Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from A-E

Challenges and Perspectives for Web–Based Applications in Organizations - INTRODUCTION, TODAY’S IT CHALLENGES, Using Technology to Increase Productivity, Servicing an Increasingly Mobile and Distributed Workforce

access internet users services

George K. Lalopoulos
Hellenic Telecommunications Organization S.A. (OTE), Greece

Ioannis P. Chochliouros
Hellenic Telecommunications Organization S.A. (OTE), Greece

Anastasia S. Spiliopoulou-Chochliourou
Hellenic Telecommunications Organization S.A. (OTE), Greece

INTRODUCTION

The last decade is characterized by the tempestuous evolution, growth, and dissemination of information and communication technologies in the economy and society. As a result, information and communication technologies have managed to open new broad horizons and markets for enterprises, whose installation and operation costs are rapidly amortizing through the proper usage of these technologies.

The most common systems used are cellular phones, stand-alone PCs (Personal Computers), networks of PCs, e-mail and EDI (Electronic Data Interchange), Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), connection to the Internet, and corporate Web pages. In particular, the evolution in speed, operability, and access to the World Wide Web, and the penetration of e-commerce in conjunction with the internationalization of competition have set up new challenges as well as perspectives for enterprises: from small and medium sized to large ones. Even very small enter-prises—with up to nine employees—have conceived the importance of Internet access, and a considerable percentage of them have access to the Web.

In today’s worldwide environment, markets tend to become electronic, and national boundaries, as far as markets are concerned, tend to vanish. Buyers can find a product or service through the Internet at a lower price than that of a local market. Enterprises, on the other hand, can use the Internet in order to extend their customer basis and at the same time organize more efficiently the communication with their suppliers and partners. Thus, enterprises can reduce costs, increase productivity, and surpass the narrow geographical boundaries, enabling cooperation with partners from different places and countries. One memorable example is the company Amazon.com, which introduced the offering of books through its Web page, thus leaving behind the traditional bookstore. In addition, enterprises can use the new information and communication technologies so as to organize and coordinate the internal communication of their various departments as well as their structure more efficiently, taking into account factors like business mobility and distribution.

These demands have caused many companies to consider the convergence of voice, video, and data through IP-(Internet Protocol) centric solutions that include rich and streaming media together with various IP-based applications such as VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), video, messaging, and collaboration as a way to lower costs and deliver product-enhancing applications to end users in a secure environment. However, it is not always easy for a company to keep pace with innovation due to financial restrictions and internal politics.

TODAY’S IT CHALLENGES

Today’s CIOs (Chief Information Officers) face higher expectations. Some of the most significant challenges are the following (Pandora Networks, 2004).

Using Technology to Increase Productivity

New applications offer a standard, open platform providing for new communications features, such as voice services (Intelligent Call Routing [ICR], Unified Messaging [UM], etc.) and non voice services (Instant Messaging [IM], Web collaboration, conferencing, etc.). These features make users more productive by streamlining their communications and access to information. Moreover, Web-based administration provides for simpler management and quicker response of the technical staff to end users. The latter also have the possibility to manage their services.

Servicing an Increasingly Mobile and Distributed Workforce

As the workforce become less centralized and static, unified communications enable IT to deliver the same functionality to the remote office as the corporate headquarters. Mobile and distant users can access the same applications as their colleagues at the headquarters. They can also communicate with other users as if they were in the same location.

Delivering Revenue-Generating Applications and Features

Unified communications provide a foundation for future revenue-generating applications. For example, a new customer-support application will provide for a higher level of real-time customer interaction by enabling customers to have access to trained service engineers that can resolve problems with IP-based interaction tools. This improves customer service and enhances customer loyalty and long-term value. As another example, multimedia applications can enable collaboration, shortening project life cycles.

Reducing Costs

By managing one converged infrastructure, IT departments can reduce administrative and management complexity, therefore reducing all related costs. If an employee is moving, the same person that relocated the PC can also move the phone. Using a client-server architecture, end-user telephones become plug and play. Convergence also offers the opportunity to introduce new applications that can be used to replace expensive metered services (e.g., IP conferencing could be used instead of conference calls).

