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Ready, Set, Mobile!

Regarding BYOD, many organizations are still at the starting line

8/8/2012 4:02:39 AM | Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on mobility and the mainframe. It's based on content initially published in the SHARE President's Corner blog.

You don’t have to tell Benjamin Kus that employees feel strongly about their personal smartphones and tablets. Over his career, the chief architect of IBM Tivoli has seen prospective employees hesitate over a job offer when they learn they might have to use a company-issued BlackBerry instead of their beloved iPhone.

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend “is an area employees feel very strongly about,“ Kus says. Indeed, a growing expectation among employees is the ability to use their own devices for basic productivity tasks. Increasingly, they expect to be able to access sensitive corporate data via their smartphones.

And why not? Such flexibility improves productivity, they argue. It also, however, complicates mainframe administration processes and introduces a number of security concerns. But the trend of employees using their own devices for work is just one of many moving parts in an enterprise’s mobile operations today—and it’s not even the biggest part at that.

In its report, “IDC Predictions 2012: Competing for 2020,” IDC predicts worldwide IT spending will grow 6.9 percent year-over-year to US$1.8 trillion in 2012. As much as 20 percent of this total will be driven by smartphones, media tablets, mobile networks, social networking and big data analytics. Mobile devices alone will be a huge driver, surpassing PCs in both shipments and spending. Mobile apps, at 85 billion downloads, will generate more revenue than the mainframe market. Spending on mobile data services will also surpass spending on fixed-data services this year for the first time, IDC predicts.

Some of this activity is being driven by firms pushing the envelope in mobile computing, at least as it applies to their business models, says Charles King, principal of Pund-IT. “They are finding ways to connect big data analysis with the mobile device to better enable an employee in the field,” he says.

These efforts have led to new verticals that can’t exist without intelligent mobile technology—or at least, can’t remain competitive without it. Some examples, King says, are medical supply chain management and smart building technology.

But for all of the attention such forward-looking companies receive, these firms are in fact in the minority, says IBM’s Kus. “The truth is, many companies are still grappling with BYOD, trying to decide if they should even offer it for employees to check email, much less more sophisticated applications,” he says. This dithering at the starting line is probably the biggest bottleneck to widespread adoption of mobile productivity applications. “I talk to companies all the time that won’t allow employees to access data via their own mobile device.”

Of course many do. “There is a wide spectrum in the range of access that companies will allow,” Kus says. Some will just provide access to basic email. Others—usually via a CRM application—will pull up the location of a nearby customer, along with the individual’s recent order data, for a sales rep on the move. Generally, this access intersects with the mainframe in one of a few ways:

• An enterprise can build a website accessible to mobile devices.
• Or it can develop an app that contacts the back-end server to retrieve relevant data.

In either case, Kus says, “a company will need additional tools to protect company data when it is being accessed from an employee’s cell phone, such as authentication tools, and tools to remove data, if necessary,” as a mobile device can easily be lost or stolen. Then, IT has to make sure the app works on all devices—and all OSs.

Many other minute details are part of this process; details, that, when overlooked can cause considerable upheaval. “That is why you want to give users enterprise-grade controls and apps,” Kus says. Not surprisingly, IBM offers tools with common libraries for building mobile apps for internal use. “Even an inexperienced app author can still build in enterprise-grade security into apps with these tools,” Kus says.

If it sounds like much of the grunt work falls within the app-writing process, that’s because it does. Success or failure will largely depend on that stage, with the mainframe department staff at best playing a supporting role, says IDC analyst Jean Bozman.

Certainly, access by mobile devices affects all types of servers, including IBM System z servers, she says. However, System z technology has strong security characteristics, and it typically runs Resource Access Control Facility (RACF) software, which provides high levels of security support.

But a certain randomness is introduced when the mainframe is opened up to employees and their devices—whether these devices are company-issued or owned by the employee—or when a company develops complex apps for customers to use. That’s why, the applications themselves must be designed to support access and security features to protect the servers in the data center, Bozman says.

“Fortunately, a wide array of programming languages can be used to develop for System z, including languages that are frequently used in the open-software community, such as PHP, and enterprise Java applications,” she continues. “Alternatively, applications can be written to the middleware layer of the software stack, such as IBM WebSphere.” WebSphere software is a popular choice, she observes, as it runs on several IBM System z, UNIX servers and IBM x86 platforms.

Erika Morphy has been writing about the business impact of technology for 20 years, covering finance, mobility, transportation, the supply chain, Web 2.0, enterprise software/cloud computing, online privacy issues, identity theft and online security.

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