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Mobile Appreciation

Seamless integration between mobile and back-office applications is possible with IBM i.



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Mobile technology is everywhere—literally. With ever-expanding mobile offerings and the introduction of newer, faster and better technology, you can access your favorite and most helpful computer applications no matter where you are. People are busier than ever and it’s often a necessity to take work on the road. Having constant and reliable access to their company’s applications is critical. To stay relevant and competitive, businesses must offer mobile applications to their employees and customers.

IBM Systems Magazine, Power Systems edition recently conducted a survey to get a feel for how many businesses are going mobile. More than 1,200 IBM i readers responded to the survey (of note: 31 percent of the survey responders work in IT management). Eighty-three percent of responders indicated they have deployed a mobile solution, which isn’t entirely surprising. Of those 83 percent, 18.4 percent noted their mobile solution was very successful, 42.1 percent indicated they had moderate success and 22.5 percent said they had slight success. Of these responders, 47.9 percent admitted they haven’t tried to deploy mobile solutions yet, citing security as the top concern. The second-highest concern that’s causing the hesitation to adopt mobile technology is companies’ uncertainty as to how mobile applications would integrate with back-office applications. For links to the supplements containing the survey article and security concerns articles, see “More on Mobile” on page 13.

A Few Simple Steps

Aaron Bartell, RPG developer and owner of mowyourlawn.com, is familiar with the concerns people have expressed regarding deploying mobile applications. He has developed mobile apps for IBM i users for nearly two years.

Bartell says some people think that if they put their machines on the Internet in the form of a mobile application, then every hacker in the world will have access to it. “In one regard, that’s true,” he says. “Once you’re on the Internet, you’ve opened yourself up to the world. But the reality of it is using a well-configured system—especially an IBM i system, which is one of the most secure systems you can have on the Internet—will keep your data secure.” Some businesses try to work around having all of their data on the Internet by putting a separate Windows* server onto the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on the Internet to redirect traffic in a raw fashion from the Windows server to the internal firewall, and then eventually through the IBM i. In the computing world, a DMZ is a small subnetwork that sits between the trusted internal network and an untrusted external network (i.e., the Internet). This is something Bartell calls “security through obscurity.” When companies add that Windows server, they are actually adding another potential failure point. “A Windows box, in my opinion, is significantly less secure than an IBM i with just a little network appliance sitting in front of it,” says Bartell.

Instead, users should have a decent network appliance in place that’s holding court as the firewall in connection to the Internet. With the appropriate domain and IP address, the network appliance can forward requests to the single HTTP port on the IBM i. The network appliance can then handle denial service attacks and other security issues. Data should also be transferred securely, which requires an SSL digital certificate. Bartell says this is fairly simple to set up on the IBM i (see “Using Certificates for External Authentication,” page 10).

Thinking Outside of the Box Businesses that want to test the mobile application waters may first want to develop an internal application. Bartell says people may not realize their phones can help address critical business needs. One customer asked Bartell to develop an application that would allow employees to scan the bar code of a box and send that information to the IBM i, which would then send an image of the box’s contents to the employees’ mobile Android devices. This is a good example of a mobile-application test run because it can all be handled through a company’s local Wi-Fi connection. An internal application can help a company softly introduce a business benefit to mobile devices as well as introduce a scenario for how this technology can be used.

“People aren’t thinking outside of the box enough,” he says. “It’s cliché, but reality. They should ask: ‘What does the device have? It has a camera, GPS capabilities and scanning capabilities—now how can we use those to create an app for our users?’ ” The IBM i client base typically seems to be three to five years behind the rest of the world when it comes to adopting new technologies, according to Bartell. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, because bugs and glitches can usually be ironed out by the time IBM i users start implementing the technology. One disadvantage of this wait time, however, is that the opportunity to develop mobile applications may ultimately be offered to another department within that IT shop.

Bartell has developed mobile applications for many front-runner businesses that entrust his company to provide mobile technology while keeping their servers secure. “We’ve been doing public Web apps since the late 1990s to early 2000s,” Bartell says. “It’s not a new thing for us, but it’s like pulling teeth trying to convince some companies to put their IBM i out on the Internet so we can subsequently communicate to it from a mobile device.”

Caroline Vitse is a freelance writer based in Rochester, Minnesota.

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