Unifying All Communications Platforms

With unified communications, users can access corporate information from any device, regardless of the underlying platform. A common user often has five or six different communication services (e.g., phones, fax, e-mail, etc.), each performing the same basic function, that is, contacting the user. By reducing the number of contact methods from five or six to just one, unified communications reduces complexity, increases productivity and responsiveness, and enables collaboration.

Aligning IT and Business Processes

Convergence delivers an open and integrated communications platform that gives CIOs the opportunity to optimize existing business processes. For example, corporate directories could be integrated into IP phones and other collaboration tools, enabling end users to access all corporate information from multiple devices. As a result, the ability to reinvest business processes, drive down costs, and deliver value to the company is enhanced. Furthermore, optimization software tools and decision-support systems can be combined with Web-service technology to deliver distributed applications to users as remote services. Optimization models are considered as critical components for an organization’s analytical IT systems as they are used to analyze and control critical business measures such as cost, profit, quality, and time. One can think of modeling and solver tools as the components offered by the provider with added infrastructure consisting of secure data storage and data communication, technical support on the usage of tools, management and consultancy for the development of user-specific models and applications, and some measure of the quality of the provided optimization services. Applications include sectors like finance, manufacturing and supply-chain management, energy and utilities, and environmental planning. The OPT (Optimization Service Provider; http://www.ospcraft.com/) and WEBOPT (Web-Enabled Optimization Tools and Models for Research, Professional Training, and Industrial Deployment; http://www.webopt.org/) projects are based on this view (Valente & Mitra, 2003).

EXISTING TECHNOLOGIES

Considering that the Web is fundamentally a new medium of human communication, not just a technology for information processing or computation, its evolution depends on media design, and Web services and applications design. Media design has evolved into rich media, which is a method of communication used for performing enterprise core business operations, such as real-time corporate communication, e-learning, sales training, marketing (e.g., online advertising), and collaboration, that comprises animation, sound, video, and/or interactivity. It is deployed via standard Web and wireless applications (Little, 2004). Rich media typically allows users to view and interact with products or services. It includes standard-sized banners with forms or pull-down, pop-up, or interstitial menus; streaming audio and video; animation plug-ins; and so forth. Text, as well as standard graphic formats such as JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) and GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), would not be considered rich media. Broadband technology enables both content providers and enterprises to create more rich-media-based content (Adverblog.com, 2004).

Advanced Web services and applications offer an attractive platform for business applications and organizational information systems. They offer capabilities such as chat, Web collaboration, presentation sharing, streaming video delivery to various locations, and so forth, thus enhancing cooperation and productivity in a distributed environment. Furthermore, Web technology is often presented as a revolution in network and information technologies, propelling change from static, hierarchical structures to more dynamic, flexible, and knowledge-based organizational forms. Current research efforts are oriented toward interactive Web applications that mediate interaction among multiple distributed actors who are not only users but also designers in the sense that they contribute to the system’s structure and content (Valente & Mitra, 2003).

SECURITY

The growing use of the Internet by organizations for transactions involving employees, business partners, suppliers, and customers has led to a need for increased security demands in order to protect and preserve private resources and information. Moreover, Web security becomes more significant as the amount of traffic through the Internet is increasing and more important transactions are taking place, especially in the e-commerce domain (Shoniregun, Chochliouros, Lapeche, Logvynovskiy, & Spiliopoulou-Chochliourou, 2004).

The Internet has become more dangerous over the last few years with specific network-security threats such as the following.

  • Faults in servers (OS [Operating System] bugs, installation mistakes): the most common holes utilized by hackers
  • Weak authentication
  • Hijacking of connections (especially with unsecured protocols)
  • Interference threats such as jamming and crashing the servers using, for example, Denial of Service (DoS) attacks
  • Viruses with a wide range of effects
  • Active content with Trojans
  • Internal threats

In order to deal with this matter, preventive measures, such as the use of firewalls (implemented in hardware, software, or both) or data encryption for higher levels of security, are taken. One interesting approach to support Web-related security in an organization, especially in an extranet-like environments, is the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) based on a choice of protocols, such as IPsec (IP Security Protocol) and Secure-Sockets Layer (SSL).

