Mobile Automation lassos roaming PCs

The boom in mobile computing has severed the cord that ties many employees to their desks, a development that is generally seen as a good thing. At the same time, however, this trend presents big challenges to information technology managers.

For starters, simply keeping tabs on all of an office's notebooks and handheld computers can be a challenge. Even more daunting is the task of monitoring what software is loaded on the devices, including potentially critical security patches.

Although a number of applications are available for managing desktops — such as Computer Associates International Inc.'s Unicenter Asset Management Suite and Novell Inc.'s ZENworks — such solutions tend to best fit environments in which most or all managed desktops are physically connected to the network. Both Unicenter and ZENworks have a plethora of tools that may amount to overkill if your concern is just being able to get a handle on your mobile computers. In addition, products such as ZENworks are complex to install and configure.

Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite from Mobile Automation Inc. is one of the few products available that offers full life cycle management capabilities for most mobile devices, such as laptops, Palm Inc. handhelds, Microsoft Corp. Windows CE and Research in Motion Ltd. BlackBerry devices, as well as some smart phones.

The server-based Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite consists of four modules. The first is Mobile Discovery Manager, which makes it possible to scan the entire network of mobile systems and collect system data without user intervention.

The process begins by installing a software agent on the mobile device. Of course, doing this for each machine can be tedious, so I liked that Lifecycle Suite allowed me to publish a Web page where users can go to download the agent and install it themselves.

Once the agent is installed, it runs in the background and communicates with the Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite whenever the user is connected to the corporate network, regardless of whether the connection is physical or via a wireless or dial-up link. After a link is established, gathering hardware and software inventory is a snap, especially now that most computers have built-in Desktop Management Interface support for reporting hardware information.

Identifying software is a fairly simple process. The most common method is matching the characteristics of a program to a database of known applications. For example, data such as file name and size typically doesn't change once the program has been installed. I liked that Lifecycle Suite was able to determine and identify software patches and hot fixes for different operating systems on my test network.

The second module is the System Manager, which offers IT workers the ability to perform fast and easy software deployments and global system changes. As an added bonus, the product ships with several sample "task packages." For example, one task package automatically backed up configuration files from my test laptops, along with the registry, to unnamed files on the server. System Manager then used variables to build a name for the backup file based on a laptop's name and current date.

The process of putting together a task package is surprisingly easy. The scripting is simply a matter of daisy-chaining together a number of commonly used computer commands such as "open FTP," "upload," etc.

One of the more impressive features of Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite is its ability to to adapt to the available bandwidth when sending task packages. The software is intelligent enough to monitor network traffic on various segments to determine how much of the software pushing can be done without degrading network or client performance.

As a result, you no longer have to manually schedule a software upgrade for the middle of the night or worry whether all devices are connected during upgrade time. Adjusting to available bandwidth is also a huge benefit for remote users who connect using a dial-up account. The agent residing on a mobile device informs the Management Suite how much bandwidth it has to work with, enabling the server to manage it intelligently.

The sending of task packages can be interrupted and resumed at a later time. Of course, all of this takes place in the background, enabling users to perform their work without being interrupted.

The third module is Support Manager, which includes Web-based help-desk support services for PCs and handheld devices. As a help-desk technician, I was able to easily look up detailed system information and take control of the problem computer using Live Support remote control, which is built into the Management Suite.

Finally, the Migration Manager module enables full-scale global OS migrations across the network without any user intervention, automatically sending out and installing hard disk images to mobile systems.

I liked the fact that Migration Manager allowed me to control not only major software changes, but also detailed user-specific information such as their personal start-up menus, sounds, screen savers, fonts, etc. This module can also be used as a poor man's backup. I was able to maintain snapshots of various laptop configurations on my test network and quickly restore operating systems and all the software associated with specific users.

Even more impressive is the fact that, given the complexity of some of the IT problems Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite solves, the software is incredibly easy to install and use.

In the end, choosing a desktop management suite can be daunting. However, if you have a growing number of mobile devices, a very centralized IT department and not a lot of time to learn complicated software, then you'll want to give Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite a try.

Kvitka is a principal of an information technology and Web development company. He can be reached at andre@digitalrig.com.

REPORT CARD

Mobile Lifecycle Management Suite 5.0

Grade: A

Mobile Automation Inc.

(800) 344-1150

www.mobileautomation.com

List price is $90 per seat; server software is $9,995. Volume pricing is available. Government purchasers may qualify for a 20 percent discount from list prices.

The suite runs on all versions of Microsoft Corp. Windows 95 and above; all versions of Windows Server including Windows Server 2003; Palm Inc. OS, Pocket PC 2000 and 2002 devices, and Research in Motion Ltd. BlackBerries; and any device running Palm OS or Windows CE.

We tested the suite on a Gateway Inc. 700XL with a 2.53 GHz Intel Corp. Pentium 4 processor, 1G of RDRAM and a 120G Ultra ATA/100 7,200 RPM hard drive; a Gateway Solo 3450 laptop; and a Palm Inc. Vx handheld.

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