The Interop conferences, held twice a year in Las Vegas and New York, are the largest end-user IT events in the world, and, while the name implies networks, we really cover all of the key issues in IT. I say “we” here because I have for some time had the privilege of being the Chair of the Wireless and Mobility track, and this is one event I’d attend even if I didn’t have to be there already. What we try to do at Interop is to bring together a diverse group of thought leaders and cover all of the key technical and operational issues in everything enterprise wireless and mobile, and the just-completed event Las Vegas event left me, anyway, with an even deeper appreciation of just how difficult the key issues facing IT today are. Apart from the heavy technology and fundamental complexity inherent in a rapidly-changing and constantly–evolving field, IT management today continues to be challenged by continuing financial concerns. All of this boils down, however, to a simple question for any given organization: what’s the most cost-effective IT strategy that will yield the optimal results in terms of improved user productivity? Suddenly, the problem isn’t so complex – although the solutions may still be.
So there remains a huge range of considerations in enterprise wireless and mobile, and here are the big issues I took away from this year’s conference:
- Apps vs. the Web – I was surprised by how many people think apps are a good idea. I’m deeply concerned about reliability, support costs, and especially security here. Do we really know what commercial apps are doing? Yes, even on an iPad, are these really reliable and secure? Too much is taken for granted, IMHO, and I’d therefore argue that the jury is still out. While I personally believe that improving wireless coverage and a realization that data-related issues (bulk, security, and etc.) will dictate a Web/cloud-centric strategy in the vast majority of cases, even I’ll admit that the rich heritage of operating systems and local apps gives the traditional strategy the edge at present. But stay tuned.
- Tablets vs. notebooks – And, along the lines of the previous topic, I was surprised by how many believe that a tablet can replace a notebook PC. Really, I’ve been trying this myself, using an iPad and an Android handset alone on the road, and it’s just not working. Tablets, many agreed, are a great (which I think usually means “inexpensive”) content delivery vehicle. But content creation? Sorry, one (sadly) needs MS Office for that, and, in many cases, more precise pointing than a finger allows, and none of the Office alternatives on the iPad, again, IMHO, are usable in that capacity. I like the iPad, but there’s a MacBook Air in my future.
- Enterprise-owned vs. user-owned client devices – Now this is where the conversation got really interesting. There are so many angles to this argument, including cost, reliability, security, integrity, support issues, control, and on and on. I personally believe that the personal-liability/BYOD strategy will ultimately win, for reasons of cost and user convenience, as well as to keep those self-indulgent Millennials happy. But mobile device management is going to remain essential no matter what, and there are all kinds of issues regarding the relationship between employees and employers yet to be explored here. Apart from the ever-present Big-Brother aspect, one speaker mentioned the case of a woman whose personal handset got wiped by her employer when it was reported lost – and in the process also deleting a ton of irreplaceable personal photos. Ah, to be an attorney in the mobile age!
- LTE vs. WiMAX – I was surprised (once again!) when one speaker actual felt mobile WiMAX still has a chance. Um, sorry, no, it’s all LTE now. To have a single, universal, broadband, worldwide technology has been nirvana for the 20 years I’ve been working in wireless, and, while, sure, there will still be a broad range of frequencies involved, we’re closer to commonality here than ever, meaning that a single subscriber unit (plus Wi-Fi, of course) will be all that we need. Applications can rely on decent IP performance, and off we go. Sure, this vision will still take years to complete, but we’re now seeing real progress. And, the icing on all this is LTE Advanced, an upgrade now being developed that will take us to 100+ Mbps, and perhaps as high as 1 Gbps. Yes, into a handset!
- So, if we can begin to move our focus and attention up the protocol stack in wireless networking, can we similarly begin to de-emphasize the mobile OS? No such luck, at least not until we virtualize the client – something I advocated in more than one session. Diversity has serious associated costs, and at the enterprise we need to focus on information, not the latest, coolest, and most cleverly-marketed gadget. More on this subject in an upcoming column, though, as there’s no good solution to this problem on the horizon.
And a couple of other points: Very large-scale, mission-critical wireless LANs are at work in many organizations today, quietly constituting not the primary or default, but rather the only access in many applications, thanks largely to advances in management systems. There is, however, no resolution to the question of which approach to WLAN architecture is “best”, and the lack of good analytical models and/or the results of valid freespace benchmarks (i.e., real-world testing) will continue to allow vendors free reign with their claims of performance, capability, and superiority. And, finally, my session on Architecting Optimal Solutions emphasized the need for end-to-end systems thinking in devising mobile (and, indeed any IT) solutions, along with appropriate business and personnel management. I hate to admit this as an engineer and gadget addict myself, but it’s not always just about the technology.
In short, we still have way more variables than equations in the domain of wireless and mobile. Solutions are most certainly not obvious in every case. But the opportunities for value and ROI have never been greater, and further improvements will only add to the excitement that keeps this space relevant, vibrant, and vital.