With a predicted one trillion Internet-connected devices by 2015, mobile cloud computing is a potent emerging technology.
If I asked you to pick the most over-hyped technology trend of the past year, youd probably pick either cloud computing or smartphones and tablets. Pretty much every tech publication has wall-to-wall coverage of those trends, while plenty of vendors are busily slapping cloud and mobile on a slew of products that are only vaguely so.
The thing about these so-called over-hyped trends, though, is that they really arent. In the build up to the Super Bowl, you will see exhaustive coverage of the Steelers and Packers, and, sure, theres way more hype than Id prefer, even as an expatriate Pittsburgher and rabid Steeler fan. But are those teams really over-hyped when theyre at the top of the NFL heap?
Similarly, cloud computing and mobile get more than their fair share of attention, but on the other hand, investment dollars are flowing into cloud and mobile companies; startups are popping up like weeds, and plenty of incumbents such as Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle and IBM (to name only a few), are betting big on these trends.
One thing much less hyped is that the cloud and mobile are intersecting in many, many places, giving rise to the Mobile Cloud.
How is the mobile cloud different from the cloud? Ask ten different tech experts and youll get ten different answers. Often, the term mobile cloud simply indicates the most common end point accessing a particular cloud, although as the mobile cloud evolves expect some subtle differences in regard to security, back-end infrastructure, app design, etc. to emerge.
Even though the mobile cloud is still in its infancy, here are five things IT should know about the mobile cloud in order to prepare for the future:
1. The mobile cloud will accelerate the consumerization of IT.
As knowledge workers increasingly rely on non-PC devices like smartphones and tablets as their go-to computing platforms, IT is being forced to change and change quickly. Lucky for them that the move away from shrink-wrap software to SaaS and Web Services has been well underway for several years.
IT cant think about things on a node-by-node basis anymore. They must think of resources as aggregate services that they must make securely available to a number of devices, including phones and tablets, said David Link, CEO and co-founder of ScienceLogic, a provider of IT operations and cloud monitoring solutions.
If you walk around any decent-sized cubicle farm, youll find (assuming this isnt a backwards company blocking these things) plenty of people on Facebook, LinkdedIn and Twitter. Some of them will even be using them for work purposes.
In technophilic organizations, youll see people accessing social media and corporate apps from smart phones and tablets. Consumerization isnt something thats coming. Its something thats here.
The demand from employees for iPhones, Androids and tablets places tremendous pressure on IT. In my company, for instance, were getting pressure from our customers to build smartphone and tablet apps for our core applications, Link said. We must deliver functionality from the cloud and implement the support for multiple end devices into our applications. If we werent doing that, wed lose ground to our competitors.
IT has been slow to adjust these changes, so the prospect of a mobile cloud could seem downright horrifying.
However, while the mobile cloud should accelerate the consumerization of IT, this might not be such a bad thing. Done right, the mobile cloud could actually offer IT a path out of the chaos. The mobile cloud could simplify security and limit a number of end-user created headaches.
2. Risk equations are changing.
While vulnerabilities are skyrocketing on mobile devices and hackers are turning their attention to them, smartphones, tablets and the like do not offer the vast number of attack vectors that PCs do in theory.
Apps are vetted. Email is cloud-based and should have some sort of virus and phishing protection behind it. Since the devices by definition roam outside the corporate walls, access control and identity enforcement should be standard.
Moreover, enterprise apps accessed via handsets should prevent users from storing data locally, and, perhaps, could even disallow users from making certain types of changes to the data, depending on a number of factors. These factors include how you logged in, how robust your authentication mechanism was and even where exactly you are.
Using built-in GPS, it wouldnt be difficult to limit certain activities to certain places, such as the office, your home office or certain trusted places where you tend to do work like a specific airport lounge.
The invasion of mobile devices into the enterprise is forcing organizations to rethink how they calculate risk. Blanket policies blocking smartphones wont last. If your organization sticks with them, your most tech-savvy employees will find workarounds workarounds that are often less secure than letting IT figure out how to deliver secure mobile access in the first place.
There is risk with everything, said Custie Crampton, VP of Mobile Device Management Technology at Tangoe, a provider of telecom expense and mobile device management solutions. There are risks to opening applications to mobile devices, yet there are risks such as losing top-level talent or falling behind competitors to not embracing mobile devices.
Crampton believes that the best approach is to start figuring out how to control data and how to manage access to that data, rather than simply blocking classes or types of device. If you create different categories of data, you can then define what each level means and how to control it, he said.
For instance, Level 1 data wouldnt have much risk associated with it and you wouldnt lock it down as tightly as, say, Level 3 data, which could be sensitive, proprietary data that may not be available on mobile devices or even beyond the physical walls of the organization.
You also need visibility into who is coming into your environment, Crampton said. An acceptable level of risk, then, could mean that you dont care if the information goes out of the network, so long as you know who is getting it.
Organizations will then need to create even more data-use policies for more scenarios. If they do, many mobile risks become much more manageable.
The mobile cloud could again be a boon here. If applications have mobile-app components house in the mobile cloud, its easy to shuffle mobile users into a safer, more controlled environment.
