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Computing on the fly is replacing the need for desktop computers

Brian Taylor

Federal agencies are facing substantial outlays to manage mobile computing devices as they shift from a culture of PCs and laptops to smartphones and tablets. But there is a silver lining. Agencies are likely to save money if they don’t have to maintain their own systems to secure and support employee mobile devices. And vendors offer discounts for volume purchases of their software and services.                    

Providers of mobile device management tools—including Atlanta-based AirWatch, MobileIron of Mountain View, Calif., and Zenprise of Redwood City, Calif.—charge between $3 and $4 per month for client software installed on an employee’s mobile phone or tablet. AirWatch is a supplier on the Veterans Affairs Department’s initial $4.4 million mobile contract awarded in October.

That monthly fee may seem like small change until it’s applied somewhere like the Defense Department, where planners are looking to move every active-duty and reserve organization to mobile computing. Defense’s workforce includes 1.4 million active-duty troops, 1.3 million National Guard and reserve personnel, and 800,000 civilian employees—that’s 3.5 million people.

If everyone in the department needed a mobile device—the Defense Information Systems Agency envisions widespread use—at $3 a month the Pentagon would face an annual tab of $126 million, and at $4 a month the cost would be $168 million a year for the necessary software. VA could end up with a bill between $10 million and $14 million annually to provide mobile support to its workforce of 300,000.

Providers offer perpetual client licenses for about $50 apiece, which in the case of Defense would result in a one-time cost of $75 million, and at VA, the tab would be $15 million. Mobile device management vendors sell both cloud-based services and in-house network support. 

Some companies, including AirWatch, do not charge annual maintenance fees for mobile services based in the cloud. But if an agency chooses to host the software itself annual maintenance and support fees could run about 20 percent of the contract cost. For Defense, annual support costs could range from $24 million to $32 million. Hardware and software charges to set up department servers average about $20,000, and about $30,000 for cloud-based service.

But large agencies shouldn’t expect to pay list prices for mobile client licenses, software and services, according to AirWatch chairman Alan Dabbiere and Chandra Sekar, director of vertical product marketing for Zenprise. They say large-scale deployments would net substantial discounts. 

The Pentagon could qualify for a 30 percent discount, based on volume, according to Bernie Skoch, a technology consultant and retired Air Force general who did a tour at DISA. While still a stiff bill, the department could make it up in savings generated from not having to develop its own systems, he says, such as expensive tactical command-and-control networks. Skoch says he has no doubt commercial smartphones and tablets will become a key part of tactical systems.

Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, says a Defensewide purchase of mobile management software will “not be cheap.” He says the smart approach would be to phase in tablets as the inventory of desktop PCs and laptops reach the end of their life cycle. The real savings, Suss and Skoch agree, would come from replacing tactical radios, which can cost $70,000 apiece. Commercial gear that costs $500 or less and requires a minimal monthly fee for client software can look like a bargain in comparison. 

Vendors say they offer sophisticated software for securely managing and controlling smartphones and tablets, coupled with a private app store for users. Access to these apps, in most cases, is governed by role-based permissions set in an enterprise’s active directory.

Ojas Rege, vice president of strategy for MobileIron, says the company’s system walls off the most sensitive apps from employees who are not authorized to use them, and even access to commercial apps is routed through its private app store. Zenprise mobile software allows users to access commercial app stores, but can detect and inhibit installation of apps forbidden by agency information technology managers.

AirWatch has built geolocation software into its mobility software, allowing IT managers to track where a mobile device is being used and to shut it down if it appears to have been stolen. The company also provides IT managers with what could be viewed as the nuclear deterrent of mobile computing—the ability to remotely and automatically wipe a smartphone or tablet of all data if an employee violates policies on commercial apps and security. This includes devices owned by employees. MobileIron and Zenprise offer similar features.

As agencies develop bring-your-own-device policies, Dabbiere says the Office of Management and Budget should offer guidance on who must pay for client software on personal devices—employees or their agencies. 

In January, the Health and Human Services Department released its mobile strategy, which expects employees to pay for mobility management software for their personally owned devices. 

Despite the substantial cost of mobility management software, DISA has made it clear it must adopt new guidelines for mobile wireless computing, based on a cohesive enterprisewide strategy. DISA officials say Defense must embrace mobility management tools to ensure military users don’t lag behind the private sector in secure mobile computing capability worldwide.

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