Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mobile Web Apps

Nuvola has been doing some interesting work recently with mobile web applications, and thought I'd share some of the benefits we're helping our clients see from this approach.

Firstly, I'm talking here about business software rather than mobile websites aimed at consumers, although mobile websites are certainly a growth area which I'll be blogging about in the near future no doubt. But this article is about how to use mobile web applications to enable field staff to keep up to date, and most importantly keep the rest of the business up to date on what they are doing.

Today, we launched version 2 of a mobile web application for our long standing client, AzteQ Solutions. AzteQ does IT maintenance and installation, one of whose largest customers provides point of sale services to retailers - they subcontract their installation and maintenance to AzteQ.

Previously, Nuvola had built a solution where engineers received and accepted job details by SMS, but the new mobile app takes things one step further. It provides full features to accept and close jobs, and to log movements of stock. Basically it puts the full power of AzteQ's job management system literally in the hands of engineers in the field - I guess it's pretty obvious how beneficial that can be in terms of operational efficiency.

But the really interesting thing about this is that because it is a web application, it really doesn't matter what sort of smartphone the engineer has, and there is no installation or maintenance of the device necessary - just a URL. It has all the security measures in place for a traditional web app, and it can also be used easily by subcontractors without having to supply them with expensive equipment. We used the jQuery Mobile framework to build it, which gives you the easy look and feel of an iPhone or Android app, but as a set of web pages that are a natural part of their existing system.

For me, this really is the way forward in terms of mobile development. But of course the one drawback is that it only works if you have an internet connection, and this is why the other mobile web app we're working on is really exciting. It will allow engineers for another field service business to take readings when they're in plant rooms and the like with no mobile coverage, and then sync them back to a main server where anything out of the ordinary can automatically be flagged back to the customer. All from just a URL sent to their smartphones.

With some mobile field service systems selling at well over £1000 per handset (and that's before you've bought software and services), it's great that there is now a real way of bringing some of this functionality within the reach of the smaller business.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Insurance of the virtual kind

I was having a very interesting conversation with my hosting partner, Dudobi, a couple of weeks ago about how some of the stuff they're doing now around cloud and virtual services can be really beneficial to SMEs.

One of the things that I found really interesting is virualised disaster recovery, which admittedly sounds like something from a Stephen Spielberg movie, but is actually far more mundane. The idea behind disaster recovery (DR) is that if your office burns down (for example), you have an alternative location where you can decamp en masse and fire up desktop computers and servers which have a copy of your data and installations and carry on as normal.

Sounds like the sort of 'insurance policy' every business should have, but in reality the cost is prohibitive to smaller companies. Also it doesn't really help when people are stuck in the snow outside their homes! This is where virtualised DR is such a great concept. The idea is the you set up virtual servers which have a copy of your business information, and virtual desktop computers which have all of the software you use. Then you turn them off, just doing some low-cost regular data replication. As they aren't physical machines, they cost very little to have switched off.

Then the disaster happens, which could be something nasty like fire, theft or flood, or something mundane like the British inability to deal with snow. Rather than the business stopping, one call to the hosting company and your virtual DR is brought online. Your employees then just have to connect to them from their home PCs, and away you go.

Why this is so good is that you pay a charge to set everything up, and then a small annual cost (a few hundred pounds) to store the virtual machines and keep the data up to date. And then you pay by the hour when you have to use them.

This is another great example of how cloud computing is bringing some of the technological benefits that were previously only available to really big companies to those with as few as five or ten staff. And that has to be a good thing.