Mobile systems management maturing fast

IT workers have long been frustrated by the restrictions of having to be on call 24/7, but new mobile systems management technology is breaking those tethers

One of the most frustrating aspects of being an IT professional who is required to be on call to respond to emerging support issues has long been the lack of flexibility available to these employees when trying to balance work with their home lives.

However, with the growing maturity of wireless IT systems support applications, some managers claim that the related lifestyle issues that have pushed many a qualified professional out of the business or into other areas of work are becoming less demanding and wearisome.

The real-world scenarios facilitated by mobile remote systems management might seem trivial to business managers who see the 24/7 time demand on IT workers as something that comes with the territory.

But executives who oversee these types of employees and deal with the problems created by the need to encroach on support specialists' personal lives say that mobile support technologies are having a significant impact.

"We have one worker who owns a boat, and now he's able to reboot servers or provision passwords from out on a lake rather than being forced to sit at home with his laptop just in case something happens over the weekend," said Mark Kolodzej, vice president of IT and head of the Infrastructure Services Department for financial services giant ING Investment Management Group.

Prior to adopting mobile support applications two years ago, ING workers who were on call were required to stay at home or at least close to their broadband-connected-PCs.

Today they're allowed to be anywhere in the company's home town of Atlanta where they can use their BlackBerry devices to meet their responsibilities.

"These mobile support technologies not only allow for improved quality of life but also give us more flexibility and allow us to get better use out of out resources," Kolodzej said. "The interfaces have gotten to a point where we have workers who are close to a computer telling us they still prefer to use the handheld; I think that's a pretty strong endorsement of how much value they see in the tools."

ING is using a set of applications made by Rove (formerly known as Idokorro Mobile) that allow workers to carry out multiple types of support tasks that traditionally have been limited to full-sized computer screens, including purpose-built tools designed to integrate with the firm's existing Citrix infrastructure management technologies.

Kolodzej said that the process of adding the tools to ING's BlackBerry devices, and training workers how to use them, has been relatively pain-free.

As with any type of remote systems management application, ensuring that the entire ecosystem is properly secured is a major concern, but the back-end integration with Research In Motion's BlackBerry server VPN architecture addresses the issue completely, he said.

"For our network and server engineers, there was very little transition; the interface might be slightly different, but concepts are the same for restarting a server or service, or administration of Active Directory," he said. "Security is not really an issue as we already have the BlackBerry infrastructure in place, and our CTO and risk management team were quickly satisfied that this was a system didn't introduce any new concerns."

Rove executives contend that their business is growing rapidly with more than 4,600 enterprise customers using the tools, representing a wide array of vertical markets.

Getting more bang for the buck out of your mobile devices
In addition to allowing IT managers to give their workers more flexibility and the chance to respond to emerging problems faster, the mobile support technologies are also giving companies the ability to draw greater value from the handheld devices that they've already passed out to employees, Rove officials contend.

"We know the BlackBerry is primarily seen as an e-mail device, but this is a clear-cut opportunity for companies to defend their investments in mobile technologies by adding value in the IT department, one of the biggest cost centers today," said Paul Dumais, founder and vice president of product development at Rove.

"From large enterprises that want to un-tether IT workers from their desks to small companies that may only have a handful of support professionals, we're hearing that it hasn't been hard for people to defend the investment, especially as they hand out greater numbers of smartphone devices to their workers," he said. "People who are paying for these pricier handhelds are looking for these types of PC-like functions to validate their acquisition, and extending deployments further into IT support is a no-brainer."

Tyler Lessard, director of ISV (independent software vendor) alliances at RIM, said that mobile systems management is an area of brisk growth among enterprise BlackBerry users.

The key to Rove's success in recruiting customers, he said, has been the company's work to make its user interface mimic those offered by the desktop tools they interface with, and its focus on aligning itself with specific applications made by vendors including Citrix and Oracle.

"This is an area of rapid adoption from an applications standpoint. We have several partners in this area, but Rove has established itself as a leader because it has matured its products and allowed users to handle a number of tasks while remaining easy-to-use," Lessard said. "Partnering directly with vendors like Citrix has been an important element of this success because customers are looking for that level of integration out of the box."

Industry watchers label handheld systems management as a niche market under the larger umbrella of enterprise mobility, but at least one agreed that many companies are finding value in the tools and adopting them at a steady pace.

As wireless devices become even more powerful and are armed with more advanced mobile Web browsing technologies, mobile IT management applications should become fairly ubiquitous among business users, said Avi Greengart, analyst with market researchers Current Analysis.

"I've spoken with a number of IT managers who are already doing this, and it's become one of the stronger use cases for 3G devices inside of some companies," Greengart said. "In terms of the size of the potential market it's clearly still just a niche as you're talking about a limited number of people within any company who might use these types of tools, but for those who do manage these operations, it's a very relevant product set."