ClairMail makes mobile app access easy as e-mail

ClairAccess provides one-click remote entry into enterprise systems -- without recoding

Sure, it’s possible to rewrite applications and user interfaces to run on smartphones or PDAs. Unfortunately, however, rewritten apps often result in click-heavy, unintuitive navigation and code that sucks up a mobile device’s limited memory when your salespeople, service staff, and customers just want simple access to data.

That last point is something ClairMail understands -- and its ClairAccess 2.2 platform provides a clever solution. From any mobile device, users simply send an e-mail to a particular address with their query in the subject line. The ClairAccess appliance (a 1U Linux-based server) receives this request and runs a script that executes an action. This script accomplishes almost anything, from retrieving information from several back-office applications to updating a database record. Finally, a response is prepared with the requested information and returned to the mobile user.

This is a good approach for several reasons. Users don’t need to load software on their mobile devices, and the IT staff isn’t burdened with onerous reworking of desktop applications to shoehorn them into mobile devices.

I found that ClairAccess succeeds where more complex mobile application access methods have generally failed. In my testing, I used the company’s hosted service to gather data from, and update, a account. I also used the service with a Palm Treo 600 and HP iPAQ 6315 Pocket PC to search Google and interact with other public services. Moreover, I crawled under the system to inspect its technology and security.

Request and Retrieval

For end-users, ClairAccess’ hosted service requires little setup and no training. Requests for information (called ClairActions) are nothing more than descriptive e-mail references placed in your address book. For example, I sent an e-mail to “cmSFAccountInfo” along with a client name in the subject field. The ClairMail server retrieved the client data from and responded almost instantly with the account details in its e-mail reply. To test more elaborate interaction, I entered text in the message body to log my meeting note, then sent it off; the details were saved to the system without any problem.

The same general scenario works for retrieving information from other ClairMail partner sites, including Hoovers and Dow Jones VentureSource (separate subscriptions required). ClairMail also maintains strategic partnerships with Caneum, HP, Seven, and RIM.

As an alternative to the hosted service, organizations can place ClairAccess appliances on premises, providing a mobile gateway to enterprise systems. ClairMail offers prebuilt scripts (Clair Productivity Packs) for accessing 20 popular enterprise applications, including Siebel, SAP, and BMC Software’s Remedy Help Desk. ClairMail’s staff implements the scripts to connect your systems to ClairMail, a process that typically takes a few days to a week. In both hosted and in-house solutions, your organization’s administrators have basic access to the system to maintain user accounts and view logs for troubleshooting.

Currently, you must rely on ClairMail to do all setup, implementation, and customization under a professional services contract. ClairAccess officials note that most customers don’t want to bother with implementation processes, which is a valid argument. But knowing the IT shops in large companies, I think they would like to have more control over the system, and I’m glad to see that a developer’s edition will be available later this year. This version will let your workers (with common Perl or Java experience) tweak scripts and integrate ClairAccess to custom applications.

Although I couldn’t try any hands-on development with ClairAccess 2.2, I did examine the system’s architecture and determined that there is scriptable access to practically any application. A WSDL Connector handles Web services; the HTML Connector forms the conduit to Web applications; ClairMail’s UI Connector is available for custom client applications; and the API Connector processes requests to application servers. With this flexibility -- and after speaking with several large ClairMail customers -- I see ClairMail being able to satisfy SLAs quickly and at a reasonable cost.

Mobile Modularity

The system’s modular architecture appears secure and solid. For example, the appliance has a standard Service Guard module to protect against intrusion attempts and denial-of-service attacks, and it has anti-spam protection. As such, ClairMail becomes a front-line malware defense before requests even get to your Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes, or Novell Groupware server.

A big part of the system’s usability stems from a single sign-on approach. Each user profile holds encrypted credentials for accessing various enterprise apps. When an e-mail request is received, ClairAccess verifies the requester’s identity, handles all the offstage application communications, and responds to the e-mail of record.

Moreover, actual messages are encrypted with either 3DES or AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). I was also pleased to see additional security options, such as second-factor authentication, that are useful when you need to authorize text banking or other sensitive transactions.

Today’s mobile devices are still relatively limited in terms of applications, but wireless e-mail is the one exception -- it’s an app that is well-suited to a mobile workforce. By taking advantage of this, ClairMail ClairAccess does a good job of improving app access; it should help a company with a lot of mobile workers quickly solve several business problems, from boosting sales efficiency to giving on-the-go customers access to help desk and financial applications.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Features (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Management (20.0%)
Scalability (10.0%)
Security (20.0%)
Implementation (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
ClairMail ClairAccess 2.2 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.6