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Designing a manageable, secure architecture for mobile cloud services

To deliver mobile cloud services, providers need a standard set of mobile APIs for developers and a clear mechanism for mobile device management.

While the cloud has created a revolution in resource agility, empowered mobile users have created a revolution in point-of-activity agility. Figuring out how to deal with two revolutions at one time doesn’t happen automatically. As a result, service providers building their clouds have to take control of both revolutions, particularly where they overlap.

Many operators see the business use of mobile devices and cloud services as their largest opportunity.

Improving mobile cloud control starts on the application side with developer programs. Operators can create their own developer programs but may find that unwieldy if they support a variety of mobile platforms. Most providers are interested in creating hosted components of mobile services on their infrastructure, as opposed to hosting them on the handsets. The biggest issue there is promoting a consistent set of application programming interfaces (APIs) for developers to use.

Mobile cloud services start with standards

Developers build their applications to use APIs, and those applications are also exposed by APIs to allow mobile devices or even other infrastructure applications to use them. Setting standards (such as REST and XML for requests and responses) for developers who present mobile APIs to mobile apps or mobile browsers will make it easier to integrate mobile cloud services with the devices.

Setting standards will also help providers build a developer community that encourages cooperation and the reuse of components. Mobile standards can also mandate integration with management and security tools, which will make the whole application ecosystem easier for providers to support and appear more credible to users.

Identifying a cloud provider's role in MDM

A next critical step is to provide a clear mechanism to support mobile device management (MDM) for both businesses and consumers. Many operators see the business use of mobile devices and cloud services as their largest opportunity, because it's one that’s less influenced by the device manufacturers.

The best MDM strategies will involve hosting a mobile device agent function in the handset, something that requires the cooperation of the device manufacturer and the consent of the buyer. This agent can monitor the device, notify the owner of unusual conditions, and apply policies on apps and files for corporate users.

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MDM agents work best when there's a "magnet" application that makes the mobile device agent attractive rather than intrusive. Security and management capabilities may be magnetic enough for mobile cloud applications targeted at business customers, who will also value a service that uses virtualization to separate business and consumer identities for BYOD scenarios. 

The idea is to create virtual machines like those used for servers, but to use them primarily to isolate the two identities. The mechanism works the same as server virtualization, but the mission is different; it's more about improving isolation than utilization. For consumers, the most credible killer apps for agent software are special-deal notifications, help for finding lost or stolen devices, virus scanning and control over potentially risky features such as location tagging or location-based services.

The final and possibly ultimate differentiators for providers are mobile cloud security and management. Users are already worried that GPS features on mobile devices can lead to stalking, and they are very concerned that providers will invade their privacy by correlating users' locations with their activities. Yet users are also increasingly dependent on mobile devices and more anxious if their devices get lost or fail.

In addition to the need for standards to generically guide the development and deployment of mobile cloud applications, the ability to build a mobile cloud service set from a controlled base of application tools that providers can brand and users can trust is a powerful competitive weapon.

About the author:
Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corp., a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecom and data communications since 1982.

This was last published in June 2013

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