Golden retrieval

When Nerds on Site Inc. relied on stand-alone software on its mobile employees’ notebook computers, people often worked with different data, says Loralee Wettlaufer, the London, Ont.-based computer service company’s chief administrative officer. So Nerds on Site created a home-grown application for

field service staff, allowing them to retrieve work orders and send information on clients and service calls back to head office.

Using Telus Corp.’s 1X digital cellular service, the technicians are connected almost wherever they are.

“”Our database is Web-based,”” Wettlaufer says, “”so wherever they are internationally they can access our database via the Web.””

That means more consistent and accurate data, Wettlaufer says. “”Because they’re mobile and have mobile access, they probably record more consistently, so instead of coming home at the end of the day and having to record the whole day — they’re doing that through the day.””

That’s a load of data

It’s the same for some employees at the City of Edmonton. Using Citrix Systems Inc.’s Metaframe software, they have remote access to applications on the city’s servers. Rather than storing data on mobile devices, they draw from and synchronize to several centralized databases.

For some other city employees, it makes more sense to load data on mobile devices at the beginning of the day, work with it through a shift and then upload information later. That’s true for building inspectors, says Marcel Mudryk, the team leader for POSSE, an application that Edmonton and a number of other municipalities use to provide inspectors with the data needed for their jobs.

The best way for mobile workers to store and retrieve data depends on the nature of the work they do and the data they work with, says Mudryk.

“”Depending on the amount of data that’s required, and the type of data, that determines the type of mobile computing,”” he explains. “”We do a business assessment up front.””

Having the technology to let employees work wherever they are is a bonus for many businesses. But it also creates some tricky issues with storing the data that those workers gather and create, and making sure they have access to what they need to do their jobs.

“”As you look around even with large corporations, and you look at the number of laptops that are being used, you think about what’s the policy on data protection here,”” observes Bill North, research director for storage software at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

In theory, North says, employees are usually expected to make sure data is transferred to central servers, where it is accessible to co-workers as appropriate and can be backed up. Anything important to the company has to be stored on the server, in other words.

“”That’s a useful policy but an unrealistic expectation,”” North says. In the real world, it’s hard to be sure data gets moved to the server and properly protected.

“”What we have found is there are a number of point solutions, technologies that resolve specific circumstances or specific situations,”” says Boro Marinkovich, director of technology solutions for T4G Ltd., a Toronto information technology services firm whose employees are highly mobile.

T4G uses gateways to make much of its corporate data accessible to mobile workers through Web browsers. However, Marinkovich admits, “”one deficiency of this approach is offline access, meaning that if somebody is on a plane or doesn’t have Internet access, we have to find alternatives.””

Driving the network everywhere

Many T4G employees use Windows folders allowing them to store data for offline use.

“”They can have a copy of their network drive with them,”” Marinkovich explains. “”When they hook to the network it synchronizes in the background.”” But there can be problems if the mobile user modifies a copy of a file and meanwhile someone else modifies the copy on the server. “”Your choice is overwrite one, overwrite the other or create a second copy,”” Marinkovich says.

Though wireless allows employees to stay connected more of the time, the reality is most mobile workers are disconnected from the office at least sometimes. The best option, North says, is often to synchronize data when the mobile device is next connected to corporate servers. But “”what if you did the life-saving contract for the company during the week that you were gone and somebody stole your laptop?””

For T4G, Marinkovich says, it’s a matter of educating employees. The nature of its business means employees understand the need for data protection better than most, but Kyle Foster, business unit executive for storage at IBM Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont., says the decision to protect data shouldn’t depend on the user. The answer, he says, is to force regular backups.

Storage companies are moving to address this concern with technology for backing up mobile PCs remotely, North says. But “”we’re in the very early stages of protecting mobile data on a computer.””

iAnywhere, a subsidiary of Sybase Inc., sells middleware for connecting mobile clients to central databases. Mike Paola, senior group product manager, says the software will store data locally on the mobile device when it cannot connect to a central server, then synchronize at the first opportunity. The iAnywhere technology is a component of the POSSE application Edmonton’s building inspectors use.

If an organization wants to automate a mobile procedure previously performed with pen and paper, Paola says, the data has to be available all the time and workers must not be prevented from doing their jobs because they cannot connect to a central database. But data can’t always be kept on the mobile device. “”You can’t just put on a huge data storage system that’s going to require much more resources than the devices can handle.””

Consistency, please

It’s also important the central database deal with multiple mobile clients using the data and still keep one consistent version of the data, even as different people synchronize remote devices with the central server. That’s another area where an a lways-connected, Web-based approach works well, Wettlaufer says. With Nerds on Site’s application, there’s no problem with an employee who’s been disconnected from the central server uploads old data, overwriting more recent updates. The database software supports multiple users and ensures the latest version of the data is preserved, she says.

While they point to various storage issues that mobile workforces raise, IS managers don’t report a noticeable increase in over-all storage requirements thanks to road warriors being more connected. But it seems likely to happen.

“”The wireless capability just makes it that much easier for people to be able to more quickly access and generate more information than they ever could before,”” observes Ken Steinhardt, director of technology analysis at storage-management software vendor EMC Corp. in Hopkinton, Mass. Time to order more disks?

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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