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Enterprises usher in mobile cloud computing

Mobile devices and mobile applications are changing the way IT organizations buy and use technology. Enterprise employees, not IT, are driving this trend. Even though cloud computing may facilitate end-user access to mobile apps, IT managers and developers must address a few nagging issues with mobile cloud computing.

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Driven by the adoption of HTML5, increased mobile broadband coverage and the need for always-on collaborative services for the enterprise, the market for cloud-based mobile applications is expected to grow 88% from 2009 to 2014, according to Juniper Research. More than 240 million business customers will access cloud computing services via mobile devices by 2015; and that number could jump to 998 million mobile cloud users in 2014, reported ABI Research.

Mobile cloud computing is not mobile computing
In the past two years, mobile cloud computing has gained interest among a limited number of enterprises. Even though they may sound similar, mobile computing and mobile cloud computing are very different.

In traditional mobile computing environments, mobile applications run on a mobile device with the application data stored on the device. Running a mobile application has some advantages, most importantly, no latency or network bandwidth problems. But applications that run on mobile devices are generally limited in functionality and are not business-class applications.

Mobile cloud computing applications, however, run on servers that reside in the cloud. Application data also resides in the cloud and results are fed back to the mobile device over a network. This allows users to run more robust applications. There are problems, however, such as latency and network bandwidth issues for the transfer of data between the mobile cloud and the mobile device.

Two sides of the mobile cloud 
There are at least two views of mobile cloud computing. One view is that of an enterprise IT organization adapting an on-premise, private cloud to connect various mobile devices such as smartphones and iPads or tablets -- where processing and data storage is on the cloud, not the device. In this instance, an enterprise user on a mobile device would access applications running in the private cloud through the device's browser.

A second view of a mobile cloud is referred to as mass-market mobile cloud. Mass-market mobile clouds involve players we do not generally associate with traditional enterprise clouds. These players include mobile network operators (MNOs) like AT&T, China Mobile, Vodafone, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, for example, as well as cross-network service providers (CNSPs). Another important component of mass-market mobile clouds is the application provider -- individual, application service providers and Software as a Service (SaaS) providers.

Previously, smartphone users were restricted to the mobile applications that their carriers provided in association with a cell phone company, such as AT&T Mobility and Apple. Mobile applications depended on the mobile device OS and other phone features.

The mass-market mobile cloud, however, allows users to access a wide variety of applications via their mobile device browser. A CNSP hooks up an MNO (to which a user is a subscriber) with an application provided by one of many individual application developers, ASPs and SaaS providers. The CNSP directs the MNO to charge the mobile device account for the application.

Enterprise clouds and mass-market mobile clouds appear to be quite different, but they are both based on common principles. Mass-market mobile clouds provide a way for enterprise staff to access mobile applications no matter what MNO or carrier they subscribe to.

Using mobile devices, enterprise staff can access applications in the enterprise cloud, provided the enterprise cloud is implemented to handle mobile devices and applications, or access them via their mobile devices from a platform owned and operated by a mobile cloud provider or CNSP. The CNSP enters into agreements with the individual MNOs and is responsible for providing access and payment services across multiple mobile network operators for applications.

What's good and bad about mobile cloud
Mobile cloud computing has its highs and its lows. Here are a number of advantages associated with mobile cloud computing:

  • Users can share resources and applications without a high level of capital expenditure for hardware and software resources.
  • Highly expensive and technical hardware is not necessary to run complex applications that run in the mobile cloud, which can reduce costs.
  • Mobile cloud computing allows developers to have access to a larger market.
  • Developers do not need to make a new build for each mobile device because processing and data is stored in the cloud.
  • Applications run through a browser, so the end user's mobile device OS does not affect mobile applications. This allows developers to bypass restrictions that might be created using mobile operating systems.

But no technology is perfect. And while mobile cloud computing has its advantages, it's not without challenges. Many IT organizations must address the following issues directly or work with others in the enterprise to address them:

  • Security: Internal communications no longer run over a private network; some run over less-secure public carrier networks.
  • Mobile software: The software must run on multiple, frequently updated OSes and work with other mobile applications.
  • Network availability and intermittency: A cloud application needs a constant connection; as mobile Internet capabilities improve, this will become less of an issue. HTML 5, which enables data caching through a mobile device, allows a mobile cloud application to continue working even if a connection is lost momentarily.
  • Device division: Safely divides a single mobile device between professional and personal uses.
  • Application development: Enterprises must determine whether to develop mobile applications internally or wait for key application vendors to come out with mobile device versions, such as table versions, of applications.
  • Application downloading: Enterprises must determine if they should create an in-house enterprise mobile application store to ensure users download only enterprise-approved mobile applications.
  • Remote management of mobile devices: Enterprise mobile device management tools enable IT teams to manage mobile devices by setting policies, configure devices to perform remote wipes, create enterprise sandboxes or secure virtual areas and keep personal data separate from corporate data using tools like encryption and passwords.
Mobile devices and mobile applications are changing the way IT organizations buy and use technology.

In terms of mobile device policies and processes, IT organizations have some experience with the widespread use of notebooks, for example. Compounding the difficulty is the large number of mobile devices (not just notebooks) that will be in use in the enterprise in the future. Some policies and processes will have to change and new ones will need to be added to meet these increased numbers:

  • What changes will need to be made to configuration management and management processes? What effect does mobile cloud computing have on the help desk? Old manual processes cannot keep up with the number of mobile devices employees use.
  • Which mobile applications can be used for business?
  • How will IT teams need to handle company-owned data on employee's mobile device if it's lost or stolen?
  • How is company owned data on mobile devices partitioned from personal data?
  • Who is allowed to use mobile devices?
  • Who is responsible for technical support of mobile devices?
  • Which policy is best for employee-owned mobile devices:
    • End users sign consent forms in which they agree to have software installed on their devices to synchronize email, calendars, etc.
    • Users grant permission to IT teams to allow remote wiping of lost or stolen mobile devices
    • Users confirm they will adhere to enterprise-defined usage policies
    • Will mobile device users be allowed to upgrade software without enlisting IT?

Don't hold back on mobile cloud 
Today, with several mobile operating systems in the market, including Android and iOS, mobile application developers must pick and choose which OS to support, limiting their ability to broadly distribute applications. But mobile cloud computing is changing the way mobile applications are developed, acquired and used within the enterprise, which makes it easier for application developers to distribute apps to more users. Mobile cloud computing enables enterprise employees to use mobile devices to access data center resources that previously were only accessible via desktops, laptops and notebooks.

As mobile cloud computing use increases, enterprise IT managers wrestle with a few unanswered questions: What about security? Should employee-owned mobile devices be allowed to access company data? Should developers build mobile apps internally? What mobile device processes and policies need to be in place?

Despite these concerns, enterprises shouldn't "hold back" the use of mobile devices. Instead, they should determine how to take advantage of mobile cloud computing and plan for its explosion in order to remain competitive within their markets.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bill Claybrook is a marketing research analyst with over 35 years of experience in the computer industry with the last dozen years in Linux, Open Source and Cloud Computing. Bill was Research Director, Linux and Open Source, at The Aberdeen Group in Boston and a competitive analyst/Linux product-marketing manager at Novell. He is currently President of New River Marketing Research and Directions on Red Hat. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science.

This was first published in September 2011

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