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9/22/2003
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Tech Guide: Desktops On The Go

Key standards and inexpensive hardware make it easier than ever to add wireless access to employee PCs

Tech GuideIs it time to add wireless access to your employees' desktops? Such a loaded question is inevitably answered with some head shaking and hand wringing from business-technology managers. For some, wireless has been a priority since the early 1990s. Shipping-fulfillment companies such as FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. were early adopters of wireless technologies for their employees, and other businesses have found success using wireless for sales-force automation. But even for companies without a strategic need–-without a single application around which to rally a wireless strategy--wireless technologies can still offer modest productivity gains that are worthwhile.

"We offered wireless access because there's been a demand from our physicians and other staff to have a more-convenient way to access their E-mail and schedules without always having to go to a PC," says Dedra Cantrell, CIO of Emory Healthcare, a series of health-care facilities and part of Emory University. Cantrell's pilot program at Emory could eventually give 750 physicians access to E-mail and patient schedules from almost any urban area of the United States using Verizon Wireless' CDMA network.

The system uses readily available standards such as the Wireless Application Protocol and the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security standard and messaging middleware provided by Air2Web Inc. to let physicians using wireless handsets retrieve E-mail from Emory's Novell Groupwise servers. Cantrell has been able to craft a system that's inexpensive and secure. "We don't have to pay for the huge setup cost of putting an infrastructure in place," she says. "We pay a license fee to Air2Web and then pay Verizon for cellular minutes. This gives us the flexibility of letting each department budget according to their individual needs."

While some companies have put off wireless deployments because of cost or security concerns, many companies are already realizing gains from the use of cell phones, PDAs, and BlackBerry devices to reach into E-mail, Web sites, and voice-enabled data repositories. The widespread use of these devices is driving a desire for even more mobility and greater access to data and services that traditionally are available only from an employee's desktop.

"We knew there was a need for wireless in our business, but we wanted to wait for our attorneys to come to us and tell us what they needed," says Chris Wenzel, an application analyst with law firm KMZ Rosenman. The firm has put together a system using Synchrologic Inc.'s wireless middleware so its 600 attorneys can access their desktop data from Exchange Server using the wireless device and carrier of their choice. The system, which essentially extends a Web application to wireless devices, works with any device that has a Web browser capable of rendering the HTML and using SSL.

The "mobile office," the deployment of wireless technologies to provide employees with access to back-office application data and services regardless of location, is more attainable than ever thanks to agreement on key wireless standards and the declining costs of standardized hardware.

"Giving our employees wireless mobility would help our data reporting," says Edward Tice, a production scheduler and IT manager for Allied Tube & Conduit Corp. Tice is investigating deploying 802.11 wireless standards for some of Allied's workers. "Employees could enter production data directly from the mills, so we would get the data back in the office more quickly," he says.

Businesses considering augmenting the computing power in an employee's desktop PC with wireless technology have several technology choices to make. Integrating mobility with existing IT infrastructure is no trivial task. Businesses must consider how to enforce existing security policies across wireless devices and how to integrate wireless standards across existing systems.

There are three key elements to deploying wireless in the enterprise. First is the mobile device choice, whether it's a PDA, a laptop, or a cell phone. Just like choosing a desktop operating system, a mobile device is a platform choice. Next is the choice of network design. That might include anything from Bluetooth, on the very short-range end, all the way up to wide area cellular carriers. A third consideration is wireless security issues, including link-level security and authentication.

For many wireless deployments, security may involve middleware that sometimes is referred to as messaging or synchronization servers. These boxes are often used as a bridge to take incoming wireless requests for data and make the appropriate queries on back-end systems. While a number of vendors offer such messaging servers, including Aether Systems, Air2Web, and Synchrologic, the industry trend is toward integration of messaging middleware into essential back-end services such as groupware servers. Microsoft's Outlook Mobile Access on Exchange 2003 and IBM's Lotus with Everyplace Server on Domino 6.5 are examples. "We'll definitely see messaging functionality integrated tightly into core server [operating-system] and application-server platforms, along the lines of how Web/HTTP server functionality is integrated tightly into enterprise application servers nowadays," Burton Group senior analyst James Kobielus says. Microsoft plans to integrate messaging middleware into the Windows Longhorn release, and it appears likely that other operating system vendors will follow suit.

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