CIOs Still Concerned by Wireless Standards, Security

Enterprise buying decisions on wireless technologies are still hampered by security concerns and a lack of standardization, panelists at a CIO/CTO panel on unlocking enterprise mobility said at the CeBIT America show in New York City Thursday afternoon.

“We believe that there is tremendous opportunity, there just hasn’t been enough investment in the standardization of the infrastructure,” said Martin P. Colburn, CTO and executive vice president of private-sector financial regulatory services provider NASD.

Colburn noted that availability remains a large concern, restricting NASD’s utilization of wireless technology to applications that are not time sensitive and do not require real-time transactions. Security considerations are also an issue.

“We would not connect the markets to these devices,” he said.

Currently, Colburn said NASD is using wireless for office automation applications, as transport for e-mail or documents like spreadsheets, which are not time sensitive.

But the upside of going mobile remains high, particularly in enterprises that rely on large numbers of mobile workers. Trucking and transport logistics company Schneider National, which operates a fleet of 15,000 tractors and 45,000 trailers, realized that early on, when it turned to a then little-known company in the late 1980s to outfit its tractor fleet with two-way data connections through a geosynchronous satellite.

“Wireless is a critical technology for us,” said Paul Mueller, vice president, Tech Services, of Schneider National. “We were Qualcomm’s first customer.”

By putting wireless technology in its tractors, the firm was able to streamline communications with its drivers, improve dispatch processes, and track its fleet. Mueller said that when the company made the decision to equip its tractors with the technology, there was little historical information available with which to quantify the potential return on investment. However, it was clear that the old way of doing things was inefficient at best, because the drivers would line up at payphones in truck stops to communicate with headquarters. The technology allowed the company to implement an automated dispatch cycle which allows it to send new dispatches and directions to drivers instantly, and get real-time updates on when shipments are picked up and when they are delivered.

But now the firm is looking to add tracking technology to its fleet of trailers, and that is proving to be more of a headache. The ROI case is much clearer this time, as the company has been able to rely on its 15 years of experience with its trailers. But over the past few years it has settled on several different technologies, only to have the supplier pull the product from the market or go belly-up.

“You’re going to be in a one-off product until you get some standardization,” Colburn said. He added, “There’s a tremendous amount of heterogeneity out there.” Without some sort of standardization, he said, organizations will be locked into a particular vendor and at the mercy of any difficulties it may experience.

Mueller also noted that coverage remains an issue. “We care about the North American road network and rail network,” he said. “There is a significant lack of coverage.”

From this experience, Mueller said he has drawn the lesson that it is essential to abstract the technology from the business process when selecting a new technology, allowing the technology to come and go while the process remains fundamentally the same.

“We’re going to see the technology iterate and evolve over time,” he said. “We have to abstract the technology from the business process. Fundamentally, what we’re after is the data.”

Chris McMahon, CIO of Wireless Retail, a firm that retails cell phones and satellite technologies, added that the technology has to be made easier for the mass market to use.

“The connectivity of a PDA to the Internet is still not seamless,” he said. “For mass adoption, it has to be seamless.”

Wireless Retail uses the technology to push a snapshot of each day’s business (gathered through point-of-sale systems) to company executives and managers as a text message.

Meanwhile, firms implementing wireless technology to give mobile employees access to the back-end have to carefully balance ease-of-use for employees with security, McMahon said.

McMahon said VPN is probably the best way at the moment to secure wireless transactions, but the problem is that firms must balance making it easy for non-technical employees to connect via VPN against making it too easy for outsiders to access back-end systems.