Taking enterprise services to the air

The Internet's second coming, the one based on wireless Internet availability, appears to have come and gone. Lauded as the next, best hope for tapping new consumer-side revenue streams, business-to-consumer wireless services stalled out when they proved difficult and impractical to use. Nevertheless, wireless is far from being relegated to the technology trash heap.

Application delivery via wireless networks can't translate the richness of the Web to consumers' anytime/anywhere expectations, but wireless still offers solid prospects for business-side workflow efficiency. Client device usage and application output requirements can be better controlled in the enterprise but at a high cost: A wireless solution can easily top US$200,000.

With an ROI that is often difficult to demonstrate, a wireless infrastructure may seem to be a frivolous expenditure. Nevertheless, CTOs should begin targeting applications and departments for the rollout of wireless services. As the 2001 InfoWorld Wireless Survey indicates, a clear majority is already doing that by appropriating funds or keeping budgets available for wireless for the coming year.

When deploying wireless services, the goal is to integrate accessibility with back-end systems without disrupting or reinventing the existing application logic. The recommended approach is to build an XML bridge, which creates a clean separation between presentation and content layers in the Web and application servers. Using XML, programmers can structure data that is independent of a wireless device's formatting and display requirements.

Security must play a vital part in your wireless services architecture. Prying eyes can peek into your data where an ASP's (application service provider's) gateway unencrypts data coming from a wireless device and re-encrypts it to forward to an application server. Several device-specific work-arounds exist, including using elliptic curve cryptography for the Research in Motion and Palm devices. But short of imposing procedural security demands on your remote hosting provider, the only way to secure wireless services is to install a WAG (wireless application gateway).

An in-house WAG infuses better-controlled security, device management, policy-based authentication and control, and user profile and preference capabilities. Companies also gain additional functions for rapid prototyping, testing, and deploying, which are particularly useful in multi-device deployment scenarios.

On the server side, a WAG plugs into a company's existing application infrastructure to fulfill the separation between data and presentation layers. A WAG fields incoming requests and serves data in a presentation format that can be viewed on the requesting device. Access to your own WAG substantially reduces development costs, improves flexibility for adapting to maturing service requirements, and trims maintenance expenditures.

When selecting a WAG vendor, notice which wireless devices are supported, whether or not the server APIs match your in-house applications, and how broad the scope of provisions is for various carrier technologies, such as CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), GSM (Global System for Mobile communications), and TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access).

Wireless services have taken much guff for their poor data rates, but today's 2G (second-generation) bandwidth is more than suitable for delivery of most nongraphical application content. Our survey shows that 75 percent of the 500 respondents are planning to initially use wireless services for lightweight text-based tasks, such as e-mail and messaging.

When building applications for wireless services, developers should take heed of the important design fundamentals necessitated by WAP (Wireless Application Protocol). Multiple screens of data and fancy layouts play well on browser-based interfaces, but no such luxuries are afforded the WAP developer. Developers must think concisely when building interfaces and page navigation schemes. Interfaces should be kept minimal, even void of access to nonessential features of an application. Assessing the way in which a client device will render the interface of a given application can go a long way toward improving usability.

The road to enterprise wireless services has no shortcuts. Determine your immediate and long-term goals and begin developing in-house talent for wireless development today. For initial deployment, target a select group within your company that would benefit from wireless services' mobility and accessibility, identify several applications that will move well to wireless, and start testing.

Your developers will require a solid understanding of WAP and the wireless application environment. Although WML (Wireless Markup Language) is often compared to HTML for its presentation delivery, it includes additional concepts for streamlined data entry, variables, and events.

You will also need to evaluate requirements such as cost, capacity, and QoS (quality of service) capabilities among potential wireless carriers. SLAs (service-level agreements) will be a necessity for ensuring recourse in the event of poor performance.

Before businesses can broadly accept consumer-oriented wireless services, 3G (third-generation) wireless technologies need to be rolled out. But companies today have at their disposal the tools and fundamental frameworks to begin bringing the efficiencies of wireless services into the enterprise.

Test Center Managing Analyst James R. Borck covers enterprise e-business solutions. Share your wireless experiences with him at james_borck@infoworld.com.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Wireless services

Executive Summary: Business-to-consumer interest in wireless technologies has waned, but b-to-b and enterprise usage can improve workflow. During the next several years, wireless services will be used pervasively in the enterprise to deliver on-the-go access to enterprise knowledge and applications to non-PC devices.

Test Center Perspective: IT leaders should consider deploying private, in-house WAGs for better control and efficiency over service deployment. If that is not feasible, a private, hosted WAG should be used for its deployment cost-savings and vendor expertise in application integration.

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