IPsec refers to a suite of Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) protocols that protect Internet communications at the network layer through encryption, authentication, confidentiality, antireplay protection, and protection against traffic-flow analysis at the network layer. IPsec VPNs require special-purpose client software on the remote user’s access device to control the user side of the communication link (Nortel Networks, 2002). This requirement makes it more difficult to extend secure access to mobile users, but it increases VPN security by ensuring that access is not opened from insecure computers (such as PCs at public kiosks and Internet cafes). IPsec implementation is a time-consuming task, usually requiring changes to the firewall, the resolution of any NAT (Network Address Translation) issues, and the definition of sophisticated security policies to ensure users have access only to permitted areas on the network. Thus, IPsec VPNs are a good fit for static connections that do not change frequently.

The SSL protocol uses a private key (usually 128 bits) to encrypt communications between Web servers and Web browsers for tunneling over the Internet at the application layer. Therefore, a certificate is needed for the Web server. SSL support is built into standard Web browsers (Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, etc.) and embedded into a broad range of access devices and operating systems. SSL is suitable for remote users needing casual or on-demand access to applications such as e-mail and file sharing from diverse locations (such as public PCs in Internet kiosks or airport lounges) provided that strong authentication or access-control mechanisms are enacted to overcome the inherent risks of using insecure access devices (Viega & Messier, 2002).

ROI (Return on Investment) is one of the most critical areas to look at when analyzing SSL vs. IPsec VPN. Lower telecommunication costs, reduced initial implementation costs, substantially decreased operational and support costs, easy user scaling, open user access, and ease of use have rendered SSL the most widely used protocol for securing Web connections (Laubhan, 2003). However, there are some problems regarding SSL. The key-generation process requires heavy mathematics depending on the number of bits used, therefore increasing the response time of the Web server. After the generation of the key pair, an SSL connection is established. As a consequence, the number of connections per second is limited and fewer visitors can be served when security is enabled. Moreover, with increased delays in server response, impatient users will click the reload button on their browsers, initiating even more SSL connection requests when the server is most busy. These problems can be handled with techniques like choosing the right hardware and software architecture (e.g., SSL accelerator), designing graphics and composite elements as a single file rather than “sliced” images, and so forth (Rescorla, 2000).

Possible security loopholes come from the fact that SSL is based on the existence of a browser on the user side. Thus, the browser’s flaws could undermine SSL security. Internet Explorer, for example, has a long history of security flaws, the vast majority of which have been patched. The heterogeneity of Web clients to offer service to a wide range of users and devices also creates possible security loopholes (e.g., the risk of automatic fallback to an easily cracked 40-bit key if a user logs in with an outdated browser). Other loopholes result from the fact that many implementations use certificates associated with machines rather than users. The user who leaves machines logged-in and physically accessible to others, or the user who enables automatic-login features makes the security of the network depend on the physical security that protects the user’s office or, worse still, the user’s portable device. According to an academic report from Darmouth College (Ye, Yuan, & Smith, 2002), no solution is strong enough to be a general solution for preventing Web spoofing. However, ongoing research is expected to decrease browser vulnerability.

COMMERCIAL PRODUCTS

Some indicative commercial products are the following:

  • Spanlink (http://www.spanlink.com/) offers the Concentric Solutions Suite that comprises a number of products (Concentric Agent, Concentric Supervisor, Concentric Customer, etc.).

The aim of these products is to optimize the way customers interact with businesses over the Internet and over the phone.

For example, with Concentric Agent, agents can readily access an interface with features such as an automated screen pop of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and help-desk applications, a highly functioning soft-phone toolbar, real-time statistics, and chat capabilities.

Concentric Customer provides automated self-service options for customers over the phone and over the Web, making it easy to be successful in finding precise answers on a company’s Web site.

Concentric Supervisor (EETIMES.com, 2003) focuses on supervisors and their interaction with agents. It integrates real-time visual and auditory monitoring, agent-to-supervisor chat capabilities, and call-control functions.

