Welcome to The New ‘Mobile Stack’

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Technology managers have long referred to a business’s critical technology components as the “stack” — the layers of hardware and software required to form a holistic technology suite, from the operating system and applications to the service provider and servers.

The Internet (along with Moore’s Law) turned the traditional stack on its head — dramatically lowering costs, wiping out distance and time as barriers to information, and accelerating access to data. New products like laptop computers and cell phones demanded a technology infrastructure that could keep pace with changing devices and expectations. But even those innovations look archaic compared with what mobile ”knowledge workers” today need to do their jobs. Between the popularity and computing power of smartphones today and the surge of cloud services, the new reality is that employees expect to have access to all their data at any time, any place, on any device they choose. And that has big consequences for IT.

IT has gone from managing a highly controlled base of tools to trying to manage a far more heterogeneous mix of devices (smartphones, tablet computers, 3G/4G data cards, netbooks, tablets) running on any number of operating systems. Trying to control all these tools is becoming unnecessary: Cloud services and applications make most data accessible from any device running any OS. The mandate for IT? Shifting from old-school device management to the far more critical and strategic discipline of user management.

This new mandate — managing, enabling, and securing users’ mobile behavior — is now beginning to require its own suite of tools. However, as young and fractured as the market still is, most vendors still offer products and features that address just one part of a company’s mobile needs, rather than all of them. This à la carte approach to managing mobility means IT managers must piece together a complete stack that works for their company.

It’s a complex undertaking, given that  no two companies manage mobility the same way. Companies may embrace bring-your-own-device programs, for instance, in a spectrum of ways — or not at all. Each company has its own unique approach to acquiring, distributing, funding, managing, and outfitting its employees’ mobile devices. And every company needs different apps and levels of security.

Still, a core set of solutions has emerged, ranging from a base layer of apps geared toward basic functionality to more sophisticated productivity- and strategy-geared programs. And while there still isn’t a single “right” way to approach mobility, a new standard mobility stack is starting to take shape.

Level 1: Basic Services

The base level of the stack addresses the basic, subsistence elements of a mobile program that helps get it off the ground and keep it running. Features include:

• Procurement: Online Web portals that can handle bulk orders have become the most common way to acquire and activate new phones and tablets. This is especially useful for large organizations that onboard several hundred devices at a time.

• Inventory Tracking and Move/Add/Change/Delete (MACD): Once you have the devices, you need the ability to manage them. Management systems can track an entire fleet of devices, whether they’re corporate- or individually owned, and on several different carriers’ plans. A mobile manager should be able to easily add or delete devices from the company program, or move or change the status of other users’ devices, and keep track of any devices in reserve.

• Expense Tracking: In addition to simply tracking, activating, and de-activating mobile devices, having an expense-management solution is crucial. This is particularly important given the trend toward BYOD (bring your own device) programs, in which individual employees may have a plan under their own name, and expect a reimbursement or stipend from the employer. Mobile expense-management tools allow organizations to handle billing for thousands of lines of service.

Group 2: Risk Management

Risk-management and compliance programs are an increasingly important element of a modern mobility program, especially as more crucial and sensitive data is stored on mobile devices and in the cloud.

• Device Security: Whether through simple oversight — like leaving an iPhone sitting on a bus — or something more nefarious, like a hack or virus, the simple fact is that phones and tablets are at particular risk of losing company information. In fact, $30 billion worth of phones were lost last year. Through basic device-security measures like remote wipe, locking, password resets, or GPS tracking, companies can ensure that a lost or stolen phone can be recovered, and that sensitive information isn’t compromised.

 Data SecurityProtecting the data itself — rather than the device — has become increasingly important as more and more companies turn to cloud storage. Data-security services can encrypt important documents, establish safe “containers” for company email and network access, and set virtual boundaries outside of which company networks cannot be accessed. Desktop virtualization programs take this a step further, turning a smartphone or tablet into a thin client, which accesses a remote desktop that’s connected to a secure server.

• Disaster Recovery: In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, companies are realizing the benefit of having disaster recovery software and business-continuity services. These services offer cloud-based backup for crucial data, meaning sensitive information won’t be lost or wiped out in a natural disaster, and will be accessible to other employees through the cloud.

• Policy and Compliance: Mobile risk management software can also help codify and enforce company policies and regulations as they relate to mobility — typically setting parameters around what data can be accessed remotely by whom, and from where. Policy enforcement can protect a company’s most sensitive data from unauthorized viewing, ensures regulatory compliance (especially for government agencies), and generate reports on system-wide compliance with company policies.

Group 3: Productivity Tools

As we move toward the top of the mobile stack, programs begin to veer away from the strictly functional (acquisition, distribution, and security) and focus more on services designed to improve productivity and competitiveness. These tools enable users to do more with their mobile tools than just call, text, and check email.

• Cloud Service and Storage: This is particularly important for companies that develop their own apps: Cloud service allows company data to be stored and accessed from anywhere there is a mobile service connection or Wi-Fi. In other words, it’s the mobility behind your data. Companies can also opt for ready-made or customizable apps that already use the cloud, such as Dropbox and Salesforce programs.

• Custom App Development: Businesses today are racing to transpose the programs they use every day into mobile applications — allowing employees to truly unlock the potential of mobile computing, and fundamentally re-shape how, where, and when work gets done. Mobile application management tools help companies develop and test those apps, then deliver them to employees through either a privately constructed virtual app store or over the major vendors’ own marketplaces (like Apple iTunes and Google Play).

• Application Management: Customized app management services not only help build, deliver and update these programs, but also provide a glimpse into how users are interacting with them. They provide reporting usage rates, performance analytics and more.

Group 4: Strategy and Optimization

Finally, at the top of the stack we move away from the vital programs that make mobile programs go, and focus on more efficiency and strategy — analyzing and optimizing the entire mobile program to get the most out of it. The key is to utilize business intelligence to adjust those plans to ensure that they fit users’ needs and habits, and to use historical data to plan for changes or growth. Essentially, Phase 4 ensures that employees are deployed with an optimized portfolio of devices, the plans and options that go with them, and the apps that enable them to be productive.

• Visibility Platform: The key to tapping into the valuable data generated by hundreds or thousands of workers using mobile devices lies in having unfettered visibility. By being able to see — whether from a 30,000-foot view, or a granular, individual level — exactly how employees are interacting with these devices, mobile managers can not only extract valuable information about what processes can and should be “mobilized” immediately, but can also make real-time adjustments to the program that best fit users’ actual behavior. A tight fit eliminates wasted expenditure (unused minutes or data, overages, roaming charges) and puts users in the best position to get work done.

Todays’ enterprise mobile market resembles an alphabet soup of competing tools, all promising to deliver what your company needs to effectively manage mobility. Instead of thinking about these tools as being “better than” one another, organizations need to think about how they can work together. This is the new mobile stack.

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Top image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user Sean MacEntee. Slide images used with permission by Visage Mobile.

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