When Mobility Meets The Mainframe

Many Firms Are Still at the Starting Gate with BYOD, Mobile Productivity

By any measure, mobility in the enterprise—both how it is used internally and how it is used to reach out to customers—is a major paradigm shift, nothing less than representing the future of computing. The mainframe, often perceived as IT’s “old guard,” is playing a key role in this shift, sometimes in surprising ways. In a three-part blogs series, we examine how and where mobility and the mainframe meet, how they complement one another, and occasionally, where they clash. In this post we look at enterprise’s adoption of mobile technology for employees, in particular employees sporting their own devices. 

You don’t have to tell Benjamin Kus that today’s employees feel strongly about their personal smartphones and tablets. At various points over his career, Kus— currently chief architect of IBM Tivoli—has heard tales of, and occasionally seen first hand, prospective employees hesitate over a job offer when they learn they might have to use a company-issued BlackBerry instead of their, say, beloved iPhone.

Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD, as the trend is called, “is an area that employees feel very strongly about,“ Kus says.

Indeed, a growing expectation among employees is not whether they can use their own devices for basic productivity tasks—that is assumed to be a given. Instead, employees expect to be able to access sensitive corporate data via smartphone. And why not? Such flexibility improves productivity, they rightly argue. It also, one hardly needs to say, complicates mainframe administration processes and introduces a number of security concerns.

This trend of employees using their own devices for corporate work, however, is just one of many moving parts in an enterprise’s mobile operations today—and not even the biggest part at that.

In its report, “IDC Predictions 2012: Competing for 2020,” IDC predicts that worldwide IT spending will grow 6.9 percent year-over-year to US$1.8 trillion in 2012. [1]  As much as 20 percent of this total spending will be driven by smartphones, media tablets, mobile networks, and social networking and Big Data analytics. Mobile devices alone will be a huge driver, surpassing PCs in both shipments and spending. Mobile apps, at 85 billion downloads, will generate more revenue than the mainframe market. Spending on mobile data services will also surpass spending on fixed data services this year for the first time, IDC predicts.

Some of this activity is being driven by firms pushing the envelope in mobile computing, at least as it applies to their business models, says Charles King, principal of Pund-IT. “They are finding ways to connect Big Data analysis with the mobile device to better enable an employee in the field,” he says.

These efforts have led to a number of new verticals that now cannot exist without intelligent mobile technology—or at least, cannot remain competitive without it. Some examples, he says, are medical supply chain management and smart building technology. But for all the attention such forward-looking companies receive in the tech media industry, these firms are in fact in the minority, IBM’s Kus says.

“The truth is, many companies are still grappling with BYOD, trying to decide if they should even offer it for employees to check email, much less more sophisticated applications,” he says. This dithering at the starting gate, he says, is probably the biggest bottleneck to widespread adoption of mobile productivity applications.

“I talk to companies all the time that won’t allow employees to access data via their own mobile device.”

Of course many do, Kus continues. “There is a wide spectrum in the range of access that companies will allow,” he says. Some companies will just provide access to basic email. Others—usually via a CRM application—will pull up the location of a nearby customer along with her recent order data for a sales rep on the move.

In general terms, this access intersects with the mainframe in one of a few ways. A company can build a website accessible to mobile devices. Or it can develop a special app that contacts the back-end server and retrieves the relevant data.

In either case, Kus says,  “A company will need additional tools to protect company data when it is being accessed from an employee’s cell phone, such as authentication tools, and tools to remove data if necessary,” as a mobile device can easily be lost or stolen.

Then, IT has to make sure the app works on all devices—and all operating systems.

There are other—many other—minute details that are part of this process; details, that, when overlooked can cause considerable upheaval.

“That is why you want to give users enterprise-grade controls and apps,” Kus says. IBM, not surprisingly, offers tools with common libraries that can be used to build a mobile app for internal use. “Even an inexperienced app author can still build in enterprise-grade security into apps with these tools,” Kus says.

If this sounds as though much of the grunt work takes place in the app writing process, that is because it does.  Success or failure will very much depend on that stage, says IDC analyst Jean Bozman, with the mainframe department staff at best playing a supporting role.

Certainly, she says, access by mobile devices—smart-phones and tablets—affects all types of servers, including IBM System z servers. However, IBM's System z has strong security characteristics, and it typically runs IBM RACF software, which provides high levels of security support.

But a certain randomness is introduced when the mainframe is opened up to employees and their devices—whether these devices are company-issued or owned by the employee—or as the next blog post will show, when a company develops complex apps for customers to use. That is why, Bozman says, the applications themselves must be designed to support that access and to support security features to protect the servers in the data center.

“Fortunately, a wide array of programming languages can be used to develop for System z, including languages that are frequently used in the open-software community, such as PHP, and enterprise Java applications,” Bozman continues.

“Alternatively, applications can be written to the middleware layer of the software stack, such as IBM WebSphere.”

WebSphere software is a popular choice, she observes, as it runs on several IBM server platforms, including System z, UNIX servers and IBM x86 servers.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Opening the Mainframe to the Customer’s Mobile Device.

[1] IDC Predictions 2012: Competing for 2020, doc #231720, December 2011.

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