Mobile middleware extends data access

Middle East organisations that wish to arm their employees with mobile devices and give them access to information on the move need to deploy middleware platforms

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By  Peter Branton Published  April 17, 2005

Introduction|~||~||~|Let’s say you want to download a multimedia presentation that has voice, video and graphics. Over a high-speed, wired local area network (LAN) or wide area network (WAN), this would be easy. But over a low-speed connection, which is the norm in wireless, you could just end up clogging the network. To prevent this from happening, you need software that can work out a smart way of sending the data — graphics first and voice next (after compressing them, of course) — in a sequential manner. If the connection drops during data transfer, the software should ensure that the data doesn’t have to be sent all over again and that it can restart from where it left off. For this, you need mobile middleware, a piece of technology that can synchronise the data with the end-user device. In fact, mobile middleware is critical for any Middle East enterprise that wants to mobilise its workforce. What makes it indispensable to any enterprise mobile solution is the huge mismatch between corporate data and applications and the capabilities of mobile devices. Getting corporate data and applications ready for deployment in a mobile environment is a bit like getting Danny DeVito ready for a date with Kate Moss. Corporate databases and applications are fat. They need huge bandwidth to stream data around. Only mighty processors backed by gigabyte memory are suited for crunching such large data chunks. On the other hand, mobile devices such as PDAs and smartphones are slim; they have very little memory and processing power compared with desktops and notebooks. What’s more, wireless is expensive and mobile data transfer rates are nowhere near that of wired corporate networks. Then there are interoperability issues — there is usually more than one type of mobile device in use in any enterprise environment with each having its own operating systems and different hardware capabilities. Besides, mobile devices are always-on, but only occasionally connected to headquarters. This is where mobile middleware comes in. As should be evident, mobile middleware itself isn’t mobile — it sits alongside other applications within the corporate IT environment. Residing between end-user devices and traditional enterprise applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM), mobile middleware deals with issues peculiar to the mobile environment. It’s a sort of intermediary who knows how much data and what application the device can handle and accordingly prunes the data before relaying it. ||**||Definition|~||~||~|There is no one definition of mobile middleware but according to IDC, it includes server and/or client software that either extends the reach of existing IP or other mission-critical apps such as groupware, CRM, ERP and sales force automation, or offers the ability to develop new applications for mobile users that leverage a variety of wireless devices, including laptops, handhelds, interactive pagers, mobile phones, and other such devices. Put simply, mobile middleware comprises platform, front-end applications, and development tools. However, when an end user buys mobile middleware, they might get all or one depending on how the vendor classifies its offering. In the last couple of years, the technology has evolved quite a bit. The earliest versions of mobile middleware were a set of quick and dirty tools. They did little other than help cull out the data from corporate databases. The actual application was built from scratch specifically for mobile devices bypassing the existing applications. This was expensive, cumbersome and always time consuming. What was worse was that by the time someone got the application up and running, end user devices and operating systems would normally have evolved to the next level. The rapidly changing device and operating system environment was a big headache for early adopters. This continues to worry IT managers, though standards have emerged that help tackle these issues. Until a few years ago, these problems didn’t matter a whole lot because companies were trying to facilitate mobility for very few users. “These attempts were also largely confined to applications such as e-mail and contact management,” adds Hisham Talak, channel & marketing, Sybase Products, Middle East. But having experienced the benefits of a mobile workforce, companies are now taking the idea to more users. More applications too are being M-enabled, to use industry jargon. In fact, in the last couple of years, corporations the world-over and within the Middle East have begun to seriously consider making it possible for their employees to work from anywhere. According to IDC, it was in the year 2003 that companies started to allocate budgets for mobilising their workforces in a committed way. The research firm predicts the global market to reach US$1.6 billion by 2006. “With a growing number of business professionals on the road, a huge shift has occurred in the very nature of enterprise computing. The case for extending enterprise applications to mobile workers at the point of activity is compelling for many businesses,” says Ricky Watts, solutions marketing director, Motorola Networks, Europe, Middle East & Africa. Emirates Airline, for instance, has already rolled out a sales force automation application for 200 users over wireless. It plans to add another 300 users by the end of the year. A number of banks have made it possible for their customers to access account information over their mobile phones and even restaurants such as the Irish Village in Dubai have deployed mobile solutions — for waiters to take orders using PDAs. “Different industries are using mobile solutions differently… to build