Government Agencies Probe Depths of Mobile Computing
Government Agencies Probe Depths of Mobile Computing<@VM>DARPA<@VM>OFFICE ANYWHERE<@VM>WIRELESS PERSONAL COMPUTING TABLET<@VM>SYBASE, SYMANTEC AND GOLDMINE<@VM>Some Resources for Further Investigation
Surveying the uneven terrain of mobile computing at this juncture in the network revolution of the '90s is akin to standing beside Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as they set out to solve the latest dastardly crime. What comes to mind is that famous refrain of Holmes: "The game's afoot."
You need look no further than the groundbreaking research supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Arlington, Va., or the "Office Anywhere" initiative undertaken by the General Services Administration.
If you want hardware as evidence that the game is afoot, you could view the latest and slickest piece of cyberspace-age equipment from Aqcess Technologies Inc., Santa Ana, Calif., a new handheld computer that the company calls the Qbe (pronounced cube) PCT, for wireless personal computing tablet.
Along with this diverse array of activity are continuing updates on well-worn paths of well-known companies, such as Sybase Inc., Emeryville, Calif.; Symantec Corp., Cupertino, Calif.; and GoldMine Software Corp., Pacific Palisades, Calif., to advance mobile computing in their own traditional niche.
At the farthest reaches of the horizon, where technical challenges are the order of the day, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding research that will, for example, let mobile users form automatically ad hoc networks and exchange a wide range of voice, data and multimedia information.
The organization that brought you the Internet is now funding the Global Mobile Information Systems program, or GloMo, to focus research attention on a defense wireless environment.The business community, which builds morale by using military parallels in its assault on new markets, is likely to find more than a few new terms to add to its enterprise lexicon after reading about the initiatives now taking shape in DARPA's advanced technology office.
Tom Meyer, director of the new systems office, which emerged in a recent agency reorganization and where GloMo is housed, said the unit's focus is communications, maritime and early entry and special operations.
Speaking at DARPATech '99 in June, he detailed a number of key programs and issues. Among them is leveraging versatile software programmable radios. Today, about 30 percent of a military radio is software. That amount probably will increase to 80 percent in a few years. Here, the advanced technology office is looking into advanced waveforms and new protocols to ensure command and control connections are maintained.
Another issue is agile spectrum management. Given the competing needs of commercial spectrum allocation and increasing sensor data rates, the warfighter is squeezed for spectrum. As Meyer noted, ATO is exploring how to optimize the spectrum allocation within the war theater, as well as how to squeeze the maximum data rate out of the bandwidth provided.
A third area is assured access, especially in hostile environments or those with significant multipath or fading caused by buildings or terrain features. Called for is a system that degrades gracefully and offers multilevel security.
A fourth issue is the development of high bandwidth, self-forming, autonomous networks for moving vehicles and soldiers.
For Robert Ruth, GloMo program manager, the mission is to "make the mobile environment a first-class citizen in the Defense Information Infrastructure," in essence, to provide easy-to-use connectivity and access to services for wireless mobile users.
As explained at the DARPA program's Web site, the advanced guard, forward-deployed, tactical military units are heavily, even exclusively, dependent on wireless communications. And many of the networked computing operations available in the wired world do not work, or at least do not work well, in the wireless world.
Thus, wireless communications often are unreliable, with fading, high-bit error rates and sporadic connectivity. They also suffer from relatively short ranges, induce delays in transmission and feature low data-rate capacity when compared to wired network services.
These limits could disrupt military plans at critical times. As a result, the military demands approaches that improve technologies at the communications channel level, the networking level and the software application level.
The overall goal is to compensate for the shortfalls in mobile wireless channels. Enter the GloMo program, which covers mobile application support techniques, mobile networking and wireless nodes.
Looking at what is unique about mobile wireless communications networks brings into view two issues, said Ruth. The first is these networks are mobile. This means you have distances between links as well as network topologies that may change frequently. Compare the situation with fixed networks that may change topologies because of equipment outages but do not have the added burden of node mobility.
