Many companies talk about supporting wireless working, but few are actually doing it. The reason: most are daunted by the prospect of managing the IT infrastructure required to support a mobile workforce.
They are inhibited by a myriad of factors: the complexity of wireless technologies; the additional management burdens involved; the lack of successful reference sites at other organisations; and the fact that, for many organisations, wireless workforce projects are a journey into unknown territory, often in partnership with small, untested suppliers.
Take the case of a UK-based engineering services company that wanted to provide 2,000 of its field engineers with workforce management applications on their laptops. Because of the
project’s scale, the company baulked at purchasing, deploying and managing all of the mobile infrastructure components – including networking routers, wireless connectivity cards and a cluster of high-end servers.
Instead, the company outsourced the management of the service to IT services company Computacenter. It now hosts the company’s applications and hardware, as well as providing wireless connectivity.
Outsourcing does not come cheap, however. Computacenter’s customer had to invest about £8 million in the managed mobile infrastructure service. However, according to Rob Coyne, enterprise business director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Computacenter, since rolling out the mobile workforce management applications in June 2002, the company has already significantly reduced the cost of processing jobs in the field. Moreover, Coyne says that the company will generate cost savings of £20 million from the service in its first year of deployment.
Few companies have so far outsourced the management of their mobile infrastructure to a service provider, but that is because few companies have yet made a significant investment in mobile or remote working.
“In terms of the mobile workforce, outsourcing is still a market very much in its infancy,” says Jessica Figueras, an analyst at market research company Ovum. But research analyst James Weir at market research company IDC expects to see a strong push by outsourcers – especially the IT services arms of telecommunication companies, which can offer robust wireless and fixed Internet connectivity – into the market for hosted mobile desktop applications, such as email and calendars. He adds that demand for these services will take off over the next few years, although the market for wireless application services will take longer.
Analysts expect many companies – especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with a lack of in-house IT resources and skills – to eventually outsource in large numbers the management of their mobile infrastructure to third-party service providers, such as Computacenter, telecommunications supplier BT, IBM Global Services and EDS.
“What we are starting to see, particularly among SMEs, is that companies want to purchase mobile devices, but they do not want to manage the risk,” says Sandy Aitken, a partner in IBM’s Business Consulting Services division. This risk is inherent in a broad range of activities involved in installing and managing a mobile working infrastructure, from ensuring wireless network cards are compatible with PDAs to putting in place robust data security measures.
Exacerbating this risk is the fact that mobile workforce projects typically require a huge up-front investment that no company can afford to get wrong, especially during the present IT spending downturn. The ongoing costs can be considerable, too. “It costs about €1,000 per year to support a wireless worker,” says Dale Kutnick, chairman of analyst company, the Meta Group.
The outsource option
In fact, like any IT outsourcing decision, cost and complexity will typically be the two key factors behind outsourcing a mobile workforce project. Obviously, the greater a project’s cost and complexity, the more likely a company will be to outsource.
Outsourcing will typically not be a sensible choice for companies that simply want to provide their employees with a remote dial-up connection to their intranet or email. It is likely to be more attractive for companies that want to deploy more complex mobile technologies, such as mobile customer relationship management (CRM) applications for customer service and support or salesforce automation. This is because when companies use mobile CRM applications that enable their staff to access confidential information on a database, or a content management system, there are a number of complicated issues that need to be dealt with, such as availability, data integrity and security.
Problems with network availability can hinder many mobile workforce projects. And this is where outsourcers, especially the services divisions of telecoms companies, promise to significantly improve a network’s physical reliability, such as via improved bandwidth capacity.
An additional benefit is that IT managers can offload the risk associated with managing the availability of a mobile network. For example, when a mobile worker loses their network connection and a service provider
fails to back up their data, the IT manager can point to clauses in their service level agreement and seek compensation, or at least a rapid improvement in the service.
Giving employees remote access to valuable corporate data can seriously compromise the integrity of that data. At a basic level, each time a user takes their laptop outside of their office, there is some risk that they will damage their laptops, or even mislay them in a public place – as a member of the UK government’s Ministry of Defence did when they left their laptop in a taxi in April 2001. In such cases, organisations could lose months of data or expose commercially sensitive data to a third party. To reduce this risk, outsourcers promise robust remote data back-up and recovery services.
Similarly, outsourcers aim to improve the quality of data mobile workers are able to access by taking over the complex task of synchronising wireless applications with enterprise software, such as a database.
