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Mobile business applications: Is your IT infrastructure ready?

Manufacturers need a solid IT foundation to support mobile ERP and BI applications, according to experts. It’s no surprise that key areas to focus on initially are data management and security.

Maturing mobile business applications could speed adoption of enterprise mobility in manufacturing in the coming year, but lining up the right software tools and devices is only part of what's required to catch the wave. According to industry experts, IT managers must also update their IT infrastructures for the mobile age. In particular, they should look closely at how well they maintain the quality of the information accessed by mobile workers. And as with any endeavor that potentially involves sensitive company data, security ranks as a top concern for mobile BI and ERP.

Improving mobile data management

The latest and greatest mobile devices and mobile business applications send critical business information to decision makers at near-real-time speeds, but manufacturers can derive value only if the information is accurate and reliable. To quote an old news industry maxim: It’s better to be right than first.

Accuracy is important because as employees gain access to applications from mobile devices, they’ll act on the data more quickly, noted Kimberly Knickle, practice director for IDC Manufacturing Insights, a research company based in Framingham, Mass.

If the data is inaccurate, the resulting action could cause a ripple effect throughout the supply chain -- affecting inventory counts, supplier information or even product recalls, she added.

“The good news is that mobile workers are entering data on the spot, so hopefully that means it’s more accurate than if they are trying to read their notes and enter the information later -- or when information is never entered in the first place,” Knickle said.

Balancing anywhere, anytime delivery with accuracy requirements makes it more important than ever for manufacturers to find the data management Holy Grail -- a single version of truth. “Manufacturers are getting close [to achieving this goal], but I think we are talking about something that’s always going to be in process,” Knickle said.

To keep the process moving forward, industry experts recommend that manufacturers redouble the data management efforts that should be in place across the enterprise. This means conducting data quality profiles to spot anomalies, such as redundant or conflicting information, and launching a master data management (MDM) system that can help assure that information housed in a data warehouse remains reliable.

Mobile ERP, BI pose security concerns

The latest hacker exploits may grab headlines, but this nefarious group isn’t always the biggest threat to companies, experts say. Insiders have long been responsible for the most damaging security breaches, even when breaches are unintentional. For example, 33% of security professionals say insider attacks are more costly than those organized by outsiders -- a rise of 7%, according to the 2011 CyberSecurity Watch Survey, conducted by CSO magazine and sponsored by the Deloitte consultancy.

Plugging those holes -- which will become even more essential as mobile ERP and BI become commonplace -- requires a combination of mobile security policies and appropriate technologies, according to industry analysts.

Exploring the MEAP option

Manufacturers seeking relief from the complexities of managing and securing mobile applications -- as well as integrating them into the larger IT infrastructure -- can turn to a ready-made technology for help: Mobile enterprise application platforms (MEAP). This class of middleware is designed specifically to bring order to mobile environments.

Attesting to the growing need for a comprehensive, platform-based approach to mobile device management, the number of MEAP offerings continues to grow and includes options from large enterprise-middleware vendors and smaller companies that focus on the mobile market. Another sign that organizations need help managing their mobile infrastructures: MEAP is projected to grow into a $929.6 million market over the next two years, according to IDC Manufacturing Insights.

A trend of the past year could spur additional revenues, experts say. New, managed MEAP offerings are becoming available from wireless network companies and Internet telephony service providers that promise to further simplify mobile device management for in-house IT departments.

--Alan Joch

To craft a solid security policy, Knickle advises organizations to first decide which employees or roles require mobile access to enterprise applications and data. Security managers then need to decide if mobile hardware should include employee-owned devices that serve double duty as workplace tools or if company-owned and provisioned devices are a safer option. The former may provide some initial capital cost savings, but the savings may diminish as the IT department is forced to support multiple operating systems and sort out software licensing issues, she said. For example, manufacturers will need to determine if corporate licenses for mobile ERP programs allow employees to legally load the software on their personal smartphones and tablets.

The decisions IT managers make today about personal and company-provisioned devices may not hold fast for the future, according to Knickle “I believe there are more individual-liable [that is, personal] devices used through 2015. Then there is going to be a shift where companies say, ‘No, I want you to use our device,’ ” she predicted.

Either way, organizations should consider installing technology that can remotely wipe the devices clean of company data if the hardware is lost or stolen, Knickle said.

Other security safeguards include data loss protection (aka data leak protection), or DLP, technology that acts as the flip side to traditional firewalls. DLP solutions stem the outward flow of information and can block people from attaching customer financial information, for example, to an e-mail message. The downside, according to analysts: IT managers must fine-tune DLP systems to assure network performance doesn’t suffer from all the added security monitoring.

Cloud-based applications and desktop virtualization offer additional levels of security for mobile applications. Although experts stress that each approach is slightly different, Software as a Service ERP solutions, on-premises private-cloud implementations and desktop virtualization all share a model based on storing applications and data in a central data center, where IT administrators can closely manage the resources according to company security policies.

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