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Solving the Data Sync Problem for Business Handheld Solutions

Hand-held electronics were essential for businesses long before the rise of smartphones. Sales reps used them to take orders. Store employees used them to help customers find merchandise. And hospitality workers used them to check in guests before they even entered the building.

Even in a world shaped by powerful mobile phones, these old-fashioned, single-purpose devices are still critical for many businesses. In some cases, a company’s entire bottom line flows through these aging handhelds.

However, a large number of these devices are nearing the end of their life spans. Nokia, Motorola, and other manufacturers have stopped making this hardware or, in some cases, gone out of business. Companies pay a premium on the secondary market for replacements, if they are even available. The devices often run Windows CE or proprietary operating systems that are no longer supported, meaning no security patches and no new features.

These outdated devices — frozen in time — hold back companies from providing better customer service, managing complex workflows, and adapting to new market demands. This seems like an obvious place for companies to upgrade. Still, organizations have often balked at these changes for several reasons, including:

  • The years or decades of equity built into these devices.
  • The cost of replacing the hardware and software.
  • The difficulty of ensuring the new devices can match the functionality of the old devices.

In recent years, however, these barriers have started to fall. Powerful mobile phones and tablets are cheaper, while networks of single-use business devices are more expensive to patch. Off-the-shelf software packages now have a wide range of features required by businesses. Also, a common technological hurdle — how to manage data without a good wireless signal — has been cleared.

Data sync challenges

Companies have finally concluded that the new generation of consumer devices can be suitable replacements for the older generation of business handhelds. The smartphone and tablet operating systems now have better security and mature frameworks for writing custom apps that can replace the functionality of many business devices. IOS and Android, which together run 99% of the world’s mobile phones, are adding more enterprise features, such as remote device management and data protection.

Yet, even as mobile devices became commonplace and more versatile, companies resisted switching, in part due to data management. It is easy to lose wireless signals in large stores, warehouses, airports, or office buildings. Many of the old devices didn’t rely on wireless signals; those handhelds typically transferred data via a physical dock. Modern consumer devices, however, typically rely on always-on connectivity.

When there isn’t reliable connectivity, apps need a local version of the data on mobile devices to enable customers or representatives to work offline. Later that work can be synced with the servers, when connectivity is finally available. Organizations expect apps to provide a seamless user experience irrespective of the network’s state and the availability of the server. A robust mobile solution can effectively sync hand-held devices and servers and also provide a conflict resolution mechanism to ensure data integrity.

Previously, companies had to build expensive and time-consuming custom solutions to handle the data sync problem when they upgraded to consumer devices. Until about five years ago, there were few mature solutions that effectively managed data synchronization and problems associated with inconsistent network connectivity.

Data sync solutions

Solutions that manage data between apps and storage now provide out-of-the-box capabilities for bidirectional data sync, data routing and access control, collision detection, and delta sync. These allow companies to better control what data is synced to the devices, which can save money by reducing bandwidth use. Most sync solutions provide out-of-the box security support for at-rest and in-transit encryption. They securely transfer data over secured socket layers and support authentication and authorization using OAuth 2.0, OIDC, and other popular security protocols.

Additionally, most sync solutions have a robust framework for handling failures and retries, and ensure fast and reliable performance through data compression and syncing only delta changes. Those solutions include:

  • Couchbase Lite, a mobile embedded NoSQL database, and Couchbase Sync Gateway offer a data sync engine. In addition to supporting data sync over mobile network or Wi-Fi, these solutions also provide peer-to-peer sync between mobile devices connected via Bluetooth or near-field communication.
  • MongoDB has a similar offering, called Realm, in the pipeline.
  • Open-source solutions, such as CouchDB, PouchDB, and SymmetricDS, also support data sync between databases.

For years, adding these features required a dedicated IT team, years of software development and testing, and constant support. Today these are standard features that free staff to work on solving business problems rather than IT problems. It is also much easier for developers to integrate their apps with services.

Despite the advances in devices and software, handheld modernization can be a daunting task. Fortunately, enterprises do not have to go it alone. Technology services firms such as Infosys have developed modernization practices that serve clients across industry sectors — from manufacturing to health care to energy — and orchestrate a large partner ecosystem to solve these kinds of problems. The benefits are often significant. One leading snacks and beverages company replaced its aging hand-held devices with a new platform for 30,000 field sales reps. Infosys worked with this firm to create a next-generation handheld platform using Couchbase Mobile. This took a fraction of the effort required to build a new system from scratch. The new platform — planned for release in early 2021 — will improve the productivity of field reps and offset the increasing costs of the existing platform. The modernized platform is projected to pay for itself in the first 18 to 24 months and provide better market trend insights that allow companies to add new features and grow their businesses.

With previous Couchbase implementations, Infosys has found impressive results for the most important numbers. Those include:

  • Up to 50% faster app development, with no custom coding needed.
  • Up to 70% reduction in network bandwidth costs due to delta sync.
  • Average two-year breakeven.

These newer developments in sync software technology, combined with affordable consumer hardware and rich support for app development, are helping enterprises become more agile. In turn, this is reducing both development and operational costs, which are important considerations as the COVID-19 pandemic slows the global economy, thus creating demands for greater efficiency.

For companies that haven’t switched, the tipping point is likely coming soon as competitors adopt new technology and the old devices become obsolete.