However, security poses probably the biggest risk to any mobile infrastructure project. Many mobile technologies, including the wireless encryption standard and the wireless local area network technology (WLAN), are inherently insecure. Companies are increasingly using WLANs internally because they enable anyone with a laptop computer and a WLAN plug-in card to access the Internet at speeds of up to 11 megabits per second.
But back in 2000, two members of the Bay Area Wireless User Group in San Francisco proved how easy it was to connect to several of the city’s corporate WLAN networks. They were able to “sniff”, or view, the data on a company’s WLAN by simply pointing the antenna of an Apple Macintosh iBook computer at the 18th floor of a building, says Ron Mackintosh, CEO of systems integrator Differentis.
Analysts concur that mobile data is vulnerable. Research analyst James Weir at analyst company IDC says, “The big fear at the moment is that unauthorised users may remotely access a corporate data.”
The fact is that an IT manager can invest heavily in the security of a fixed IT infrastructure, but this work could immediately be undone by just one employee who logs onto a company’s network remotely without installing the latest antivirus software, or security patch, on their laptop.
Using an outsourcer can significantly reduce this risk, says Gus Barrett, product manager for virtual private networks and security at Telenor Business Solutions (TBS), the IT services division of Finnish telecommunications giant Telenor. To address certain security vulnerabilities, TBS’ managed service can remotely install the latest firewall and anti-virus software on each customer’s laptop, for example. TBS has staff dedicated to delivering these patches as soon as they become available, whereas most in-house IT departments do not have the resources to do so, says Barrett.
But there are many other inhibitors to in-house mobile infrastructure deployments. Organisations are also restricted – typically by a lack of bandwidth – in the type and volume of data they can send over a mobile infrastructure network. One way to mitigate this problem is by using client-, and server-side, data compression software. Outsourcers claim their data compression software services can significantly reduce a customer’s data costs. For example, Aspective’s data compression service, based on software from supplier Stampede Technologies, can reduce the cost of transmitting data over a wireless network by three-fifths, says Miles Powell, director of business development at Aspective.
Outsourcing can also help companies to simplify their relationships and contracts with multiple technology suppliers. This is because a company running their mobile infrastructure in-house will typically rely on separate SLAs with different suppliers.
Paul Roche, general manager of ebusiness at BT’s managed services division, says, “A major benefit of using a single outsourcer is that a company can have one SLA across each of their own internal departments. So instead of eight or nine departments blaming each other – they just have one [supplier’s] arse to kick.”
He adds, “For a fully outsourced service, BT offers a service level agreement of 97%”, which covers all aspects of a managed service, such as a virtual private network, systems availability and wireless connectivity, as well as the replication of data for business continuity purposes.
Undoubtedly, using a single service provider is an attractive way for certain organisations to avoid dealing with multiple small suppliers – many of which face an uncertain future. That was partly behind UK-based systems integrator Northgate Information Solutions’ (Northgate) decision to outsource a mobile workforce project to Aspective, a wireless application service provider, in early 2001.
Northgate wanted to provide its field engineers with mobile workforce management applications so that they could get real-time access to information about job parameters from their laptops. This in turn would enable them to respond more effectively the first time they visited a customer, thus potentially reducing the need for subsequent re-visits.
The company also hired Aspective to handle its complex integration requirements, which centred on linking the mobile workforce applications with Northgate’s call centre operations and service management systems.
Aspective’s service includes a detailed requirements definition, as well as the design, building and implementation of the mobile workforce management applications from iMedeon, a mobile software supplier. “We have much better visibility of what is happening in the field. I can walk into our dispatch centre, and with one glance at the dispatch screen, see how our work is progressing,” says Peter Thornton, UK field service manager at Northgate.
However, underlining the risks for organisations of running such projects themselves in-house, iMedeon was acquired by field service software specialist ViryaNet (formerly Relational Technology Systems) in February 2002 – less than one year into Northgate’s contract. Because Northgate had outsourced the project to Aspective, it was Aspective that absorbed much of the shock of this takeover on behalf of its client.
Few companies consider such risk factors when rolling out a mobile workforce project. But mitigating risk will play major role in the inevitable increase in the number of organisations that use outsourcers for their mobile workforce projects. Only once an organisation can be sure that all potential danger spots are covered can mobile working be considered by technology decision-makers to be a viable and important mechanism for boosting revenues.