  • Convoq (http://www.convoq.com) offers Convoq ASAP, a real-time, rich-media instant-messaging application: the intimacy of videoconferencing and the power of Web conferencing to meet all the collaboration needs in a company. Through its use, participants can obtain services including chat, broadcast audio and video, and the sharing of presentations with the use of Windows, Macintosh, or Linux Systems without the need for downloads or registrations. ASAP supports SSL (Convoq Inc., 2004).
  • Digital Media Delivery Solution (DMDS; Kontzer, 2003) is a digital media solution offered by the combined forces of IBM, Cisco Systems, and Media Publisher Inc. (MPI; http://www.media-publisher.com/). It allows any organization in any industry to quickly and efficiently deliver rich media including streaming video to geographically dispersed locations. It is designed to provide streaming technology that helps customers leverage digital media in every phase of their business life cycle.
  • BT Rich Media (British Telecom, 2004) is a new digital media platform designed to provide tools to allow businesses (especially content providers) and individuals to create and distribute digital content on the Web. It was developed by BT in partnership with Real Networks and TWI (Trans World International). The launch of the product on April 6, 2004, was in line with BT’s strategy to reach its target of broadband profitability by the end of 2005, as well as fighting off increasing pressure from broadband competitors.

FUTURE TRENDS

The current Web is mainly a collection of information but does not yet provide adequate support in processing this information, that is, in using the computer as a computational device. However, in a business environment, the vision of flexible and autonomous Web service translates into automatic cooperation between enterprise services. Examples include automated procurement and supply-chain management, knowledge management, e-work, mechanized service recognition, configuration, and combination (i.e., realizing complex work flows and business logics with Web services, etc.). For this reason, current research efforts are oriented toward a semantic Web (a knowledge-based Web) that provides a qualitatively new level of service. Recent efforts around UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration), WSDL (Web-Services Description Language), and SOAP (Simple Object-Access Protocol) try to lift the Web to this level (Valente & Mitra, 2003).

Automated services are expected to further improve in their capacity to assist humans in achieving their goals by understanding more of the content on the Web, and thus providing more accurate filtering, categorization, and searches of information sources. Interactive Web applications that mediate interaction among multiple distributed designers (i.e., users contributing to the system’s structure and content) is the vision of the future (Campell, 2003).

CONCLUSION

In today’s competitive environment, enterprises need new communication applications that are accessible on devices located either at their premises or in remote locations. The Internet and the proliferation of mobile devices, such as mobile phones and wireless PDAs, are playing a very important role in changing the way businesses communicate. Free sitting (that is, the ability of an employee to sit in any office and use any PC and any phone to access his or her personalized working environment and to retrieve applications, messages, etc.), mobility, responsiveness, customer satisfaction, and cost optimization are key challenges that enterprises are facing today (Sens, 2002). Advanced technologies, such as rich and streaming media and new Web applications and services, are being used to develop a new generation of applications and services that can help businesses face these challenges.

One of the biggest challenges for businesses will be the ability to use teamwork among people in order to network the entire knowledge of the company with the objective of providing first-class services to customers and developing innovative products and services. However, companies often face problems in adopting these new technologies, due mainly to bandwidth limitations, economic restrictions, and internal politics leading to hesitations and serious doubts about the return on investments.

Within the next three to five years, the increase by several orders of magnitude in backbone bandwidth and access speeds, stemming from the deployment of IP and ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), cable modems, Radio Local Area Networks (RLANs), and Digital Subscriber Loop (DSL) technologies, in combination with the tiering of the public Internet in which users will be required to pay for the specific service levels they require, is expected to play a vital role in the establishment of an IP-centric environment. At the same time, Interactive Web applications among multiple distributed users and designers contributing to the system’s structure and content, in combination with optimization tools and decision-support systems, are expected to change organizational structures to more dynamic, flexible, and knowledge-based forms.

Challis, Bill (actually, William H.) [next] [back] Chaliapin, Feodor (Ivanovich)

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or