Mobile Enterprise Tools, Part 1: The Road Warrior’s Gun Belt

CEOs and CIOs are quick to tell their corporate superiors that today’s mobile workforce is changing. Workers are younger and nearly always on the move. This new trend toward mobility disperses a company’s workers geographically.

These mobile workers are armed with the latest arsenal of communications weaponry. Their pocket office tools enable them to carry around more company information than ever before in PDAs, smartphones, BlackBerry devices, laptop computers and so on.

To combat the increasing possibility of stolen or lost data and hardware, employers must make tough decisions to balance the need for data access against the risk of losing sensitive information.

As a result, CEOs and CIOs are beginning to swap traditional desktop configurations for centralizing desktop applications in a secure datacenter.

“More reliable and more robust security offerings are now allowing businesses to outfit their mobile employees with fewer concerns over breaches or loss of data,” Bill Jensen, product marketing manager of Check Point’s VPN-1 security line, told TechNewsWorld.

Workers that take their desks on the road must have remote access to internal resources stored on a network server, he explained. Organizations increasingly rely upon their network and Internet connectivity for multiple types of communication, including e-mail, remote access and voice services.

The Security Factor

Security concerns over mobile data must be by far the primary concern. At the same time, information must be accessible to the point that employees have constant connectivity to critical information.

Remote offices and branch locations are a critical component of modern businesses, Jensen said. They facilitate essential business functions and can be a strategic, competitive asset. For workers away from the corporate hub to be effective, branch employees must have access to the same critical business applications that their headquarters’ brethren utilize.

These applications include enterprise resource management (ERM), customer relationship management (CRM), supply chain management (SCM) and services such as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and collaboration.

This is where security factors in heavily, noted Jensen. When granting access to remote employees, it is critical for an enterprise to deploy quarantining technology to keep computers and laptops that violate network security policies from infecting the internal network when signing back in.

Enter the balancing act of security fears. If a network is secure, but slow, it is virtually useless. If it is fast but insecure, the entire business is at risk, Jensen explained. Ultimately, security and performance are codependent.

“The ability to remotely manage multiple devices simultaneously is referred to as centralized management, and it is a necessity for branch-office solutions,” Jensen warned.

Not So Fast

Not all CEOs take such a stark view on security, however. Ensuring productivity for a mobile worker or executive on the go has become a much simpler task than it once was, according to IceWeb CEO John Signorello, whose company provides hosted software applications and network infrastructure.

“The proliferation of readily available high speed broadband connections, WiFi hot spots and application-enabled smartphones and PDAs has begun to truly fulfill the promise of an office without boundaries,” stated Signorello.

He preaches that the most important communications enablers for mobile workers are voice and electronic communications such as e-mail, instant messaging and document transmission. These needs are handily met today by any number of smartphones. Devices such as the BlackBerry, Palm’s line of Treo phones or products from Motorola, Nokia and Samsung can keep today’s mobile employees in constant communications with both their companies and their client bases.

Mobile Marvels

“In short, mobile employees can, in most cases, perform all of their required work in the field armed only with a smartphone and hosted Microsoft Exchange account,” Signorello said.

The typical corporate environment feeds on Microsoft Exchange for e-mail, calendaring, contact management and collaboration software. All of Microsoft Exchange’s features, as viewed by mobile workers in MS Outlook, can be synchronized in real time to almost any mobile communications device.

This gives mobile workers an “at their desk” view of their contacts, schedules and messages, explained Signorello.

In addition, most smartphones and wireless PDAs allow full viewing and editing of documents in Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel formats and many others. Even more useful is the rich Internet browsing capability of these devices, allowing access to small-screen enabled custom Web-based applications such as inventory management and CRM, he said.

A Case History

Bradford E. Charnas, who owns Charnas Appraisal, a real estate appraisal and consulting firm in Ohio, successfully turned his business into a virtual operation using mobile devices. He is also chairman of the Board of Worldwide ERC, a relocation services industry trade group.

He converted his business to a virtual appraisal firm some time ago, with six appraisers and a couple of office administrators. All of the appraisers work out of their homes or satellite offices and communicate over the company’s hosted Web platform. The platform provides a portal for the appraisers to use, another portal for the clients and a third portal for the office administrators and Charnas.

“All any of us needs is a working Internet connection and a Web browser,” Charnas declared, noting that one of the things that ties his virtual staff to a central office geography is the fax machine.

Charnas solved the need for faxing documents without having a physical fax machine in a central office by using CallWave, a voice applications provider. CallWave provides Charnas with a voice number and a fax number, but both are “virtual” numbers. They do not connect to a specific phone line.

Manage From Anywhere

Faxes sent to the virtual number are converted to a PDF file and then attached to an e-mail. The voice number forwards to any real phone number the worker designates, be it a cell phone, hotel phone or home office landline. Charnas’ staff controls the forwarding process through the Web interface. When a call is not answered, CallWave takes a voice message, converts it to a wave file and attaches it to an e-mail for forwarding to one or more of the intended recipient’s e-mail addresses.

“What all this means is that not only do our appraisers and clients communicate with us over the Internet, the office administrators can work from anywhere, and I can run the company from anywhere,” Charnas explained.

Last year, while attending the Worldwide ERC EMEA conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Charnas managed his company’s daily activities from his hotel room with the help of a Skype Internet phone account.

Protocol Safety

Security issues no longer concern Charnas, he said. All inter-company files are moved via file transfer protocol over a secure Web platform rather than sending unsecured e-mail messages. The PDF files are also encrypted to prevent mischief on the part of the recipients.

Charnas is still amazed by the freedom and efficiencies this mobile technology has afforded his company. He went from 60 hours of clerical help per week down to 38 hours per week, handling more assignments in the process.

“The ability to take care of business no matter where in the world I am has proven priceless now that I’m traveling quite a bit on behalf of Worldwide ERC,” he said.

Mobile Enterprise Tools, Part 2: The Roadside Desktop

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