using redundant data streams to deliver content, it is possible to minimize the problem and improve performance.

Akamai originally built its business by establishing a global network of servers to cache and deliver Internet content, which improved performance by putting content at the edge of the Internet and near the user. That model works well with content that lends itself to caching — that is, stable content that many users access. Demand for services such as streaming video, movies and music keep the market for cached content strong, Cohen said.

But “that doesn’t work well with something like e-mail or any sort of application,” which is the kind of content often used in mobile computing, he said. The content of e-mail and other applications is dynamic, and only one user accesses it. “They don’t have the same attributes as cacheable content.”

So Akamai developed a dynamic site and application performance system that uses a real-time routing algorithm to match a user to a server. TCP connections are terminated at the edge server, and content is retrieved and delivered across the Internet to the edge server using a proprietary high-speed protocol that reduces latency and packet loss.

“We essentially are a global overlay to the Internet,” Cohen said.

After the content is at the edge server, brute force comes into play to maximize throughput over the last wireless mile to the user. Latency is reduced because the server usually is one hop away and redundant packet streams reduce the need to retransmit dropped packets. When retransmission is needed, “being able to retransmit something from the edge has a big benefit,” Cohen said.

The ability to map a user to a server also enables the delivery or filtering of content based on location. Additional security also can be provided by matching policies to the type of device being used to access resources and its location. The connection and content can be managed and requests filtered at the edge so that users on unsecured wireless links do not have access to data that should be secured. Content also can be managed so that it is displayed properly on the device, whether it is a laptop or smart phone.

Although the latest generation of technology relies on overlays and brute force to enable mobile computing, the next generation, 4G, will provide greater capacity for mobile users, which in turn is expected to generate greater demand, according to FCC.

“The rollout of advanced 4G networks using new versions of [Long Term Evolution] and WiMax technologies will also intensify the impact on mobile broadband networks,” the commission said in its broadband plan. “This will increase the range of applications and devices that can benefit from mobile broadband connectivity, generating a corresponding increase in demand for mobile broadband service from consumers, businesses, public safety, health care, education, energy and other public-sector users.”

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