The second issue is that such networks rely on radio frequency communications. This typically translates to lower bandwidth and less reliability.
"When you put these two together in the real environment, there is a great deal of variation in link quality. And connectivity may be sporadic," said Ruth. "In our program, we attack mobile wireless as communications systems, not just as technology. They key question is how to harness the power of the computer to compensate for the limitations of the network."
GloMo has advocated and advanced adaptive techniques that go across layers, like physical/radio, networking and applications support, to compensate for changes in the environment as well as to exploit opportunities.
According to Ruth, there are two problems that derive from these adaptive techniques. The first is to maintain link connectivity and link quality. In this case, the DARPA-sponsored research pioneered new algorithms that automatically extract link quality information and adapt wireless node parameters such as power, data rate and spreading gain and forward error correction (an error detection and correction mechanism) as needed.
The second problem is to maintain quality of service in highly dynamic network topologies. Here, GloMo developed a number of technologies, such as algorithms and protocols for dynamic time slot allocation, elastic virtual circuits, automatic adaptation for network density changes and multicast routing.
"Underlying everything we do in mobile wireless military networks is the need for security and survivability," said Ruth. GloMo implemented security architectures for secure routing. It is developing techniques for secure neighbor discovery and authentication. GloMo also is developing techniques for efficient over-the-air re-keying in mobile ad hoc networks, he said.
One example of DARPA-sponsored research in this area is the work on mobile data access at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The objective there is to develop middleware and application-level solutions for mobile information access.
As noted in their project description, researchers at Carnegie Mellon are working on techniques to allow mobile clients to access different types of data on servers under varying networking conditions. One goal is to make adaptation a core capability of computer clients, letting them automatically track and compensate for a changing environment. This is done with two different adaptation approaches, called application-transparent and application-aware.
Explored under the name Coda File System, application-transparent adaptation is an approach in which the system bears full responsibility for adaptation and resource management. Its strength is for legacy applications that can run unmodified.
The other approach, application-aware adaptation, is explored through the so-called Odyssey platform for mobile computing. Here, responsibility for adaptation is divided between the system and individual applications.
Carnegie Mellon researchers also are conducting research in mobile IP and ad hoc networking in their Monarch project. This program addresses mobility and adaptation at layers of the system below Coda and Odyssey.
Daniel Nels Berkland
At the other extreme of DARPA research for the future of mobile computing is the just-in-time Office Anywhere initiative at the General Services Administration.
Managed by Wanda Smith, chief operations officer for the new business unit, Office Anywhere is a customized mobile office package comprised of four components: a portable computing device, a network, coordination software tying them together, and communications equipment. The tag line for the program sums up its focus: "Technology that Moves with You."
According to Smith, Office Anywhere is unique because there is one contract for the entire package of products and services. This offers potential agency customers a turnkey solution for mobile computing through one-stop shopping with GSA.
What it amounts to for the end user is products that are portable, small, light and battery-powered. The off-the-shelf products include laptops, handheld devices, adapters, modems, cellular phones, printers, scanners and cameras. And the services cover the gamut from technical support, integration, training and maintenance to technology refreshment.
"Our role is to help other federal agencies define their mobile computing requirements and then direct them to the GSA contract vehicles that will best meet their needs. We want to sell solutions," said Smith. "From our viewpoint, if your goal is to e-mail from outside your office, then you need a total solution. Our approach is to understand what the person needs and deliver the solution that works."
She defined four federal market segments as potential users of a mobile computing solution such as the GSA Office Anywhere package.
First are federal workers sent to a disaster area. A good example would be staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who are responsible for reducing loss of life and property from all types of hazards, such as hurricanes. Their demands could include quickly setting up remote operations to exchange relevant data with other agencies. Durability, portability and reliability might be features they require in their solution.
Second is the mobile field worker, such as census takers, law enforcement officers, claims representatives, federal investigators and auditors, sales or service representatives and inspectors. They might require a solution that allows them to transmit data to a server from a laptop.
