Mobile Apps: The IT Pro's New Power Tools

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The Untethered Life of Today's Mobile IT Admin

Although the mad proliferation of mobile IT applications might be seen as tying admins to their mobile devices more than ever, it's actually good news, many say.

"We've had pagers and phones going on 15 years," says Gartner analyst Jeff Brooks. "The new apps mean it won't be so much 'I'm always working' as it will be 'I'm able to get done what I need to get done in a timely manner,'" he says. "If I'm able, before I go to bed ... to roll over, grab my phone, and answer a question for someone, and get that logged properly, that's one less thing [to do] when I wake up tomorrow and get to the office."

Vocus's Kipp agrees that today's mobile administration apps make life "much easier. ... For one, I'm not worried about whether or not an alert is going to go out. It's a worry that's been taken off our plate." Due to the service-oriented nature of Vocus's mission, "We're tied to those devices anyway. This makes sure we get alerts in a reliable fashion. It's a comfort level you can't put a price on in the industry we're working in."

Gettel's Bement also sees little downside to the rise of mobile IT. "It makes my life easier because I don't need to be at my office to do my job," says Bement. "I can use [the built-in] Cisco VPN client on my iPad to connect to my network, and launch whichever application I need, and remote into my PC, remote into the server, and make any changes I need." If he didn't have the mobile access, he would have to drive 40 minutes round trip to work for something as simple as a user locking themselves out of their account. Now, he does the five minutes of actual work from home.

With all the benefits of smartphones, alerts can still get lost in a flood of emails and texts. Onset Technology is one company targeting this glut. The company's OnPage priority messaging technology triggers an alarm on the user's device "until you attend to it," says CEO Judit Sharon. The service is available on iOS and BlackBerry, with Android support coming soon.

Vocus's Kipp has been working with OnPage for more than six months. His 13-member site operations team finds OnPage on the iPhone to be more reliable than the pagers the firm used up until last year. OnPage's two-way communications also provides notification when a message is delivered and read.

Overcoming Mobile Security Jitters

As a "trusted user," an admin can, of course, become a threat vector if someone attacks corporate systems via their mobile device. A number of vendors offer ways to separate the work and personal "personalities" of mobile devices, either hiding or hardening the "work" personality to make it more resistant to attacks.

Open Kernel Labs uses virtualization to create separate operating systems on Android, Windows Mobile, and Symbian operating systems, and it recently announced a partnership with LG Electronics to produce "defense-grade" mobile devices using its OKL4 Microvisor. The first such devices are expected to reach the market this fall, with carriers charging a premium of anywhere from $20 to $400 for the added security, says Carl Nerup, vice president of business development at Open Kernel Labs.

Telefónica Digital and EMC VMware are expected to offer Telefónica Dual Persona service later this year. The service will allow IT departments to securely create and manage a "corporate mobile workspace" to run administrative applications on Android devices over the air. The Samsung Galaxy SII will be the first handset to support the service, according to the companies, with Samsung expected "to offer service compatibility with all of its devices in the coming months."

Gettel's Bement says he can create similar "profiles" using the Dell Kace software, but he's never seen a need for it. He believes mobile devices are no more inherently prone to hacks than PCs, and he must enter three passwords to access his iPad, VPN, and then his management applications. He can also remotely wipe data from his mobile devices if they are lost or stolen.

The Mobile Future

While many admins are happy to log in via a Web interface or even a Windows emulator running on a tablet, Gartner's Brooks looks forward to applications that can use mobile features such as location awareness and cameras to provide new features.

For example, an admin could snap a picture of the error message on the screen and compare it to a known library of error messages, or use a photo of the bar code on a server or PC to access its last known configuration and service history. A location-aware mobile device might alert a technician already working on the fifth floor of a building about a new trouble ticket on the fourth floor, reducing travel times for the tech and wait times for the user.

Another possibility, he says, is mobility-enabled techs providing "white-glove service" to executives and other important customers, using their mobile devices to quickly check databases of known errors to speed service.

"The evolution of mobile technology will result in close integration between the IT service desk and the desktop support team, forming a unique support function," Brooks predicted in a recent report. This, he wrote, "will result in a focus on providing superior support to end-users, rather than a preoccupation with the classification of support roles."

Until then, resetting a user's password from the couch without scrambling for their laptop might be progress enough for the average administrator.

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