Handheld and laptop computers can be extremely handy for government employees who spend a lot of time away from the office, giving them access to back-office databases, e-mail messages and files. But they can be a nightmare for an IT staff wrestling with how to integrate the devices with an agency's infrastructure and applications.
Synchrologic Inc.'s iMobile Suite 3.3 can significantly reduce the cost and effort of deploying and managing mobile devices. It accomplishes this by combining a synchronization server with snap-in modules that run under Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Information Server Web server. Together, these components let an administrator conveniently control file and software distribution and deliver information from agency e-mail systems and databases.
Configuring iMobile is straightforward. Using the iMobile Admin Console on a Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server, we defined users and groups a quick process because iMobile Suite now recognizes Lightweight Directory Access Protocol services and Windows NT domain authorization. Next, we viewed a handheld hardware inventory, software installed on devices and available RAM. This data is captured and updated with each synchronization. Having asset information at hand helps you plan for upgrades and provide better end-user support. For example, help-desk agents can look up a user's handheld configuration, which assists during troubleshooting calls.
We then scripted software installations and upgrades. In one test, we created scripts for monochrome and color Palm III handheld units. During the next HotSync, each Palm correctly received files matched to its display type and operating system level. Significantly, the iMobile Software Distribution module transmits just those bytes that differ between existing and new files, which greatly hastened data transfers.
In much the same way, the iMobile File Distribution component allowed us to specify groups of files to be distributed to specific users and devices. We used the software's publication builder wizard to package files, and then subscribed users by selecting rules from clear drop-down lists. Mobile users can further personalize the information they receive by selecting or rejecting distribution packages that appear in iMobile Connect, a client application that runs on all the supported hardware (laptops running Windows, Palm OS devices, and handhelds or smart phones using Windows CE).
We were especially impressed that File Distribution automatically translated PC file formats, including Microsoft Word and Excel documents, into a format viewable on the Palm device during the packaging process. Important files can also be collected from your agency's mobile devices and backed up to network servers.
We also tested a recent upgrade to RealSync Server that let us connect to our Microsoft Exchange server (Lotus Notes sync is in beta testing). This element reliably kept the contact list, e-mail and appointment calendar on a Palm device up-to-date with data on the Exchange server. Further, we performed this synchronization via both a wireless connection and a networked cradle, eliminating the need for a PC to be used as a pass-through device.
Although it's more complex and therefore may require help from Synchrologic, synchroni-zation with enterprise databases can also take place during RealSync Server sessions. It took about a day to create a conduit that queried a simple SQL database and sent the results to a handheld device.
In addition, Synchrologic offers iMobile Data Synchronization (iDS) for more sophisticated needs, such as managing changes to large, distributed databases. An advantage of this more expensive option is that you don't need to code conduits; database query and update functions are available out of the box. But iDS will require a few days' extra-cost consulting help from the vendor to set up.
IT managers looking to mobilize agency applications will find that iMobile Suite provides a flexible and complete infrastructure and one that should yield a fast payback on their investment.
Mike Heck (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an InfoWorld contributing editor and manager of elec-tronic promotions at Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa.
Mike Heck (email@example.com) is an InfoWorld contributing editorand manager of elec-tronic promotions at Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa.