Optical/IP Networks

GMAC's Wireless Strategy

If getting a couple of departments or even an entire campus online with wireless isn't a big enough challenge, imagine the fun Stephen Benson's had in integrating more than 100 offices spanning three continents for GMAC Commercial Mortgage Corp.

The Horsham, Pa.-based company, which services more $249 billion in loans and equity capital, doesn't need to be sold on the value of wireless and mobility. In fact, as Benson fills in the details of his vision of a public/private, fixed/mobile, voice/data mesh, you can imagine his vendors and service providers asking him to slow down a little. He's pushed them all to offer richer capabilities, greater reliability, and of course, more security.

Indeed, for Benson and his thousands of end users, bridging the gap between wired and wireless, public and private networks is essential. The user experience needs to be the same, regardless of where job descriptions may take employees. (See Banking on Wireless.)

GMAC isn't using wireless technology to just fill in, supplement, or show off. Its producers' portal gives field agents an instantaneous view of current customer information, as if they were parked on a desktop attached to an internal LAN. "They don't need to be sitting inside our walls," says Benson, vice president of global corporate technology strategy for GMAC. "Now they can take the data and make it useable at the point of engagement with their customer."

Wireless LAN access is available in GMAC offices. There are peering agreements with carriers and public hotspot providers that Benson won’t name. And he doesn't force his users to use specific devices; instead, Benson prefers standardized backend systems, rather than specific email packages, for example, to make the way the applications work completely transparent to the device.

To achieve that sort of seamless experience, GMAC has employed a three-phase approach to adopting wireless technology. The first phase dealt with providing basic wireless access for GMAC end users, inside and outside the company’s private network. Following quickly on its heels was a security-centric phase, which required GMAC users to authenticate themselves via policy networking before being able to access company resources or data.

"With our security and operational policies, we make sure our users have the latest anti-virus patches and the right file versions and patching enforcement," Benson says. Here, the security profile of a device gets scanned before it gets connected to a public service, then it gets scanned again to ensure it conforms to GMAC policies -- containing the right signature files, for example. Adding in third-party service providers to assist with security is part of the plan, and pilot projects are underway.

"I want to be able to enforce personal firewalling or other security policies, whether it's a laptop or a RIM device, in a hotel or a hotspot, or sitting on local broadband provider's network at a home office," Benson explains. "I want to be able to enforce them at that granularity."

Even Benson considers that goal a bit utopian at the moment, and he estimates it will take another 18 to 24 months to get the public/private security functionality he requires. The variables in the equation are the many public WiFi providers and municipal wireless networks getting launched around the country.

Once that's resolved, this phase will lead to an applications focus, which, for Benson, is a device-independent world where internal apps are easily extensible. Whether it's email or voice-over-IP, neither the network or the user will have to worry about using a Treo or a tablet PC to perform what's required.

One option that's not on the table is WiMax. He says he explored a private wireless broadband test about two years ago as a way to connect home-based users within a 25-mile radius of GMAC offices. The project got shelved, though, and Benson won't say whether it was the relative immaturity of the broadband technology, or whether the wider availability of newer, faster data services like EV-DO rendered the whole thing moot.

Benson makes it clear that there's more fine-tuning ahead to make wireless more responsive to GMAC requirements. "The level of public/private [network] convergence isn't where we want it to be yet. But as new players arrive, we're always evaluating."

— Terry Sweeney, Editor in Chief, Unstrung

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