Surfing the mobile wave a test for IT

The surge in mobile devices is causing headaches for IT managers. David Geer talks to several about how they're managing the proliferation of PDAs, BlackBerries and other gadgets.

At many companies, users have got ahead of themselves — and IT, too — in the rush for the latest mobile devices, unaware of the challenges they pose. “They don’t realise it takes infrastructure, a wireless signal and a whole bunch of things before you can use a handheld,” says Hap M Cluff, director of IT for the city of Norfolk, Virginia.

For IT, trying to manage the flood of mobile adoption is like trying to channel a raging torrent through a funnel. But CIOs are attempting to identify the best way to manage the proliferation of mobile devices and make sure everyone knows the rules.

Whatever it takes to be in touch on the go businesspeople want it and they want it now. In fact, employee demand for mobility forced significantly more mobile technology deployment in 2005 than companies had anticipated, according to Ellen Daley, an analyst at Forrester Research. Personal devices and any other mobile technologies that IT is unaware of are hard to control and secure, Daley says. Mobile hardware can sneak in through departmental budgets, side-stepping IT’s scrutiny, and before you know it, they’re connected to the network, she says. “That puts a stress on the company from a security perspective [and] a standards perspective”.

To get ahead of the wave of personal devices, William Lewkowski, CIO at Metropolitan Health, discourages the proliferation of a variety of devices in favour of a few that are easily supported. For example, his IT department supports the Palm operating system on handheld devices. Employees can use other software, but they must go through IT to make sure it will work. And for security’s sake employees are only allowed to download low-risk information, such as their schedules, to their handhelds.

Other companies base their approach to mobile devices on need. For example, at Ford, senior executives have a demonstrable need for BlackBerries, says Vijay Sankaran, IT manager for enterprise technology at the car maker. “These people go from meeting to meeting,” he explains. With a BlackBerry, they can scroll through their email and calendars and use phone features without going back to their desks.

Sankaran says the number of things that can be done with a BlackBerry is very limited, making it more secure from a corporate IT standpoint. The more features, capabilities and services a device has, the more security holes that it comes with, he says.

Servicing mobile devices is also costly and it’s difficult for the helpdesk to provide expertise over a range of devices.

Some CIOs are meeting this challenge head-on by training everyone on their support staff on mobile technologies, says Forrester’s Daley. Others try to head off the volume by using self-service support websites with messages such as “If you have a Palm Treo 650, try this before you call technical support”.

Law’s group provides employees with information on each device to help them with the basics so they don’t have to go to the helpdesk every time something goes wrong.

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