3. The Mobile Cloud will change how we work.
Microsoft, Google, Salesforce.com, and plenty of others are rolling out cloud-based features that enable collaboration. Much enterprise collaboration, though, is still done through a tried-and-trued communications medium: email.
And whats the first application everyone wants on their smartphone? Thats right: email.
Email is also often the first application companies seek to move to the cloud. A recent Frost & Sullivan report sums it up nicely:
"After years of uncertainty, the North American hosted enterprise email markets have finally taken off. As businesses perceive email as mission-critical, they were skeptical about email applications residing outside the enterprise in a third-party data center in the past.
However, the entry of large cloud-based providers and on-premise email vendors has lent credibility to the software as a service (SaaS) delivery model. In addition, technology maturity and cost advantages have helped spur the growth of hosted email services among enterprise users."
According to the report, the size, complexity and storage requirement of email are driving it to third-party providers in the cloud. Compliance issues and demand for mobile access are only going to accelerate that trend. The basic tenet of the cloud services model is that customers have a greater choice in terms of the number and range of applications, Frost & Sullivan argues.
The mobile cloud will change how we work in more ways than simply how we access email and how IT manages it. Today, location-awareness is pretty much inherent in mobility. Location-awareness will change how sales teams prospect, how IT delivers security, how marketing and advertising firms interact with customers.
Applications will be more fractured (the single-purpose app model), yet they may well integrate more easily with related apps.
Mobile devices are going to create some challenges for IT, but theyre going to create a different working sensation for individuals, Crampton said. When you can do things like connect your social network to your car, all sorts of behaviors will change. There will be a different paradigm for how we use and think of mobility.
4. The Mobile Cloud will pave the way for the Internet of Things.
Imagine a time when everything from refrigerators to parking meters to pacemakers is connected to the Internet?
If youre imagining a time well into the future, youre either a cynic whos grown wary of these promises and predictions (Ill raise my hand as being guilty here), or you havent realized how cheap processing has become and how much downward price pressure there is on wireless networking.
So much emphasis is being placed on managing cloud services that it seems to me that enterprises are forgetting one key piece of the IT mix devices, David Link of ScienceLogic said. Its not just services that they need to worry about anymore from a management perspective.
Looking at the various reports coming out of IBM, Ericsson and Cisco, we could be looking at potentially one trillion Internet connected devices by 2015. To put that in perspective, we passed the five-billion milestone in late August/early September.
IBM predicts that there will be 1 trillion connected devices by 2015. Cisco moves that up to 2013.
Ericsson looks further ahead and believes there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020, and IMS Research notes that we only just passed the 5-billion-device threshold in August 2010.
If you can put a sensor and a network anywhere, then think of all of the places you might want to monitor and all of the data youd like to collect, said Joy Weiss, President and CEO of Dust Networks. Today, with sensors running on batteries or harvested energy, you already have the ability to get information from anywhere or connect to anything anywhere.
Dust Networks provides wireless sensor networking (WSN) technology that can serve as the cornerstone for such things as industrial sensor networks, smart power grids and smart buildings. Tiny sensors, or motes, can be embedded into or attached to various devices. They then communicate over low-power 802.15.4 and form SmartMeshes, which communicate information back to a single device that manages the sensor network and connects to enterprise applications or transmits data over the public Internet.
When I mentioned that Ive heard this trillion-connected device story before, over and over again, for years and years, Weiss admitted that shes been telling that story for years herself.
Whats different this time is that immediate value is driving the technology, rather than technology providers up to their ears in science projects and hunting around for interesting use cases.
What we see in early applications, although there is a broad variety, is that the application drives the deployment. Its not like someone is coming into the enterprise and dropping sensors around randomly and expecting them to automatically communicate with the rest of your systems and networks, Weiss said.
For instance, many utilities are already deploying wireless mesh infrastructure to enable smart grids. Energy savings, predictive maintenance and asset management are driving the deployment of sensors and the creation of these networks, and theyre already paying big dividends.
5. Its happening whether youre ready for it or not.
Sensors are already monitoring environmental conditions in vineyards. Smart parking meters are already sending text messages to alert drivers of vacant parking spaces, and sensors are being used to monitor corrosion in pipelines.
Previously, these kinds of applications had limited scalability because they tied back into proprietary applications and systems. Soon, though, it will be the mobile cloud driving the so-called smarter planet, as IBM likes to call it.
The Internet of Things or this "Device-aggeddon" as David Link of ScienceLogic refers to it is already here. Its happening, and the only reason that we dont realize it is that much of this is happening in the background.
Sound familiar? Thats exactly what happened in the early stages of cloud adoption. I cant tell you how many emails I received from CIOs and IT managers telling me that they would never sign off on moving core applications to the cloud, yet they were already using Salesforce.com, OpenAir or some other SaaS application. They just didnt think of those as cloud-based applications.
Similarly, its hard to tell whether your power grid is smart or not. How would you know if a pipeline is connected to the public Internet?
You wont until your organization gets into the game and you have to start factoring a broad variety of devices and networks into your larger IT plans.