their own unique solutions,” says Bashar Kilani, software group manager at IBM Middle East, Egypt & Pakistan. “However, they all need mobile middleware,” he adds. Telecom carriers too are also joining the fray. As voice revenues shrink, operators are looking at ways to boost their data revenues and creating mobile services for the enterprise that have the requisite middleware can increase revenues. “Most operators have deployed some level of capability. However, they are now looking at developing services for a more seamless environment and enabling their enterprise customers with new services,” Watts confirms. ||**||Real-time|~||~||~|Mobile middleware will have to work hard to make the seamless, access all areas in real-time vision a reality. First of all, it will have to slim down corporate databases by pulling out only the relevant data or organising it in a “light” manner. This is usually done by another layer of database that forms part of the mobile middleware solution. These are extremely ‘light databases’ designed to operate in a low memory, low processing power environment. The middleware will also have to find a way to authenticate users and devices accessing the network and then, encrypt the data before transmitting it, considering how sensitive companies are about protecting their information. There’s another important function that mobile middleware performs — synchronising data between enterprise applications and end user devices. Since mobile users connect intermittently to the backend, there is a chance that data or even security settings on the device are out of sync. Therefore, it is important that once the device connects to the network, it is updated automatically. This is the way it works: when the device connects to the server, it is ‘discovered’ by the authentication software. The device configuration is immediately assessed before it is given access to the corporate database. The sync software then swings into action updating the security settings to current levels. Data too is matched and updated in the same way. Synchronisation also doubles up as a sort of push technology that refreshes content every time a user connects to the network. If you have a heterogeneous device base, you will need your mobile middleware to have transcoding technology. That is because each device may then have a different kind of monitor with varying screen sizes, graphics capabilities, and shapes. Consequently, a different amount of content can be displayed on any given device. The wide range of devices, technologies and communication channels have created a variety of optimised data formats. Transcoding technology helps transform information into the format appropriate for different mobile devices. Mobile middleware’s job description is not over yet — it also has to detect and manage the numerous devices on the network. This is important for deploying and maintaining wireless applications, especially when the number and variety of these devices is increasing. Middleware solutions such as WebSphere Everyplace Access handles device inventory, software deployment and maintenance and configuration management of device software. Such platforms also provide tools for administrators to pre-configure devices through a browser, automate software downloading, and enable rapid, over-the-air repairs. ||**||Management|~||~||~|In general, what companies are seeking are solutions that are easy to set up and manage. This shows up in different ways. On the one hand are companies implementing mobility in a limited way, say for accessing e-mail, and what they want are simple, out-of-the-box solutions. “E-mail is the most common application corporates are making mobile,” says Stuart Maugham, country manager, PalmOne. His company has tied up with Microsoft to do this in the easiest of ways. The Treo 650 smartphone has Microsoft’s ExchangeActiveSync technology built into it. This allows the phone to access Microsoft’s Exchange Server 2003, which hosts e-mail and calendar information, on the fly. Companies are also implementing a wide range of applications in the mobile environment, and what they want are complete solutions. According to a Yankee Group survey, this is driving companies towards complete solutions providers. And the solution often goes beyond just the middleware. “You need a portal to render services and personalise user experience,” says Tarek El Shahawy, technology solutions & sales consulting manager, Oracle Middle East. This is IBM, Oracle and Sybase territory. All of these software vendors have a wide range of offerings — from mobile middleware to thin databases to function-specific applications such as sales force automation. There is also a little more consensus over standards today than there has been in the past. The idea is to ensure interoperability and reduce the risk of obsolescence. “Standards is the name of the game,” says IBM’s Kilani. The issue, according to Sybase’s Talak, is whether you can integrate the mobile middleware with your enterprise applications, without modifying any of them. For this to happen, more vendors will have to switch to open standards. Looking ahead, web services could have a big impact on the architecture of mobile solutions. More companies are setting up enterprise portals, which are essentially password-protected web sites hosting corporate information. Already, customers and vendors have access to these web sites. With browsers becoming a standard in most mobile devices, mobile solutions in the future are likely to be less cumbersome. The user can just go to the company website through their browser, log in and collect information. Kilani, who refers to the phenomenon as pervasive computing, says it’s the next step. “You had centralised computing, then client-server architecture and then the internet. Pervasive computing is going to be the next big thing,” he says. Enterprises better watch out. ||**||

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