Mobile Apps for Enterprise IT

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (a very thick rock perhaps built of wireless signal blocking steel-reinforced concrete), you’ve noticed a recent explosion in the number of mobile apps. While most apps are targeted directly at consumers, many enterprises are beginning to see value in custom developed apps designed to increase employee productivity.

According to Gartner, mobile phone vendors are on track to sell 1.4 billion devices this year, after selling more than 2.4 billion in 2008 and 2009 combined. The writing is on the wall that at some future point more people will access the Internet via mobile devices than desktops and laptops. As smartphones go, Blackberries and iPhones lead the way followed closely by those powered by PalmOS, Windows Mobile, and Google Android.

With everyone wanting everything everywhere all the time, the task of providing it (or at least managing it) falls on the IT department. You’re already dealing with increased demand for mobile devices and apps.

Let’s step back from this issue for just a second and shift focus away from designing, developing, testing, and deploying enterprise mobile apps and towards the question that is burning in every IT manager’s mind: What’s in it for me? In other words, stop thinking about your users and start thinking about yourself. How can mobile apps make it easier for you and your staff to do your jobs?

There are a few examples I can use to answer this and I’ll draw upon my own experiences for perspective. Many, many years ago (5 I think), I was presented with a Nokia N800, essentially a small mobile device like an Internet tablet that ran Linux and therefore was, in contrast to just about every other mobile device on the market, an open system. I promptly loaded it with everything a good geek might want: VPN client, SSH, RDP, VNC, FTP, even fun tools like WLAN scanners, NMAP, a tiny Web server, and a dynamic DNS client.

My monitored systems (servers, applications, and network devices) could alert me via email, SMS, or SNMP and I could VPN back into the datacenter, diagnose and fix almost any problem. After adding a telnet and Web accessible power distribution unit, I could cycle power to crashed systems and fix even more problems … No more driving a half hour to the office on Saturday afternoon to reset a crashed server!

There’s always the option of creating your own management application and/or portal to be accessed from your smartphone. If the console you are trying to “mobilize” has a fully HTML compliant Web portal, then chances are you can simply use access that from your mobile device.

There are also applications available for download, although I was surprised at how difficult they are to find. Apparently the market for an iPhone app that farts and belches is infinitely greater than the market for an app that might actually help someone do their job. A large part of the problem in finding a systems management app is simply finding an app — meaning there are very few out there to begin with and the ones that are there are buried below hundreds of other apps in an app store. A large enterprise with custom management platforms may want to simply build their own.

The Apple iTunes store offers an application called WinAdmin which is essentially an RDP application for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. This allows Windows systems administrators to create a list of servers and then pick a server they want to connect to. From there the administrator has full remote console access. A server can be inspected, reconfigured, restarted, or more. Other RDP clients for the Apple platform include iTap RDP Client and RDP Client Lite. It may be worth nothing that if RDP is what you really want, then Windows Mobile has a built in RDP client.

On the Blackberry side there’s TSMobile, a terminal services client, and Citrix Receiver, a remote Citrix client. PaderSyncSSH adds remote access via terminal emulation over SSH. I find RIM’s remote access and VPN solution substandard as it relies on BES and isn’t open, but many enterprises allow their BlackBerry users remote access in this manner.

There are some really good tools that run on or are accessible by both platforms:

  • ROVE Mobile Admin provides real time monitoring, remote access, and incident management features.
  • ZOHO Corp.’s ManageEngine software focuses on network performance management, IT service desk processes, and desktop management.
  • SolarWinds provides network management software and network monitoring tools; they offer 16 free tools on their web site with a clever enticement for you to “collect all 16 now”; and
  • Ipswitch WhatsUpGold, one of my favorites, provides a browser based GUI, a Windows Console, and mobile access to core network management and reporting features.

Administrators who have already invested significantly in network and server management software, such as BMC Remedy or CA Unicenter, may be pleased to discover that some built-in features as well as some add-ons to ease the path towards mobile management. However, monolithic enterprise software vendors have been slow in general to embrace the mobile market and systems management apps are no exception.

For example, BMC has a partnership with Aeroprise to provide software that allows users to run the BMC Remedy IT Service Management suite on BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices. This allows help desk staff to manage trouble tickets and IT managers to review change requests and monitor system performance.

There are also vendor specific infrastructure management tools that frequently have a Web interface. These applications, including IBM Director Remote Deployment Manager, HP ProLiant Onboard Administrator, Dell OpenManage, and Sun (now Oracle, course)Remote System Control, can be accessed (more or less) from a smartphone.

Someday, my systems managing brethren, we will be able to sit on the beach in Hawaii while load-balancing virtual machines in a data center in New York City. If you bring the sunscreen I’ll bring the whiskey and the BBQ!

Matt Sarrel is executive director of Sarrel Group, a technology product test lab, editorial services and consulting practice specializing in gathering and leveraging competitive intelligence. He has over 20 years of experience in IT and focuses on high-speed large scale networking, information security, and enterprise storage and is a proud member of a competitive BBQ team (All You Need is Rub). E-mail [email protected], Twitter: @msarrel.