The third market covers the telecommuter working from home or a satellite office. The requirements here are connectivity for e-mail, sending and receiving word processing documents and faxes, printing documents and collaborating through scheduling.
The last market is the executive traveler attending a conference, general meeting, seminar, workshop or trade show. He or she might demand a solution to get e-mail, set up conference calls, rearrange meeting dates and keep in touch with home offices and equipment.
While more workers seriously consider mobile computing solutions, and managers demand it from staff, this alternative to 100 percent physical presence in the office faces a number of challenges. Among them are the need for new standards of performance for mobile or home-based workers and a redefinition of the help-desk role.
"The mobile worker needs to know what the rules are, since increased productivity and improved customer satisfaction will continue to be important concerns, whether or not you are mobile," said Smith.
She added that a new burden to understand equipment, including hardware, software and connectivity, falls on the mobile worker in the beginning, even with extensive help-desk support.
Smith said another side to mobile computing for the government is the desire to accommodate staff in order to retain talent and avoid recruiting costs. There also are issues of morale and quality of life of the mobile worker to be addressed.
In remote support, an important area, most observers agree the help desk for remote workers is different than that for onsite users. For example, while most remote users might want 24-hour, seven-day availability, that might not be cost effective for onsite workers.
One company that has worked with Smith and offers a complete solution for mobile computing is Mobile Universe Corp., Alexandria, Va. It considers mobile computing equivalent to the concept of the virtual office, one where the user enjoys the functionality of a fully equipped, office-computing environment, such as e-mail, voice mail, faxing, collaboration and data retrieval, without having to be in the office.
Harry Garcia, president of Mobile Universe, reinforces the idea that before you let the worker loose in a mobile environment, you need to train him or her well.
"The first thing to recognize is that mobile computing is not a technology, but a movement," Garcia said. "And the main challenge is the knowledge. You can have a notebook, modem and connectivity, but if you can't put them together, you will be unproductive."
From his standpoint, one of the main challenges ahead for mobile computing is the need to re-engineer the help-desk function. When a solution is bundled, the help desk can be organized uniformly to address specific issues. But that changes when you are outside vs. inside the enterprise.
"What is needed are more sophisticated remote diagnostics, the ability, for instance, to look into the computer from anywhere," Garcia said. "The help desk today is more traditional. When the LAN goes down, the vendor sends a technician. That is not an option when the user is 3,000 miles away."
And, of course, all this comes with a host of costs. While GSA's Smith is quick to note no one price fits all, the total cost of ownership includes a number of common items, including hardware, software and upgrades, training, maintenance, integration services, communication services, administrative costs and down time.
niche in the PC product category, Aqcess Technologies has entered the computer fray with its Qbe personal computing tablet, or PCT.
Designed as a handheld computer with the speed and functionality of a desktop, the Qbe combines some eye-opening features in its wireless box. You find TouchPen technology, handwriting and speech recognition, a digital camera, multimedia and, of course, Internet access.
The PCT weighs 4 pounds and measures 14 inches by 10 inches by 1.5 inches, just a bit larger than a yellow legal notepad. It also features a 13.3-inch active matrix color display with 1,024 by 768 resolution. There is speech recognition software, a detachable camera and an optional bar-code reader.
Inside the box, there is a Pentium II 266 megahertz to 400 megahertz processor, with Pentium III 400 megahertz to 600 megahertz models planned for December, and the Windows 98 or Windows NT operating system. Secondary storage comes as a 4 gigabyte hard drive which can be upgraded to 6 gigabytes, 64 megabytes of primary storage which can be upgraded to 512 megabytes, a modem and Ethernet mini-PCI card, internal microphone and stereo speakers and a smart card and magnetic-stripe card reader.
You can add a host of peripherals with a hot swappable device bay, a universal serial bus, Firewire ports and two PCMCIA slots. There is also an image capture module port to support devices such as digital cameras, bar-code readers and scanners. The battery is lithium-ion rated at 2.5 to 4 hours. And the whole package rests inside magnesium alloy.
