Building a first-rate mobile office in 5 steps

Export Development Canada, the country’s export credit agency, had about 150 “orphans” on its payroll.

These included account managers, financial advisors and accountants who traveled extensively in Canada and around the world, often spending 50 percent of more of their time working onsite with clients to arrange financing, insurance, bonds and letters of guarantee.

But once they stepped outside of the agency’s Ottawa, Ontario, headquarters they were largely cut off from its enterprise network and the network-based resources essential to their work.

“We did a situation analysis and found that the dependence on remote and mobile connectivity was the weak link,” say Dave McNulty, the agency’s telecommunications and desktop services manager.

“We didn’t have wireless enabled on mobile devices, for example, even though some of the laptops might have it. We needed more connectivity.”

Also needed were more robust and productive client hardware and software. Most of the employees were set up with a typical networked desktop PC at headquarters or a regional office. Some were assigned a laptop, and some had access to loaner laptops. But none of them had anything like the access and tools available on their desktop PCs.

EDC decided to create a true mobile office for these workers: giving them the hardware, software and connectivity via multiple network interfaces to link their work on the road and at client sites with enterprise-based applications and data.

They did it via a five-step process, which started in the fall of 2007. The first stage of the actual deployment began Mar. 17, 2008, and was completed three months later.

Almost a quarter (250) of the agency’s 1,100 employees are mobile, many of them spending more than half of their time outside of an office. Of these, 165 have been outfitted with the new mobile office platform.

Step 1 — Create a cross-disciplinary team, give them project ownership

McNulty pulled technology experts from various areas of the agency, a task force given responsibility and authority to make the mobile office a reality. Most knew each other and had previously worked together for years.

Some specialists were brought in as needed. Areas included IT infrastructure, database services, applications, the client service center, and the learning and development department.

One of their first actions was to commander a meeting room as home base. “It had a very anchoring effect, and we jelled very quickly,” says Craig Doyle, EDC’s senior network analyst and the team’s technical lead.

“Most of these folks operated behind the scenes. But this project was different. We were creating a high-visibility mobile office that would be right in the clients’ hands. That really fired them up.”

The cross-discipline team quickly identified a number of independent projects that were, without coordination, tackling various parts of the mobility problem.

These included the planned corporate desktop PC refresh, a project to support teleworkers, and a pandemic-preparation plan to enable staff to work remotely in case of an outbreak such as the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in Toronto. The team leveraged elements of these projects.

Step 2 — Know what you want to accomplish

The key criteria was that laptops, and their users, were no longer to be treated as “orphans of the enterprise network” with a subset of the features available to desktop users, Doyle says.

Instead, they were to become extensions of the enterprise, with the necessary applications, connectivity, management tools, remote control and security.

The intent was to leverage the familiarity of the desktop PC experience, McNulty says. Instead of relying on Microsoft Outlook Web Access for browser-based e-mail access, the mobile office would make use of the full laptop-based Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 client.

With the latter, when connected to EDC, users had full access to all Outlook functions and service for e-mail, contacts, calendars and tasks, including EDC’s own RSS feeds.

When disconnected, they could still be productive working with downloaded e-mail messages and the like, McNulty says. Office Outlook 2007 also enables future integration with Microsoft Office Communications Server for instant messaging, video conferencing and online presence.

Similarly, the mobile office team planned to replace Web-based access to files and folders on corporate drives with direct access.

Finally, EDC deployed Citrix Presentation Server (since rebranded as Citrix XenApp). The vendor now positions XenApp as a virtualization product line. The software lets EDC’s mobile employees work directly with server and desktop applications on the enterprise network.

Step 3 — Figure out what kind of wireless connectivity users need and how you’ll manage it

The mobile office team decided on a range of wireless options, depending on the user’s profile. Some may have only Wi-Fi, others may have Wi-Fi along with a plug-in cellular card and a tailored data plan from a mobile carrier.

“We profiled the [job] positions within EDC, so depending on your profile, this determines the mobile computing requirements,” McNulty says.

Bell Mobility offered a cellular card, the Novatel Wireless Merlin X720 ExpressCard, bundled with client software from its partner Trellia Networks, for automating and managing all forms of laptop network access, including dial-up, Ethernet, wireless LAN (WLAN) and 3G cellular. One control: the cellular cards are enabled only for use within Canada, not overseas.

