Mobile Apps: The IT Pro's New Power Tools

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Think the mobile revolution is all about word games and social networking apps? Think again. Heavy-duty apps for IT pros have arrived on mobile platforms and they're quickly changing the face of IT systems management.

Want remote desktop access from your Android? Need to initiate a terminal session from your iPad or build a virtual machine from your BlackBerry? Thanks to a rising tide of applications that provide (at a minimum) meaningful access to the Web interfaces of your favorite administrative and troubleshooting programs, you can do all this and more.

[ Updated for iOS 5, Android 4, BlackBerry OS 7, and Windows Phone 7.5: Learn how to manage mobile devices in InfoWorld's 20-page Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF special report. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

Although full-featured applications that match the true power and ease of use of their PC or Mac counterparts remain harder to find, smartphones and tablets with bigger screens and more power have many IT departments eyeing the long-term possibilities of an increasingly mobile IT work force.

Couple this with the desire to tap into native mobile capabilities such as location awareness and built-in cameras for mobile IT apps, and you can see why analyst firm Gartner has predicted that by 2017, 50 percent of Level 1 service desk analysts in large organizations will use mobile technologies to deliver service. That market will make today's mobile admin marketplace look puny -- and unlock new mobile capabilities for admins.

iOS and the iPad: IT's Mobile Platforms of Choice

The iPhone and iPad remain the de facto mobile standards for most IT admins, thanks in large part to the breadth and maturity of IT-related iOS applications. Android smartphones and tablets come in a strong second among the IT set, with BlackBerry, the once vaunted king of business smartphones, a distant and some say fading third.

In fact, the large screen size and a robust IT application ecosystem have some IT pros even preferring the iPad over laptops and desktop machines. Loren Bement, director of network services for Gettel Automotive Group, says that, with the help of an external keyboard, his iPad has become his standard work device. "I don't even carry a laptop or go to a desktop for 90 percent of my work," he says.

Android also boasts an array of meaningful IT apps. Dell Kace's mobile app for managing physical servers and endpoints, for example, is best used on devices with screens of 4 inches or larger, such as iPads or Android smartphones and tablets, says Ken Drachnik, director of product marketing at Dell Kace.

Code 42 Software's CrashPlan and CrashPlan Pro mobile apps for storage backup work "equally well on tablet devices, laptops, and desktops," and are available for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone devices, says Code 42 CEO Matthew Dornquast. Even so, Dornquast sees the iPad as the "de facto mobile device" for which Code 42's apps were designed, noting that the iPhone with its limited screen size "wouldn't be your first choice" for full IT app support.

Yet the iPhone still has its proponents. Michael Kipp, principal engineer for the site operations group at Vocus, a SaaS vendor, says he is "quite satisfied ... [that] I can do almost anything I can do from my desktop" from the iPhone using remote desktop. "The screen is a little small, but it never hindered me," although he did admit that "an iPad is all the better."

Although the BlackBerry remains a favorite of certain corporate IT groups because of its security and email capabilities, it gets less attention from developers and many IT pros because of its relatively small screen size and, until recently, lack of touchscreen support. "They don't keep up to date with the applications" as much as the iOS, Android, or "even Microsoft with Windows Mobile" platforms, says Gettel's Bement. "I wouldn't want one if someone handed it to me."

However, the BlackBerry does boast applications for remote desktop access, server monitoring and management, and remote access to SSH servers, among many other functions.

Heavy-Duty Mobile Apps for IT Pros

Remote access is one of the hottest mobile application markets for IT -- little wonder, given what can be done with quick access to a management console or in troubleshooting a user's device.

Cloud services provider CenterBeam uses the native iOS version of Bomgar on the iPad because "it's more secure than other platforms," says Shahin Pirooz, CenterBeam's CTO. His staff also relies on Citrix Receiver to run management applications in Windows 7 on the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. Ericom Software's free AccessToGo for iOS and Android is another powerful tool for providing access to Windows applications, physical and virtual desktops, and Windows terminal servers.

Mobile virtualization management is another hotbed, with the various Nagios mobile apps for iOS and Android receiving frequent mentions among IT pros. Many cloud services providers offer their own mobile management apps. The Decaf EC2 Client for Android and iPhone provides updates "about trends and variations in average CPU performance, total disk reads and writes, and total incoming/outgoing network traffic" for Amazon EC2 instances, according to 9apps, the team behind Decaf.

The VMware vSphere Client for iPad allows administrators to monitor the performance of vSphere hosts and virtual machines; to start, stop, and suspend VMs; and to reboot them or put them into maintenance mode. VM Manager is among the many virtualization management options on Android.

Jason John Schwarz, CTO of pest control services provider MSC, says his team uses iVMControl on iPhones and iPads. They have found the app "far better than the native VMware Web interface, a quick way to jump in and troubleshoot our environment."

Android users can manage their Active Directory implementations with ActiveDir Manager, while iOS users have AD Helpdesk for iOS. Network Utility for the iPhone enables network administrators to check connectivity via Ping, TCP/IP Port Scans, GeoIP lookup, and to gather IP address information.

IBM XIV Mobile Dashboard for the iPhone and iPad monitor real-time performance of IBM XIV storage systems, allowing IT admins to monitor IOPS, bandwidth, and latency, among other metrics.

Mobile IT Apps: Limitations and Opportunities

As the capabilities of smartphones improve, customers are demanding the same capabilities in mobile administration apps as in their desktop counterparts, says Raj Dutt, vice president of technology at hosting and content delivery provider Internap: "[Customers] don't consider the mobile application to be some second-class citizen. This is no longer just a gimmick thing; people are really using it."

For most administrative functions, a Web portal that has been designed for easy viewing on a mobile device works fine, says Brian Alvey, CEO of Crowd Fusion. Few mobile apps require the finely tuned performance provided by native mobile apps. Still, limitations remain.

Regarding the Dell Kace management app, the lack of a native iPad application "doesn't allow me to use the VNC function," says Gettel's Bement. "It's just [that] the iPad doesn't have VNC installed by default." Bement gets around the problem by switching to Jump Desktop, which he says is "not too big of an annoyance."

CenterBeam's Pirooz would like to see mobile versions make greater use of the Microsoft Active Sync APIs to more easily "push" software to devices. "You can whitelist and blacklist applications," he says, but "there's no concept of pushing a piece of software, and doing an installation, from an administrative perspective, unless the user says yes."

This support would allow mobile admins to perform more of the management functions Microsoft has added over the years, such as enforcing policies or wiping data from mobile devices, he says.

Next Page: Getting things done from anywhere and dealing with security concerns...

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