Estimated street price: $2,995. And that includes what is called a Porticle, a mobile docking station that gives you more serial, parallel, SVGA and PS/2 ports.
In the realm of traditional computing, companies such as Sybase Inc., Symantec Corp. and Goldmine continue to ply their trade, improving their products to an increasingly sophisticated, demanding and mobile federal audience.
One Sybase customer, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), is using the firm's Adaptive Server Anywhere mobile database as the backbone for its Examiner View mobile application. A bureau of the Treasury Department, OCC charters and regulates national banks and employs 2,100 bank examiners who assess the risk, safety, soundness and legal compliance of financial institutions.
Now used by nearly 300 bank examiners who inspect records onsite and upload their reports to the central computer, Examiner View will see increased activity in the coming months as OCC plans for 2,500 remote users by 2000.
Examiner View gives OCC remote staff tools such as examination schedules and procedures, financial data and reference material on their laptops. The application allows examiners to perform the analytical functions connected with an examination, including scheduling, reviewing historical data, completing procedures, developing a conclusion and producing the examination report.
Using the application, information is entered, replicated to a common database and distributed to other examination team members. OCC management and staff use the database to produce an executive information system and to answer ad hoc queries.
According to Daniel Nels Berkland, OCC Examiner View project manager, the challenges in putting the system into place arose from three technical requirements. First, it had to serve a highly mobile, disconnected work force. This effectively ruled out a client-server solution, since the work was done offline.
Second, there was the need for a robust relational database that could handle both relational data and text, which provided information about the data. Lastly, there was the requirement for a rich graphical user interface as a responsive front end for the user.
"All examiners use the same tool. They can actually learn more about their jobs by using it. Our challenge was to give them a tool that did not require them to learn technology," said Berkland.
For the future, he sees the possibility of examiner teams exchanging data among themselves via wireless LAN rather than transmitting it over land lines to the server at the end of their bank inspection. The constraint here is that at least once a day, the examiner must find a phone line. It is an improvement over the past when the non-mobile examiner had to tie up a line inside the bank to send in a report.
"Looking at the needs of the examiner, we wanted to limit the amount of stuff the examiner has to carry into the bank. More equipment would defeat the purpose," Berkland said. "The laptop they already have. Peer-to-peer replication down to the laptop level has been thought about, but is not there yet."
Future directions may include providing Examiner View data for other systems, such as the OCC data warehouse, the large bank information system and other agencies. Further, some of this data may be offered through an extranet. Also under consideration is the development of a browser version of Office View that will allow Examiner View data to be viewed by more users.
Another Sybase customer is the Army, which is using the Sybase SQL Anywhere Studio for the Army War Reserve Deployment System (AWRDS), a relational database with information on Army prepositioned stock in warehouses and aboard ships in the United States and throughout Europe and Asia. Tracking the stock allows it to be transferred to critical areas when necessary.
The vendor in this case is Stanley Associates Inc., Alexandria, Va., a full-service IT solutions company. It has been around since 1966, when it focused on operational research of transportation issues. Today, the company develops client-server and Web-based inventory tracking systems, distribution flow models, computer games and computer-based training systems and offers network engineering, installation and training services.
In the past, the Army's War Reserve Support Command depended on six-month-old paper reports of inventory. The Sybase AWRDS system now provides equipment inventory and readiness information updated every six hours. A distributed database application, AWRDS uses 21 Sybase Adaptive Server Anywhere (ASA) databases.
Every day, military personnel at remote sites do inventory and maintenance, updating information into local ASA databases. Every six hours, using SQL Anywhere Studio's SQL Remote, that information is replicated to the central AWRDS server in Virginia. This ensures all Army War Reserve sites have access to the most up-to-date information.
For Mike Flint, Stanley data quality engineering manager, and Craig Rosen, Stanley replication team manager, there are several lessons learned in working with the Army in setting up AWRDS. Among them is the need for careful coordination between the databases worldwide when you are doing local replication.
