Building for mobility
- By Heather Havenstein
- May 26, 2003
For many agencies, handheld applications offer potentially phenomenal productivity gains for employees in the field tackling all sorts of mission-critical tasks. Yet the devices' promise is seldom realized simply by extending traditional enterprise applications to a smaller device.
One of the most complex problems agencies face in handheld application development is tapping the mobile database to store information gathered in the field and then sharing it seamlessly with enterprise databases in the office.
Agencies must evaluate issues such as synchronizing with disparate back-end enterprise systems, managing database applications and securing the devices.
For many agencies, interoperability with back-end enterprise servers can be a key deciding factor. Although Oracle Corp.'s and Microsoft Corp.'s mobile databases work only with their own enterprise databases, Sybase Inc. and IBM Corp. are maneuvering to tap a market that craves more flexibility.
Sybase, for example, uses its MobiLink synchronization technology to synchronize data among its mobile database and those from leading enterprise relational database players such as Oracle, IBM and Microsoft on the back end.
"That flexibility allows people to keep their existing enterprise infrastructure intact and roll out mobile applications that don't impact server-side applications or any other applications that might be talking to that database," said Martyn Mallick, wireless solutions evangelist for Sybase's iAnywhere mobile solutions.
Sybase offers two mobile databases, dependent on the application being deployed to the handheld devices. Its Adaptive Server Anywhere gives users full-featured relational database functionality, including full transaction support for all the data types expected in enterprise-class systems, Mallick said.
In addition, Sybase offers its Ultralite database, an application-specific database that caters only to the functionality needed for the particular application it supports, thus providing a very fast, high-performance database with a small footprint.
As agencies deploy applications to different devices, managing the software and associated updates and enforcing security policies can be vexing. Many mobile-database vendors sell tools for handling those tasks.
For example, Sybase's Manage Anywhere Studio is a management package for handhelds designed to allow agencies to deploy applications to all mobile workers and give them updates from a central location, Mallick said.
"If there is a problem, they can do remote control of the device and correct the problem remotely," he said. "They can do asset management to know the impact of changes on remote workers. Once you've installed an image of the application on the device, if anything changes it will put it back to the proper state, [such as] reinstalling a firewall or virus protection to enforce security policy."
Compatibility with the existing enterprise infrastructure was a primary consideration for the Air Force Materiel Center at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, when officials tapped technology from IBM for a new wireless application to support logistics for the repair and maintenance of various military aircraft fleets.
One of the primary factors for the decision to use IBM's DB2 Everyplace mobile database was the ability to avoid modifying existing enterprise applications on the back end — primarily from Oracle — before deploying them to mobile devices, said Mike Neri, chief of the base's modernization systems division.
"Part of the goal was to create a model that could be exploited by the Air Force at large, making it so that we could put this out to other air logistics centers," Neri said. "I don't have to bring the programmers who are developing these applications in Oracle into the IBM world. IBM had a comprehensive solution where we didn't have to buy third-party pieces to get to the level of security and integration that we were trying to achieve."
Hill will use IBM's Wireless Enterprise Delivery Environment to provide a common development and deployment platform to support new applications such as field force automation, e-mail, asset monitoring and supply chain management, and extend those to any device across any network.
To help federal agency application developers — many of whom might not be familiar with mobile platforms — IBM includes a free tool called Mobile Application Builder with its DB2 Everyplace database to provide a visual environment featuring drag-and-drop functionality to build applications.
Additionally, IBM has added a plug-in to the mobile environment so that enterprise developers using the WebSphere Studio development environment can more easily integrate mobile development into enterprise development efforts as opposed to using separate tools, said Jay Pederson, IBM's product manager for mobile data management solutions.
Security also was paramount to the handheld project at Hill Air Force Base, which was required to meet Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 requirements for cryptography used to secure unclassified information.
"Encryption of all communications happens between our mobile database and the back-end enterprise source to make sure none of your data is exposed," Pederson said. "We really give the mobile user no real power when it comes to the enterprise. The mobile user can only talk to one thing: the synchronization server."
Protecting communications is critical, but so is protecting the handheld device itself from unauthorized use, a concern that is sometimes overlooked, said Stephen Drake, an analyst with IDC.
"What about all this mission-critical data, the corporate proprietary information on a device?" he said. "From a security perspective, the biggest thing is the idea of being able to lock down or kill the device in the event that it is lost."
Vendors are addressing the need to destroy data on mobile devices when they are lost or stolen. For example, Sybase's Manage Anywhere management package includes a feature called Zap It that can send a message to the device to erase all data. Or, the package can be used to program specific policies that require users to log on to the network and submit a password every two days. If they don't, the device will disable itself.
For its part, database giant Oracle also is focusing on easing the requirements of mobile application development via multidevice support in its Oracle9i application server and its wireless addition, on which developers write applications that access databases, said Tom Hoechst, Oracle's senior vice president for government, education and health.
"What we've tried to do is ensure that the applications they write are not dependent on the device they choose to access it with," he said. "It's important that the applications are network-centric because we don't want to write different applications for every device."
That's a goal that's likely shared by most organizations looking to develop mobile versions of their enterprise applications.
Havenstein is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.
Best practices for mobile database deployment
* When evaluating vendors for a particular application, take a broader look at their ability to meet additional agency needs for other handheld applications and to fit within your existing enterprise architecture to address the need to connect multiple devices using separate back-end systems.
* Include agency security specialists in requirements and the selection process to ensure that the handheld application meets existing security requirements.
* Include users in requirements processes and manage expectations throughout the project.
* Evaluate tools that would allow the agency to capitalize on existing developer knowledge for enterprise applications to be used on mobile devices.
* Consider tools that may be needed to manage the devices, distribute software updates and enforce agency policies.