Much of the hype about mobility these days is focused around phone-like devices, which have come a long way compared with a few years ago. But for most organisations, laptops remain the mobile device of the masses -- and they present even bigger challenges for technical administrators trying to keep track of the data they hold.
Snapshot on Parks Victoria
Source: Parks Victoria
Parks Victoria, the state government body charged with administrating the Garden State's 4.1 million hectares of parks -- including 39 national parks, 13 marine national parks, 11 marine sanctuaries, 2785 nature reserves, 8400 Aboriginal Affairs Victoria registered indigenous cultural heritage sites, and more.
Patrolling so much land naturally requires a lot of travel, which makes the organisation a natural for introducing mobile computing. In the past, however, the organisation had been struggling to provide enough mobile computing capabilities: just 70 laptops were available to 1200 staff, spread over 110 offices across the state.
"Essentially, everyone had a desktop and if they want to go work in the field or had to be more mobile, they'd have to go find themselves one of the notebooks and plan it out," explains network manager Gavin Russell. "There was always much higher demand than what we had."
Keeping in touch
As Parks Victoria's latest three-year desktop refresh cycle neared its close, the agency began investigating the possibility of migrating employees to using laptops as their primary computers. This objective was promising both in terms of providing mobility to employees, and also in supporting the organisation's goal of being carbon neutral.
"Notebooks use around one-third the power of desktops," Russell says. "That was quite a big driver in the end, in that we could show considerable savings on carbon credits and power usage. We calculated about a $70 saving per unit per annum, just by switching to laptops."
With its notebook ambitions secured, Parks Victoria began the process of rolling out laptops across its workforce. Consideration of options led the organisation to Dell, from which it sourced nearly 1000 laptop computers for the two-year staggered rollout.
Providing laptops to staff was just the beginning, however: Parks Victoria faced the need to keep the devices connected to back-end information systems including the MapInfo geographical information system and the inhouse ParkView management system. This need was soon resolved by pairing each laptop user with a mobile data service on Telstra's Next-G network, which would provide a solid connection with good bandwidth wherever it was available.
Continual connection via Next-G resolved a major issue for Parks Victoria, whose employees had previously been forced to presage their data requirements by copying large volumes of information onto the laptops before heading into the field. This meant many gigabytes of data in some cases: many employees were away from their offices for three months to manage bush fires last Christmas.
"Before Next-G, they would copy data locally and try to use it locally, but there was always an issue of keeping it up to date," says Russell. "Trying to keep them with the latest version was an issue, and there was always confusion over who had the latest maps. Now, with people being mobile, they can always get the latest data from our servers."
Keeping data totally centralised may provide the most effective management strategy, but it's not always practical when there is so much data being managed -- and created. "We do have people that want to store information locally, but we try to cut that down as much as possible," Russell adds.
Parks Victoria long ago dealt with this issue regarding its 100 Garmin GPS-enabled data collection devices, which are regularly used to monitor rabbit migration, weed infestation and other parkland issues. Using the SOTI MobiControl device management suite, data created on the devices is automatically synchronised to a central server for incorporation into management databases.
Although conventional tools like Microsoft Systems Management Server and Windows Update Services help Parks Victoria keep all of the laptops' applications and operating system configurations up-to-date, the agency still has no formal solution for synchronising data between mobile computers and the head office -- but Russell says he's looking into it.
"The size of the data is quite concerning," he says. "As soon as they try to connect up, you're talking gigabytes of spatial data they've changed, how do you do that? We're looking for a deduplication solution that will only copy the bits that have changed instead of the whole file."
Halfway through the laptop rollout, the organisation's employees are making the most of the new devices. Employees are more productive, have a better work-life balance, and can operate more independently for longer times without having to return to the office. "It's the travel that really hurts," Russell says.
In the long term, the laptops will provide another benefit by facilitating Parks Victoria's objective of becoming completely carbon neutral. This has played out in efforts to shift its large fleet of vehicles towards greener models, as well as a major server virtualisation project that has resolved what Russell calls "major power and air conditioning issues" by reducing overall power consumption significantly.