"Synchronization is important in the structure of the database at headquarters and the localized sites. Also important is data synchronization. The question becomes, is the data the same across the world, especially at remote sites? That is critical in the deployment of equipment," said Flint.
Also in the traditional vein of mobile computing is Symantec, with its pcAnywhere32 8.0 product, used by the Naval Inventory Control Point (NAVICP) in Philadelphia and Mechanicsburg, Pa. This unit's mission is to procure, manage and supply spare parts for Navy aircraft, submarines and ships worldwide.
pcAnywhere has remote troubleshooting and help-desk support and provides connectivity for remote and mobile users. Among the key features are centralized management and control, increased security and lightweight directory access protocol directory services.
One place the software finds application is at NAVICP Mechanicsburg with the Files Image Library Entry/Retrieval System, or FILES. This is a document imaging storage and retrieval system that is designed, owned and managed by the Navy. Using FILES, almost any document can be scanned, indexed, stored, retrieved and printed.
As more FILES systems are placed in Navy and other government locations around the world, offering customer support can present a logistical as well as a financial challenge NAVICP. One solution is to install pcAnywhere32 8.0 as a gateway on systems that house FILES, allowing remote network and systems administrators to diagnose the equipment. pcAnywhere32 is also used for file transfers when administrators help mobile users set up laptops.
The Navy also has several hundred copies of GoldMine running on its systems. The newest version of the workgroup contact manager, GoldMine 4.0, features Internet messaging and data synchronization. The company also added support for PDA, alpha numeric messaging and IP to IP Internet synchronization.
A newer product, GoldMine Java, is due out in beta before year's end. It will let users access calendars, contacts, activity lists and e-mail in a secure environment.
The Java client will be based on a three-tier architecture, made up of a 300-kilobyte Java client, a new object-based GoldMine NetServer and the GoldMine database file server.
One of the benefits is that since all transactions are performed on NetServer, the data will always be synchronized with the client and the server. On the security side, the Java client uses 128-bit encryption and its own proprietary protocol, revealing only encrypted data and leaving the true data behind the corporate firewall. GSA Office Anywhere (www.gsa.gov/anywhere/indexm.htm)
The IEEE 802.11 specification is a wireless LAN standard developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering committee to specify an "over-the-air" interface between a wireless client and a base station or AccessPoint, as well as among wireless clients. First conceived in 1990, the standard evolved from various draft versions (drafts 1 through 6) with approval of the final draft June 26, 1997. (www.wlif.org/tech/wp_80211.html)
Mobile and Wireless Computing Index (World Wide Web Virtual Library) is maintained by the MosquitoNet Group at Stanford University. Its purpose is to share information with the research community in mobile and wireless computing. You will find data about conferences, journals, projects, organizations, books and products. (mosquitonet.stanford.edu/mobile)
Newsgroup (moderated) that examines standards for wireless network technology. (comp.std.wireless)
Portable Computer and Communications Association offers a forum for those in the computer and communications industries interested in wireless mobility. The association's vision is untethered, anywhere, anytime information access. (www.pcca.org)
Short Tutorial on Wireless LANs and IEEE 802.11 by Daniel Lough, T. Keith Blankenship and Kevin Krizman, The Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. (www.computer.org/student/looking/
Wireless LAN Interoperability Forum (WLI Forum) promotes the use of wireless LANs through the delivery of interoperable products and services at all levels of the value chain. WLI Forum members support open competition between compatible products to benefit customers. (www.wlif.org)
For legislation, see thomas.loc.gov. For example, Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 (Engrossed in Senate)[S.800.ES]; Wireless Privacy Enhancement Act of 1999 (Referred in Senate)[H.R.514.RFS]; Electronic Securities Transactions Act (Introduced in the Senate)[S.921.IS]; Millennium Digital Commerce Act (Introduced in the Senate)[S.761.IS]; Third Millennium Electronic Commerce Act (Reported in the Senate)[S.761.RS]; and Electronic Rights for the 21st Century Act (Introduced in the Senate)[S.854.IS]