Top 12 Considerations for Selecting Mobile Management Software Solutions

Standardization by IT is pretty easy to achieve when it comes to desktop computing platforms and back-end systems such as servers and networking equipment. After all, someone in IT is making the decisions about what to buy and from which vendors. When it comes to mobile devices, however, IT is gradually losing that level of control over end-user technology In some organizations, IT may never have had that much say in mobile solutions to begin with.

A few years ago, mobile technology for work was still very much under the control of IT (and possibly management). The executives got BlackBerrys or Windows Mobile or Palm OS devices. Like computers, they were usually purchased through IT (and even if they weren't, they were typically at least given to IT for configuration and/or to be tied to a user account).

The release of the iPhone and Android handsets, however, began chipping away at this model. Suddenly, more people began buying smartphones rather than asking for them from their employers. Although not originally focused on business use, both the iPhone and Android-powered smartphones began to find their way into offices and classrooms -- sometimes with official support from IT, but often without IT even realizing it was happening.

At the same time, a major recession began sending almost every company scrambling to do more with less money. Having users being willing to pick up the tab for both the mobile devices and the service for those devices that they were using in the office was one less cost to worry about. Thus, user-owned devices helped boost productivity while reducing the bottom line, which was a win-win for a lot of organizations.

Mobile IT dilemma: the fragmented mobile landscape

It also led to a new IT challenge: there was no longer the luxury of being able to standardize around a single type of mobile device. his meant giving up the power to easily configure, secure, and manage the devices being increasingly used for business functions and accessing or storing business data. And it isn't just smartphones that are part of this challenge. The introduction of netbooks and tablets (largely meaning Apple's iPad at this point) is leading to a broader range of devices that may be used in or out of the office.

A few years ago, the only mobile devices handling business functions and data in a large organization might have been company-owned (and IT-configured) laptops and similarly owned and managed BlackBerrys.

That same organization today could easily include netbooks running a variation of Windows, a customized version of Linux, or Android; Android phones running one of nearly a half dozen versions of Google's mobile OS from a variety of manufacturers with varying capabilities; the range of iOS devices from Apple that cover a range of OS versions and installed apps; varying releases of Windows mobile; Palm phones running either the classic Palm OS or webOS; any one of dozens of BlackBerry models and OS revisions; Symbian powered phones; and possibly even more-consumer oriented devices like T-Mobile's now defunct Sidekick.

Then there's the possibility of a half dozen or more carriers, with their different coverage areas and the fact that carriers can dictate the version of a mobile OS or updates to it as well as any customizations or skins. Needless to say, the idea of standardizing on one or two platforms really isn't much of an option, but IT will still be charged with ensuring that users can securely access needed resources and that any data they store on the device is also secure.

Third-party mobile management software solutions

The easy answer to this conundrum is to use a third-party management solution. There are a number of vendors out there providing server-based solutions that can manage the majority of common mobile platforms including BlackBerry 6, Android, iOS and legacy Windows Mobile phones (some also support managing webOS devices, which are likely to make some form of comeback following HP's acquisition of Palm).

Each management solution offers its own mix of devices it can support, the global policies that it can enforce (along with some platform-specific policies), and the types of directory systems that it can easily integrate with to offer user or container-level management. (Unsurprisingly, Active Directory is pretty much uniformly supported).

However, every solution offers at least the basics across the platforms it supports, for instance, the ability to require a passcode and the ability to remotely lock and/or wipe a lost or stolen device. Most also give you a range of management choices, but whatever the feature set, it seems clear that virtually all IT departments are going to face the need for a central management solution in one form or another.

While the cost and effort to select, purchase and implement a mobile management solution may seem like an expensive -- yet necessary -- proposition, the truth is that there is a lot of value in these products and services beyond simply meeting basic security requirements. Other benefits come from a mix of the management features as well as the monitoring and reporting functionality.

However, the true value-added options may not be immediately visible when you first recognize the need for some type of management solution. Understanding the potential for added value along with knowing the platforms you will need to support and the available solutions can help you make a much more informed choice and select a solution that will best meet your immediate management needs as well as provide for ongoing short and long term advantages.

Here are 12 salient issues to think about before you decide on any particular mobile management software products or vendors.

