This article is more than 1 year old
Cutting the cord without losing touch with your office
Here’s how to do mobile if you're an SME
If you're a member of the backroom staff at a big company, you probably spend a lot of time sitting at a desk bashing at a computer. Indeed, in my day job as IT ops manager for a telco I'm delighted to have probably the only truly comfy chair on the premises and my huge desktop screen for the Excel-wrangling that forms part of what I do.
For small and medium businesses, however, getting out and doing stuff on the move is the order of the day. Being able to work while out seeing clients, visiting suppliers, wiggling wires in your data centre, or even working at home wiping the noses of sick-note-wielding children is hugely desirable. Even in largish companies the ability to be in touch despite not being on-site brings mutual value: the company benefits from increased productivity through increased availability; on the employee's side the work-life balance is made a little easier by allowing a slightly earlier escape from the office ball and chain each afternoon.
Happily we're now at the stage where computing on the move is not just doable, it's positively attractive. Let's look, then, at the ingredients that you need in order to cut the cord without losing touch with the office.
The first thing you'll need to decide is what device(s) you and your users should be using, and this depends entirely on what they'll be used for. So for instance if you don't need to type a great deal or access many apps on the move, a standard iPhone or Android phone may well be sufficient if all you need is email and a bit of internet access. Actually I find something the size of an iPhone 6 Plus about right for this kind of stuff – I recently tested a similarly sized Nokia Lumia 1320 to see if I could live with it as a business device and it was just great.
If, on the other hand, you do more “proper” mobile computing with browser- or terminal service-based applications where you use the apps remotely, don't actually store much data on the device itself, and you need a sensible size screen, then you're looking at a ruggedised tablet. Finally, there's no shame in admitting that you need or want a laptop: there are plenty of instances when you do just need to carry an armoury of files around with you and access them without being able to connect back to the office all the time.
Even if you're a laptop jockey you'll still have some requirement for connectivity so you can check email, upload and download files, and so on. And clearly you'll be looking for mobile data on your assorted portable devices.
The latter – the phones and the tablets – is an obvious one to deal with: the devices have SIM card slots and you'll need a SIM with a data service if you're to use it for working on the move. There are two things you need to think of in this respect: working in your home country and working elsewhere under “roaming” conditions.
Even for small companies I'd suggest arranging a shared data service bundle with your mobile supplier – that is, you have a corporate “bucket” of megabytes/gigabytes and all the handsets eat their data from that bucket. It's usually a whole lot more economical – and is always way easier administratively – than having a data allowance per handset, as some will go over their limit while others will leave much of their allowance unused.
For roaming, most suppliers provide “bolt on” data options for users wanting to roam overseas. So for instance my mobile supplier in the Channel Islands has a standard rate of £5.99 per megabyte for data if you're roaming in the EU or USA, but for a five-quid-a-month bolt-on, this comes down to 50p per meg. Others, such as O2 in the UK, allow you to pay by the day (£1.99 per day in Europe, for example) regardless of volume. What about laptops? Well, unless you want to ignore mobile data completely and rely on Starbucks and your hotel WiFi, you have three options here.
The rare option is to stuff a SIM in your laptop; yes, there really are laptops with SIM slots just like they used to have modems back in the Dark Ages. Think Lenovo T420, for example. Next is the option of a 3G USB stick, which is one of the most popular approaches and which is actually pretty usable these days. When they first came out, particularly before Windows Vista, compatibility between dongle and operating system was a nightmare. My favourite is a “MiFi” portable access point – it connects to the 3G data network and presents the connection to your laptop via a mini WiFi hotspot. Mine cost me 30 quid, it charges quickly via a USB port, and if we're in an out-of-office meeting several of us can share it between our various laptops and non-3G-equipped tablets.
You'll have noticed that I keep talking about 3G, and you're probably wondering: “What about 4G”?
The answer: it's just the same. 3G was the first mobile technology that was actually fast enough to use for real computing on the move. Although 4G is a different technology, that difference is hidden from you and all you see is a much faster link. You just pick “4G” or “LTE” instead of “3G” in the settings and the device does the rest. And I really mean “much faster” - I saw a lab test run a 4G download at over 140Mbit/sec recently, for instance.
One word of warning: if you're paying by the megabyte, be careful when you go for fast technologies: a fatter “pipe” means that you can download more data than before, and hence rack up a bigger bill than before, in a given time period.
So, we've talked about getting the devices connected to the world so you can access stuff with them, but how do we make that “stuff” accessible? With regards to what we mean by “stuff”, it starts with the basic email and calendar functions that we all have on our phones and then works up through browser-based applications (which again can be accessed natively from pretty much any device, as everything has a browser on it these days) and ends with applications that can only run on a particular platform and which can't be accessed natively on a portable device.
The most common examples of the latter are Windows-based apps. No matter how hard you try you're not, for example, going to be able to dip into your database stats with SQL Server Management Studio on your iPhone because there isn't an iPhone version. The answer is to run them on a corporate server and to provide a “window” into that server, which means you'll have an application such as a simple Windows Remote Desktop client or perhaps a more proprietary equivalent like the VMware Horizon Client or Citrix Receiver.
In its basic form, access to email, calendars and browser-based applications is pretty noddy: for email you present an ActiveSync service as an Internet-facing service on your firewall, and you reverse-proxy your applications in a similar way to present them securely via your Internet connection, preferably using two-factor authentication, please. The users point their devices at the appropriate host, and Bob's their collective uncle. Presenting platform-specific apps will require some more thought, of course, because if you're going to give the user a VMware, Terminal Services or Citrix presentation on their client device you'll need to implement the corresponding VMware, Terminal Services or Citrix services at the server end too. Basic Terminal Services is pretty straightforward; the others are more performant and robust but more complex.