If there's a market for the last mile of software -- software that moves actionable data (be it customer information or device management/reconfiguration instructions) closer to the front lines of business where the actual transactions and customer interactions are taking place (whether we're talking about a mobile workforce, a distributed retail operation, or branch offices), then Sybase subsidiary iAnywhere, along with its year-old acquisition of XcelleNet, is in the thick of that market.
Dating back to the eighties, before the various database vendors provided ways to empower distributed scenarios where multiple, geographically dispersed databases could synchronize with each other to ensure that, at least for a moment in time, headquarters and all locations were working off the same data set, a small Atlanta-based company called XcelleNet was providing companies -- for example larger retailers -- with the RemoteWare: the secret sauce to get the job done. Once a day at some given time, all the different locations would connect with headquarters and sales data, customer information, and product SKUs would be passed back and forth in such a way that all of a company's systems were working off a data set that was less than 24 hours old. It wasn't nearly as timely as a real-time system, but it was significantly cheaper since it could use pay as you go connections like phone lines instead of wide area networks that would have to be kept online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. XcelleNet's synchronization technology was extremely resilient to network faults as well. If a connection failed, resumption at whatever point the failed synchronization left off was automatic.
Today, with thousands of mobile devices in the market, the company's background and experience in reliable data distribution lent itself perfectly to not only synchronizing data with mobile devices (notebooks, tablets, handhelds, etc.), but to manage them as well. At the very least, like many other software products, it had to manage its own software. So, as long as the company had its fingers into the endpoints and was managing its own software, why not manage the hardware as well as the other software running on it as well? After licensing a third party remote device management offering from Mobile Automation (now a part of iPass) to compliment iAnywhere's mobile database solutions, the company realized that the demand for an integrated offering (distributed/mobile databases and device management) was vibrant enough to own the management technology instead of licensing it. As a result, it acquired XcelleNet. There are still some mobile device management pure plays left, Perlego for example (an ASP-based provider of mobile management infrastructure) .
To get a replay of the circuitous path that XcelleNet took to get to where it is today -- the FrontLine product group within iAnywhere (which itself is a subsidiary of Sybase) -- and to get the lowdown on what new management offerings the company is introducing as well as their thoughts on why iAnywhere's offerings are better than the rest, I interviewed the company's senior diirector of marketing Steve Robb and vice president of engineering Joe Owen. The interview is available as an MP3 that can be downloaded or, if you’re already subscribed to ZDNet’s IT Matters series of audio podcasts, it will show up on your system or MP3 player automatically. (See ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in.)
Owens, Robb and I covered a lot of ground. For example, as evidenced by iPass' acquisition of Mobile Automation, mobile management as a feature can compliment way more than just data replication. Whereas iAnywhere will run management tasks during the same session that database data gets replicated, iPass runs similar management tasks when a mobile device connects to through it's network. Mobile management can also be treated as a subset of a larger systems management strategy (as opposed to complimenting data management or connectivity) and be incorporated into offerings like those from Tivoli or Altiris that cover servers as well. Then, there are the features of mobile management, such as specifying how and when senstiive data is encrypted (at rest, while in transit) and whether or not a device's ports are enabled for making copies of the data. Today, just those security features alone have fueled the growth of an entire entire cottage industry that includes companies like Senforce. During the interview, Owen admits that the long spectrum of technologies that can be complimented by something like mobile device management can be confusing to IT buyers who -- because no mobile management pure plays exist anymore -- may have to decide what best to take their mobile management with (cream or milk).
Another topic we covered is platform popularity in the mobile space. For both data and management, iAnywhere targets Palm-based devices, BlackBerries, Windows Mobile and CE-based devices, Symbian-based handsets, and now, according to Owen, with devices based on the OS coming from outfits like Motorola, Linux-based handhelds/phones too. While Owen and Robb were clear that the PalmOS is still an important and primary platform for the company, they were also clear that no single segment is growing as fast as the Windows Mobile part of their business.
One important moral to the interview is that when it comes to selecting mobile management offerings such as iAnywhere's Afaria offering, the devil is often in the details. When comparing offerings, Afaria manages some very granular items that other offerings may not. For example, you can set the priority of certain management tasks (eg: software provisioning) and tell the provisioning function to throttle-down its bandwdith consumption if other activities that the business considers to be more important (ie: e-mail or database replication) should get a higher priority. Where as some offerings are strictly push offering or polling offerings, Afaria's management activities can do both, or be triggered by events. So, for example, Afaria treats sudden availability of connectivity as an event, and can automatically begin its duties. The Afaria server treats the availability of a new virus signature as an event and instead of waiting for a notebook that's set for nightly polling to connect to the network, the server can override the polling option and push priority security updates to notebooks and handheld devices.
Along with some new depth on the security front, iAnywhere has also, with the new release of Afaria (v5.3), integrated the entire offering into Microsoft's Systems Management Server (SMS). This way, instead of having to manage all of those granular preferences and monitor their progress through iAnyWhere's management console, you can view the activities in the Microsoft's SMS console that you might be using to manage the rest of your systems and applications.