1. Inventory and Asset Management: One of the great benefits of most mobile device management suites is that as devices are provisioned for your environment and enrolled for management, the software will provide you with a complete inventory of mobile devices. In addition to simply letting you know the basic details -- phone and model number and carrier -- you'll also get more granular details such as firmware and OS version, installed applications and total and available storage space.

Depending on the type of device and management solution, you may have access to much more granular details, all of which can provide useful information that can be exported to other asset management tools or generate reports right from the management console. You can also set up automatic alerts and actions that can help keep you abreast of device usage and security.

2. Voice and Data Cost Reduction: A common automatic alert is one that indicates when a device is roaming internationally (for either voice or data service). This allows you to set actions to notify the user to avoid using a 3G/4G connection for data service and to limit SMS/MMS messaging and calling. In some cases, you can actually disable these features until the individual is back in his or her home country.

While preventing international roaming is a powerful cost reducer, it isn't the only way to use management options to reduce costs for users on a corporate carrier plan. Understanding usage patterns for voice calls, texting, and data can help you gauge whether you're getting the most bang for your buck with your current plan choices.

You can gain some awareness of these types of costs by simply viewing your company's bills (provided you have access to them), but managed devices can give you a more real-time perspective. Perhaps the most significant example of this benefit is when you have a third-party handling mobile management as it requires less resources for aggregating and analyzing the data. Tangoe's third-party management approach, for example, emphasizes the ability for dedicated telecom specialists to track voice and data usage across an organization and optimize the choice of plans for maximum savings without compromising coverage.

3. Awareness of Less Secure Mobile Devices: If a device isn't as secure as it could or should be, you need to know it ASAP. A lower level of security can result from an older OS version on a device (Android 1.x or iOS 3.x, for example) or it could result from users rooting or jailbreaking their devices. While either case can pose security risks, rooting or jailbreaking poses more significant dangers and may occur after the device is initially enrolled for management.

All management tools provide mechanisms that let you immediately identify the OS version of a device and whether it has been rooted or jailbroken. In the case of older versions, this allows you to setup a different set of policies and access restrictions (possibly limiting access to sensitive resources but at the same time ensuring the integrity of your environment). In the case of rooting or jailbreaking, you can immediately take actions, for instance, removing corporate data and access from the device or even wiping it completely. You can even automate the process so to minimize as much as possible any security risk.

4. Streamlined Access to Internal Resources: Whether it's setting various configurations for Wi-Fi networks and VPN access, populating mobile browser bookmarks, or creating icons for a device's homescreen that link to internal web-based applications, every management tool offers different ways for mobile users to easily access internal resources. The exact methods and even the exact resources may vary from one platform or management console to another (and from one group of users to another), but this offers a streamlined setup process -- automated as part of device enrollment. It can also earn some good will from users when they have immediate access to things like a helpdesk app or web page, departmental wikis, or other general and job-specific resources.

5. Deployment of Internal Apps: Similar to streamlining access to resources, the ability to automatically install and update in-house apps is a huge advantage. It both gives the user what they need and allows you to ensure that it is up to date.

6. Recommendations of Third-Party Apps: Even though every mobile platform has public sources for third-party applications, users may not know about apps that can help them with their daily tasks and workload. While it may not be possible with some mobile platforms to automatically install third-party apps that may be required for a job function or that may simply be useful, most solutions allow you to assemble a list of suggested apps that users can then download and install on their own. With Apple's App Store pushing 250,000 mobile apps and Google's Android Market over the 50,000 app mark, helping users find apps that help them work builds more good will (and may help you ensure that the best apps from a process or security perspective are likely to be chosen first).

7. Preventing Specific Apps: Of course, there may be some mobile apps that you simply don't want users to install or run. That decision can be based on security concerns or based on organizational policies regarding mobile devices or productivity. While there are still some limitations to what type of white lists and black lists you can create for apps on varying platforms and with different management tools, some ability generally exists in any combination. Even if limited at the moment, as both the platforms and tools continue to mature, so will the ability to restrict app usage.

