Buyer's Guide: 5 Key Considerations for Mobile Management Software

Used to be, mobile device management meant mobile IT had to oversee laptops, wireless network security, mobile Internet connections, the occasional use of mobile VoIP and BlackBerry applications, or maybe a fleet of ruggedized handhelds using RFID.

Now, that's all changed.

The use of employee -owned smartphones in the enterprise has exploded over that last couple of years, thanks -- to a large extent -- to the success of the iPhone. In total, the number of employee-liable devices used in enterprises quadrupled during 2008 according to research from Aberdeen Group.

This growth shows no sign of slowing: the latest figures from Strategy Analytics found smartphone sales worldwide in the final quarter of 2009 were up 30 percent year-on-year with Nokia, Research In Motion (RIM) and Apple the big winners.

Part of the reason for the huge growth in employee-liable device use is that it has been encouraged by many organizations who see it as a cost-effective way of propagating mobility. These enterprises also want to take advantage of the productivity benefits that this increased mobility can bring, according to Andrew Borg, senior research analyst at Aberdeen. But in order to realize these benefits, Borg said, this heterogeneous fleet of mobile devices needs to be controlled, monitored and managed.

To do this effectively, organizations need a mobility management system of some form or another, either run in-house, or accessed as a service. The good news is that there is no shortage of choice, with very strong offerings from relatively unknown companies such as MobileIron, BoxTone, Zenprise and Good Technology, as well as products from more recognizable names such as Sybase, Microsoft and RIM. Additionally, there's white-labeled products from the international carriers.

The problem then is not where to find a mobility management system, but how to choose the most appropriate one for your organization's needs. Selecting one is made harder by the fact that the market is changing so quickly -- with each vendor adding features and functionality on a regular basis -- as the number of mobile platforms keeps expanding.

To help you assess the market, here are five questions that you need to ask any vendor:

1. What mobile platforms will you support?

This is a deceptively simple question. If you were planning on running a homogeneous mobile environment, using just Microsoft Windows mobile phones or Blackberrys, then there would be some obvious solutions, such as Microsoft's System Center Mobile Device Manager or Blackberry Enterprise Server. But if the use of employee-liable phones is to be allowed or encouraged, then any management platform has to support the mobile devices employees want to buy.

Most vendors see providing support for the iPhone as a necessity, but attitudes vary on whether or not to support platforms such as Nokia's Symbian, Google's Android and Palm's webOS. Adding support for Android appears to be a priority for many vendors, but many only plan to add WebOS support if the platform proves to be a success. It's also important to ask about support for netbooks, laptops, and even Apple's recently-announced iPad.

2. How much mobile device management control does the platform offer?

Mobility management goes well beyond device control, but device control is a key requirement of mobility management. That means that any system under consideration must include remote device lock and wipe for all the platforms it supports as a bare minimum. So, the purpose of the question is to find out how far beyond this the platform's capabilities extend.

The ability to maintain a desired level of security while permitting a wide range of employee-liable devices depends to a large extent on the ability to impose security policies on the devices themselves. These may range from password length and complexity requirements, to forcing on-device encryption, to the ability to disable certain device features such as Bluetooth or the built-in camera. It's important to establish how extensive these policy options are, and whether they are identical for all supported mobile platforms.

The system will also be required to monitor and control device access to your corporate network, so a vital question to ask is what level of access control it offers. Can it work with existing Network Access Control (NAC) systems, for example, and can it be used by itself to give different users different levels of access?

3. What kind of device support facilities, if any, are included?

Support costs are bound to increase as the number of mobile device platforms and models an organization supports goes up. If support is not provided effectively, then employee productivity will drop -- clearly it's hard to get work done in a mobile office if your mobile device isn't working.

Mobile management software can make it easier to support multiple mobile platforms in a cost-effective manner in a number of ways. These include enabling help-desk staff to carry out support by accessing devices remotely, providing users with access to self-service knowledge bases, or even automated systems to diagnose and correct common problems. "Obviously buying all these services has a cost, but actually it costs more when you don't have them," said Borg.

TAGS:

mobile computing, mobile device management, mobile management, mobile enterprise, mobile management software
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