Rich client redux

Action Engine bolsters the wireless experience by bringing Web services to mobile devices

CONVINCING THE PUBLIC of the value proposition of wireless applications has been an uphill battle for telecom carriers. Enterprises also have found difficulty in rolling out meaningful wireless apps in all but the simplest deployments due to the impediments of wireless and dumb devices.

Although bandwidth improvements may not be making a dramatic staging anytime soon, wireless devices are getting smarter. And it is on this front that Action Engine aims to seize the advantage.

Action Engine Mobile Web Services Platform 2.5 is a standards-based infrastructure for wireless Web services deployment that is following in the path of rich Internet applications. (See " Building a better browser ".)

The platform comprises a comprehensive server-side framework for aggregating and managing Web services-derived content and applications. In addition, a number of utilities and applications perform functions such as mobile device backup, usage accounting, and remote application management to enable better administration of devices in the field.

On the user-side, Action Engine smartens up the wireless experience by installing a fat client application onto the wireless device, rather than relying on simple browser-based interaction. By pushing the processing load onto the device and using a localized database, more data is kept in hand, reducing the typical flurry of server calls seen in browser-based Pocket IE transactions.

Although the product currently supports only Pocket PC 2002 and Smartphone 2002 -- a potentially limiting detractor for some -- support for Symbian and Palm is in the works.

And while we were slightly disappointed by the lacking development tools, we found Action Engine to be a solid infrastructure aimed at enriching the wireless experience.

Action Engine is a Java-and Microsoft-based solution, requiring Windows AS, SQL 2000, and Sun HotSpot Server to run its back-end engine, Web services, and communications routing between mobile devices and core system.

A variety of subsystems comprise the platform, including the dispatcher responsible for routing messages via MSMQ (Microsoft Message Queuing), sundry databases (accounting, content cache, application stats, etc.), a caching engine, and a synchronization engine that keeps it all in step.

Action Engine's XML parser and Web services layer facilitate content aggregation, enabling it to cull content from any Web services-compliant data source or in-house system. Web services can be built and deployed relatively easily for a carrier or enterprise to integrate new vendors and content providers into its stable of content and application offerings.

The smart mobile device also gets an update with the installation of a client application of modest footprint. A local XML parser, database, and processing engine are installed to facilitate application execution, XSLT (XSL Transformations) rendering, and communication and synchronization with the Action Engine platform.Communication between the wireless devices and the Action Engine server are compressed and encrypted (using GZIP and HTTPS/SSL respectively) to increase throughput and enforce security. Key strength can be customized to suit the requirements of carrier and application.

Store-and-forward provisions enable the user to work with an application or prepare a series of forms offline, storing them locally. At the next wireless sign on, or PC docking, the device re-syncs with the server and the data is exchanged, setting a request into motion or sending an e-mail, for example.

"> Although we would have preferred to see a broader availability in OS choices and closer integration of .Net features such as C#, we found the architecture and Action Engine framework to stack up as a solid offering.

Additional provisions in the platform for features such as location-based and predictive response data further enrich the infrastructure.

Action Engine sports an average first attempt at a software development kit. With requisite development server and Pocket PC emulator, the SDK would benefit from tools, graphical or otherwise, to streamline the development process.

However, the Java API and XML syntax structure provided everything we needed to begin authoring transactional applications, manipulate XML objects, and take full advantage of client-side resources. Although setup of the extensive system requirements is an involved process, we found the resulting system architecture, with its capacity for fail-over and redundancy, a vital necessity for carrier-grade performance requirements. All told, we found the experience a straightforward one that should present no challenge to seasoned developers.

Most impressive was the solid, Web-based interface for monitoring and administering the Action Engine framework as well as the mobile device clients. Everything from application provisioning and rollout to device SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) and UID (User ID) can be configured and reported. A clean, accessible interface for functions such as customer management, device support, and provisioning makes easy work of getting help desks and new customers up to speed quickly.

Providing facilities for detailed monitoring and detailed reporting of system usage, the solid reporting engine gives carriers the opportunity to adopt a broad variety of revenue models and billing by multiple criteria.

From a customer's perspective, the available PC-based client provides alternatives to system interact, and wireless devices can be backed up wirelessly or while docked to a landline. Action Engine touts several value added utilities to augment the offering: Action Update, Backup, and Lock.

Action Update enables administrators to push applications to the client device using fully scripted installation routines that save time and ensure consistency in deployment. Action Backup offers users a flexible scheme for storing and restoring client-side files and applications either on demand or at predetermined intervals.

And, remote management is facilitated via the Action Lock utility, allowing administrators to securely manipulate devices remotely. What we found most beneficial in this utility was the capability of physically locking and erasing a device, rendering it useless and protecting the security of the data in the event of theft.

In all, three very useful utilities that can be easily leveraged to improve administration efforts and add value to the customer as well.

Although a relatively seamless and well-orchestrated solution, a roll out of Action Engine should be accompanied with expectations for lots of development elbow grease.

Beyond several basic applications incorporating Sabre travel functionality, NNTP, and database connectivity, Action Engine still lacks a large library of prefabricated plug-ins to directly adapt existing enterprise systems, such as SFA or CRM. Notably, however, Action Engine is reacting to customer needs and says it is finalizing work on several applications for Siebel Systems and SAP environments that should eventually help ease integration efforts.

In the meantime, Action Engine makes a smart choice for companies and carriers looking to capitalize on wireless apps to attract and retain customers, improve efficiency, and achieve that seemingly elusive ROI in the mobile Internet.

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