Optimizing the cloud for the BYOD movement

Supporting mobile devices in a cloud environment can be a headache, but it's not impossible. Develop processes to successfully marry BYOD and cloud.

The BYOD movement can be a source of problems for IT pros. Enterprises are learning how to mitigate the security

and compliance issues that arise when employees use personal mobile devices to access business applications. And when the benefits and goals of BYOD hinder the productivity advantages of cloud computing, things can get ugly.

Bring your own device (BYOD) policies complicate cloud because they limit a company's ability to optimize application delivery to a single platform -- a major benefit of cloud adoption. There are ways, however, to optimize the cloud so enterprises don't have to choose between either a cloud project or BYOD.

Creating a BYOD-compatible cloud

The first casualty of the BYOD and cloud collision will be custom client software. Some users have relied on graphical user interface tools or virtual desktops to create worker views of data; however, mobile devices offer limited support for application-specific clients. To expect client support on all popular mobile device OSes is unrealistic, and products such as Windows RT or Firefox OS will likely drive developers in too many different directions. Instead, focus on building a cloud computing environment that supports a modern -- and rapidly changing -- BYOD business.

The first rule of building a BYOD-compatible cloud is to base application interfaces on browser thin-client technology exclusively. This browser-based strategy means you should first ensure cloud applications are thin-client compatible. Next, you'll need to make certain all devices in your environment support necessary applications.

When the benefits and goals of BYOD hinder the productivity advantages of cloud computing, things can get ugly.

To build a browser-based BYOD cloud strategy, all applications must be exposed using URLs. Most modern software tools and nearly all cloud services work this way, but legacy applications that are hosted on Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) platforms may include nonstandard interfaces. Some companies have also adopted Web services interfaces (using SOAP), which can be difficult to support on mobile devices, particularly if you can't target a single device type.

Once your applications are presented as URLs, you can build mobile device interfaces using Web-authoring tools. Keep in mind that not all browsers are the same; the HTML and scripting features various mobile browsers supported vary greatly. A quick Web search can find charts to help you understand particular Web-page features you can expect to use to support mobile-based cloud applications. Support for HTML5, cascading style sheets (CSS) features and scripting languages likely will be the most problematic.

Most enterprises correctly believe that HTML5 is the long-term future of thin-client interfaces, and most mobile browsers will support the basic features of HTML5. However, HTML5 does not support many database, device control and productivity tool functions on certain devices.

Extending support to mobile devices is an evolving process; some experts believe advanced HTML5 features will be widely available sooner than advanced scripting tools. The best strategy could be to start with basic HTML5 and evolve BYOD device screens as the support for HTML5 features expand. When it comes to older mobile devices with outdated OSes, it may be best to stick with older-generation HTML screens and use minimal to no scripting.

There are two options for browser support of applications: have the browser assemble the pages and access individual URLs, or have an agent process (a software that resides on the server and acts on behalf of the browser) assemble data from application URLs and present that data in a single screen to all browsers. The former approach allows for better control over what HTML features are used, while the latter method can offer better control over application and data integrity in the event of a failure.

When cloud processes are assembled to create a single virtual application for the end user, it's critical that any transaction can either be fully processed by all application elements or backed out completely. When the device has this responsibility, loss of connection may make it impossible to synchronize data state.

Managing devices and securing enterprise data

All cloud process frameworks for BYOD include device management and methods to secure enterprise IT resources. The use of URL-based device screens may make it difficult to manage and secure devices, because it is necessary to validate a device against browser tools the cloud processes use and also to ensure the device is secure.

One option is to use a security or management tool on each device that provide access to data and secures the device against most threats. But this hinges on the availability of a common utility that works with user-defined devices; your only option may be to check with the each vendor about compatibility.

Despite problems, BYOD and the cloud can live in harmony. As HTML5 support matures, it's likely the feature overlap among various mobile browsers will increase, solving one of the major problems with BYOD in the workplace. By developing effective processes in the present and planning for the future, a company can build a cloud strategy that supports BYOD.

Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corp., a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982.

This was first published in October 2012

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