Sunday, 8 April 2012

Apps Mania 3: Managing change in enterprise applications

In part 2 of Apps Mania we discussed the practical questions faced when considering the development of an enterprise application. In this final part we examine how to efficiently manage applications once they are in place.

Once you’ve taken the tricky development decisions and succeeded in creating an efficient mobile application which your workforce is comfortable using, you are likely to be confronted with an awareness that the job has only just begun.

On-going change is a massive consideration in the management of applications. As well as mobile device lifecycles, your business needs will inevitably change with time and with the demands of your customers. As a result, careful consideration must be given to the impact of change. Mobile applications should be designed to cope with every changing demand of your customers and of the market. Dynamic flexibility which caters for change is a must for the enterprise applications of fieldworkers.

If you need to cater for dynamic change, the whole cycle of re-coding and platform testing applications can be a process which is lengthy, commercially difficult and costly.

Native mobile applications may not always be the correct choice and deploying an updated application through a public app store will ultimately rely on the end user manually updating their application, which may result in human error. Cross platform dynamic configuration tools produced by specialist firms like TBS Enterprise Mobility negate such risks.

With TBS's TaskMaster and products of its kind, agile management facilities like TM Studio give the ability to react quickly and modify applications within minutes or hours, rather than days or weeks.

Making connections

Another factor demanding to be addressed in a strategic, long term manner is how an application connects in order to both send and receive data – and how this data is integrated with other core IT systems.

While the application itself earns unconditional attention, it remains a small but vital component of an over-all solution. Connectivity methods used to pull data into an application and push it back into a core system deserve serious consideration as well. Reliability here is paramount because if integration is weak, everything falls down.

Any communications infrastructure that connects a mobile application to a back-end system needs to be resilient, with the data transmitted guaranteed to be 100% clean, secure and accurate. Business dangers include incorrect billing, as well as distorted or lost task data, which can compromise a whole operation.

Added to this is the need for offline functionality. Given that fieldworkers can operate in remote and sheltered locations, it’s critical for enterprise applications to support partially connected environments and entirely unconnected environments.

Server infrastructure

Middleware connecting mobile devices and applications to infrastructure must be robust and reliable. As user numbers increase and the fieldworker pressure on applications grows, consideration should be given to how this is best implemented:

- utilise dedicated servers within a data-centre
- consider using the Cloud to bear the load
- or purchase and manage servers independently.

The Cloud is often considered an attractive option because it is relatively low-cost and can be resilient if configured correctly. Pay per usage models also makes it commercially predicable and easier to scale operations.

However, public Clouds are weak in terms of service level agreements, meaning that trusting cloud-based architecture for mission-critical apps can be a gamble. Last April Amazon’s EC2 Cloud experienced a critical outage for around 12 hours.

With the ownership of high-cost servers comes full autonomy, but the unpredictability of associated expense and maintenance. If mission-critical SLAs are vital then data-centre hosting would be the preferred option.

Total cost of ownership

Once an application has been developed and implemented with a robust underlying support, further costs should not be forgotten. In creating a long term management strategy, contingency budgets should be prepared for human resources of training and managing disparately located fieldworkers, as well as for maintenance costs.

The nature of enterprise applications and their use by geographically dispersed workforces unavoidably brings complex support issues, the implications of which should all be explored from the outset.

The right choice for your business?

Due to the accelerated pace of change in the mobile industry, businesses need to adopt a future-proofed strategy which is free from being shackled to any single mobile platform.

Businesses clearly have the best understanding of their own needs and what processes a mobile solution can effectively cater for. But care must be taken to involve different stakeholders at all levels throughout the design and deployment process, and once the application is in use. The views, experience and knowledge of fieldworkers is vital to ensuring not only a functional success, but also to maintain user support for new technologies.

While design and implementation presents a specific set of challenges, on-going user and technical support requires different skills and can demand considerable resource. Thought should be given to how these needs can be successfully accommodated, allowing fieldworkers to maintain operations through all working hours and conditions.

Finally, organisations need to be confident that if they have in-house development skills to produce a successful enterprise mobility solution – and to ensure they are capable of developing and upgrading it over a number of years. If challenges are likely to be faced in keeping up with the breakneck speed of change, a third-party supplier could prove the most sensible option

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