8. Intelligent Provisioning: When provisioning devices with apps (internal or third-party), there may be some situations where one size doesn't fit all. Older devices (or those with older OS versions) may not be able to run certain apps well or at all. Even if the device can run a given app, it may not have the needed storage space to install it (or to store data for it after installation). Using the information gleaned about devices during enrollment or ongoing monitoring, you can structure the way you push out apps to users to ensure a quality experience.

9. Secure and Removable Data Store on Personal Devices: One challenge with user-owned devices is how to securely remove any business data when employees leave the company. When Exchange ActiveSync is used, simply revoking the user's access to Exchange will remove synced email and PIM data, but there's more to the process than that.

Using in-house apps that can also be removed remotely and/or web-apps where access can be revoked (even if the bookmark can't) is one solution. Most management consoles also include a client app that stores various forms of data.

Removing this app, which can often be done by management, can also remove business data. Thus the combined capabilities can significantly reduce the potential data risk without having to wipe the entire device. However, depending on the mobile platform and what third-party apps may have been installed, users might still have some information in the data stores of third-party apps that can't be removed without a wipe.

10. Location and Service Quality Details: While almost all mobile devices today offer some form of location services, that information is largely used by the devices themselves. Some management consoles include the ability to query location data. This can be useful in tracking down a lost device, ensuring the location and/or safety of a worker, or even in terms of identifying areas of poor carrier or Wi-Fi service -- all of which can be helpful in various capacities for users themselves, managers and IT.

11. Improved Mobile Helpdesk: Management solutions can deliver different levels of useful helpdesk capabilities. At the very least, they ensure a helpdesk agent has access to accurate and current information about a device in question when a call comes in (thus reducing call duration and user frustration). In some cases, management tools can offer remote access and management to helpdesk agents for diagnosing and resolving issues for remote users (the exact capabilities vary depending on the management solution and mobile platform, of course). If you're using an outsourced management approach, you can even have the company in charge of your management handle mobile device support for you, reducing the workload of support staff.

12. User Education: Often going hand-in-hand with helpdesk and support team success is user training and education. The more users feel empowered to proactively handle problems, try new solutions and processes, and understand the technology they use, the more ownership they take over keeping that technology working, cross-training each other, and innovating with the technology IT departments provide.

Management tools offer a number of ways to educate users directly and indirectly. Providing access to suggested apps, providing automatic alerts about voice and data overages, explaining the reasons to keep an OS up to date, providing a mobile-formatted resource site or wiki devoted to mobile technology advice and how-tos can all go a long way to empowering your users and reducing the demands on support staff. Combined with classroom-style or informal training about mobile technology that focus on the value and/or time-savings of various features, user education can also help build a sense of good will between your IT staff and user community as a whole.

Putting it all together for a better understanding of your mobile landscape

I've listed various ways that the monitoring capabilities of various management tools can be used to glean details about mobile devices in general, the apps that are installed, and when/where devices are used as well as which features are commonly used. Pulling all this information together can give you a clearer picture about how various individuals or groups of users are using mobile technology.

Having a greater understanding of the roles that devices and users are playing in your company can be beneficial in a variety of ways: which apps are most common and perhaps should be recommended to a greater cross-section of users, if there are areas of your wireless infrastructure that could be upgraded, how confident users are with various forms of communication (voice calls, texts, emails, social networks) for various tasks, whether specific types of devices seem particularly helpful to specific types of users, how often users upgrade third-party applications, how much work various users do in the office or on the road/at home.

If you integrate mobile device usage patterns with other sources of information like desktop usage of certain tools and applications; patterns of access to internal and external resources; access to specific websites, social networks, and types of media and so forth, you can build a clearer idea of general work patterns that can be used in longer term planning, future product selection, refining helpdesk operations, and more targeted training.

All together, understanding the users and departments of your organization allows you to be more proactive and responsive to their needs in both support and training/education perspectives (always a plus for IT) and to be more innovative in integrating IT with business decisions and projects that aren't strictly technology related (something that a growing number of analysts and observers are now viewing as a core need for IT success).

While I've highlighted the potential advantages that can apply to a wide combination of mobile platforms and management systems, you'll need to look at your particular organization, its usage tendencies and potential, and the mix of devices that you expect to support to make your final choice.


Android, iPhone, mobile IT, mobile management, mobile management software