Corporations are having a hard time being anytime, anywhere.
That mantra of mobile computing sure sounds good on paper, but a rapidly evolving array of nascent devices, standards, and technologies is making things tough for the people that need to manage business communications operations.
The answer, according to Cisco Systems, is something that's always there: the network.
Until now, information technology (IT) managers have had to cobble together different technologies and services that often poorly integrate with a business' established communications infrastructure, adding another layer of complexity to an already tough job.
Today Cisco announced its cornerstone product for addressing this problem and unifying mobile communications with the rest of IT operations. The Cisco 3300 Series Mobility Services Engine opens up the capabilities of the corporate network to mobile workers and provides the previously missing link for connecting wireless networks to corporate computing systems.
"It's our way of helping mobile computing devices access the intelligence of the network," says Alan Cohen, Cisco's vice president of enterprise and mid-market solutions. "As mobile business communications usage expands, IT departments need more efficient ways to deploy wireless options. We believe the key is in tapping the existing resources of wired networks to help run these new mobile networks. Our architectural approach and our new services engine are designed with this idea in mind."
Claiming an industry-first, Cisco says the Mobility Services Engine offers a flexible platform for third-party companies to develop new tools and applications to better integrate mobile communications with the other parts of a business' information infrastructure.
Cohen says Cisco has already signed up some of the biggest and brightest names in IT and mobile computing for developing products that will work with the Mobility Services Engine. These companies include Agito Networks, Oracle, Johnson Controls, Nokia, Inner Wireless, Intellidot, Airtrak, and Oat Systems.
Available in June at a list price of $19,995, the Mobility Services Engine will initially support four software-based services focused on "context" awareness, security, cellular/Wi-Fi interaction, and device management.
The key to the Mobility Services Engine, Cohen says, is that it manages these special services separately from basic network operations. As such, it is possible for Cisco or its customers to easily modify these support functions or add new ones as mobile computing evolves.
Cohen says the main goal of Cisco's efforts is to make it as simple and cost-effective as possible for IT managers to let employees access crucial business applications such as customer databases or inventory management systems no matter where they are.
But beyond providing the necessary technologies to tie wired and wireless networks together, industry observers say Cisco's recent move can help establish a much-needed new architectural vision for how businesses can effectively manage their growing list of anytime, anywhere computing and collaboration options.
"I think their statement of direction about where they are headed with mobile computing is crucial for their customers," says Ken Dulaney, a vice president of mobile computing for technology research company Gartner. "While there's a lot more to do, it's a very good first move by Cisco."
He says Cisco's new initiative, called Cisco Motion, reflects the logical evolution of business networking, adding that traditional architectural divisions between business networks, such wide area networks (WANs), local area networks (LANs), and wireless networks, will disappear as they become part of a single network architecture.
But getting to this ideal will be no easy task, Dulaney says. For example, roaming -- crossing from one network into another -- is a long-term challenge that no one company will be able to solve alone. In order to maintain the quality of voice calls -- or even video feeds for that matter -- different networks will have to handoff their signals automatically and faster than 100 milliseconds, making the change imperceptible.
Security, especially for corporate IT departments, also looms large. While Cisco's initial efforts with the Mobile Services Engine address some key security issues, more remain. "Bringing mobile and wired networks together on just an IP basis is one thing. But bringing them together on a security level is another challenge altogether," Dulaney says.
Certainly, corporate IT departments need all the help they can get in developing their mobile computing operations. Mobility is particularly vexing since so much of the industry is in flux. Multiple standards and technologies are vying to be the next big thing, while the market is fractured by myriad devices, each with their own take on how mobility should work. A daunting array of communications options, such as WiMax, RFID, and new flavors of Wi-Fi have left IT managers scratching their heads. And while cellular companies are rolling out broadband offerings, business IT departments still face the task of integrating these services with their own in-house communications operations.
But there's no doubt that companies can significantly benefit from improved mobile communications. By providing employees easier access to key business applications and information, corporations can gain a host of benefits, from greater productivity and improved customer support to tighter inventory management and increased team collaboration.
Ideally, companies would like to maintain consistency across their wired and wireless networks. They want to be able to easily tie mobile devices into their existing IT infrastructure, including business databases, office phone systems, and unified communications tools.
Regardless of which network an employee is using, IT departments want to maintain one set of services, such as the same phone number, email address, and messaging functions. And paramount to IT departments is control. They want to be able to ensure the same level of security and oversight found in their established corporate networks.
Though it isn't possible for one company to address all of these hopes and fears, Cisco can play an invaluable role as an "aggregator" of sorts and bring the growing host of mobile computing options into the corporate fold, says Maribel Lopez, principal of telecommunications consultancy Lopez Research. "Can Cisco solve all your mobility problems: no. But a company like Cisco can corral a large part of it."
Just as importantly, Lopez says the market desperately needs guidance for how to deal with mobility. A consistent platform that can transcend changes in technologies will be a major aid to the cause, she adds.
"The idea is to set up a system that makes it as easy as possible to integrate new mobility capabilities -- regardless of their associated technologies -- as they come online," she says. "Though trying to keep up with all the new mobile communications options will likely be a challenge for IT departments for a long time, it certainly can be much easier than it is today."