Critical Testing Criteria: Mobile Apps for Systems Management

The convenience of being able to perform common systems management tasks by using a mobile device rather than a full-blown desktop is appealing to IT managers and staff alike. Whether your preferred device is a smartphone or a tablet, there is a bewildering array of tools out there competing for your screen as well as your wallet.

Systems management is exploring a new frontier-your pocket. Although the idea of using mobile devices for remote management isn't new, the choices available to IT managers and staff are growing by leaps and bounds. Of course, the more portable the device, the more likely it is that you'll have it with you when you need it. With that in mind, here are 11 things that are the most important considerations when you're evaluating go-anywhere management tools.

1. Security, Part 1: There's no way to overstate this concern. The tools you use have to provide an acceptable level of protection both of credentials and of communications. Encryption is a must, but take a good look at key lengths and encryption algorithms as well, both for data stored on the device or data in flight.

2. Platform support: In the majority of situations, a tool that can work with 80 percent of your installed base is more useful than a tool that's able to get very granular with only half your systems.

3. Eschew needless bling: Flashy apps may impress your friends when you're standing around a bar, but make sure that alerts and event triggers are configured to an appropriate level. There's nothing worse than having to pull out your mobile every 10 minutes, on what's supposed to be a day off, for what turns out to be a series of "never-mind" messages.

4. Only carry what you need: It might be cool to have the entire IT equipment inventory in a database on your phone, but do you really need it to follow you home?

5. Backup, backup, backup: The phone is no place for irreplaceable data; put that stuff in a proper repository. If you're collecting data in an app that doesn't let you export it with ease to desktop or server applications, you're just asking for trouble.

6. Security, Part 2: Does the application provide its own security, such as a passcode lock, or does it rely on the device's built-in protection, which may or may not be active?

7. Offline vs. online: Does the application provide for offline operation? Many server rooms don't have very good mobile reception, and you may not want to provide wireless access in this part of the operation. A trouble ticket application is one example of an application that doesn't need constant network access to be useful.

8. Assume the worst: Your device will be lost or stolen, and someone will guess your password, unlock your screen, and turn off network access before you can initiate a device wipe. What do you do that's more constructive than updating your resume?

9. Input has its limits: Mobile devices such as smartphones don't have a lot of screen real estate to devote to interface elements that are taken for granted on the desktop. If the app relies too heavily on drop-down menus, it may be difficult or frustrating to use when there are many items to choose from.

10. License portability: "Who paid for the app?" becomes a problem when someone leaves the company and you want to give the new hire a toolset matching that of the former employee. Look into licensing that bypasses the user-oriented app markets of device vendors.

11. Don't forget the back end: What do you need to install or configure on other systems in order for the app to be useful?