Another control: the Trellia software integrates a range of the most popular VPN clients, from vendors such as Aventail, Check Point, Cisco and Nortel. “One struggle was identifying which networks belonged to EDC, which then determines if the VPN client needed to be activated. Trellia does this smoothly, it just figures it out,” Doyle says. “It allows us to maintain our security posture.”

With the Trellia Policy Manager application, IT staff can set connection policies that are enforced on the laptop automatically by the Trellia Mobility Client, without requiring decisions or actions by the users. Trellia supplants the underlying proprietary connect managers, such as Intel PROSet Wireless or Microsoft Windows Zero Configuration, and controls the various hardware interfaces directly.

For example, when a user is at an EDC office, Trellia policies can force the laptop to use the office WLAN, blocking use of the far more expensive cellular link.

A user can eject his laptop from a desktop expansion base at headquarters, shift to the corporate  WLAN, shift again to a cellular connection when they leave a building, to a VPN connection via a Wi-Fi hotspot at a coffee shop, and then back to corporate WLAN at a remote office — all automatically and with all the appropriate safeguards enabled.

“One goal was to take these decisions away from the client [the user] and make them happen automatically and seamlessly,” Doyle says.

Gartner Vice President of Mobile Computing, Ken Dulaney, is sold on products like Trellia (he’s a Trellia user), Lenovo’s ThinkVantage AccessConnections, and Ipass’ IpassConnect Mobility Manager.

“Enterprises aren’t sure they’re looking for this [kind of capability],” he says. “They don’t know how much it can benefit them. I’d say to every customer, ‘you’ve got to have this.'”
Network World blogger Craig Mathias likes the emphasis

Trellia places on automatically managing, for the enterprise, an array of complex client-specific issues.

Step 4 — Pick client hardware and software that meets the user requirements

The project team shortlisted seven laptop or tablet PCs for consideration, and gave groups of users the chance to test drive the equipment in a demo room, after which they filled out a written evaluation rating each package.

EDC decided on the HP Compaq 2710p notebook, which HP originally marketed as a tablet PC (the screen twists, converting into either tablet or notebook form factors), with a ‘downgrade’ from Windows Vista to Windows XP. “We had a lot of experience and reliability with XP,” Doyle says.

The final configuration was a custom-build from HP to meet specific EDC requirements, such as 4GB of RAM. The notebook also makes use of the HP Credential Manager for password management.

At the time, there was no option for a built-in cellular module, so EDC uses plug-in cards. Typically, each user also has built-in GPS, an encrypted USB stick and a BlackBerry smartphone or e-mail device.

The laptop software load also includes Polycom’s PVX video-conferencing software, allowing point-to-point video sessions with another notebook user or a video-conferencing room in an office. In the future, EDC plans to support IM, unified messaging software, softphones for notebook-based
VoIP calls, and other communications options.

The software selection was done by the project team, based on a list of criteria pulled from requirements set forth by users and tech support staff. The software needed to integrate with the existing infrastructure and fit with EDC’s strategic road map. The project team set up a similar kind of software test drive with users for feedback and fine tuning.

Step 5 — Train users, plan for support and evaluate

EDC simplified deployment by bringing groups of users into three-hour training sessions with the notebooks, then releasing them to their desks, which had been outfitted with a notebook docking station in place of the desktop PC.

Most of the work was done in group sessions in Ottawa, with EDC’s corporate training team taking on this job.

Overall, the sessions went well, but McNulty says feedback from users showed the IT staff tried to pack too much into the training sessions. In the future, he says, “we’ll break that up into chunks.” EDC plans to make use of Web and video training for some of that, and to supplement the in-person sessions.

A related issue was including the tech support staff in the mobile deployment. “We outfitted our support staff with these same products so they have the same equipment and software as the clients,” Doyle says. “That’s key.” This group was then able to give informed, fast,and effective help to users with problems or questions.

In a recentlly completed survey, with 95 percent of the newly mobilized employees responding, nearly all reported improved productivity and efficiency as a result of the new platform. “This is a major shift for these people: from a desktop PC to new hardware, with video, access to folders on network drivers and so on,” McNulty says.

Overall, the project to date has cost EDC about $1 million dollars.
The agency projects a net income improvement over four years in the “seven-digit range,” according to McNulty.

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