Taming the PDA monster to keep data current

Attack of the 50-foot Palm Pilot! OK, so those cute little PDAs aren't that scary. But trying to manage them centrally can seem like facing down Mothra or Godzilla.

PDAs are moving into the enterprise as serious business tools. They can carry quotes, price lists, order forms, or even be a reference library, just to name a few applications. Keeping the data and programs current is your quest.

We tested two applications from TRG Products that try to meet these goals for Palm OS-compatible PDAs. ImagePro Deployment Manager allows central IT staff to create custom images of a PDA, either as a means of backup, or to easily roll out new releases of company software tools. The second application, InstallPro Application Guard, lets you deploy a single application to a range of devices.

It takes a little experience to build images that suit your organization. But once you get the hang of it, ImagePro can save you a lot of time, especially if you need to roll out many devices of the same type and configuration. For developers who don't want to worry if someone installs their application correctly, InstallPro can be just what the doctor ordered. The more complex your application, the more you may want to give InstallPro a good look.

Image is everything

Most large IT shops use some form of imaging software, such as Norton's Ghost or PowerQuest's Drive Image Pro, for desktop computers, especially on initial deployment. TRG has applied this same principle to Palm OS devices. An image can be created that contains all of the applications that users may need. Separate images can be created for sales and engineering departments based on their needs. In addition, if you don't want to include the Graffiti tutorial or other applications, you could exclude them as you build your custom images.

Each image is also specific to the hardware and memory size of the PDA. Even if the applications are the same, you'll need a separate image for a Palm IIIx, a TRGPro and an IBM WorkPad, for example.

Another interesting area is where you can store the applications on the PDA. Most Palm OS devices contain flash memory for the operating system to reside in. This is nonvolatile memory that can survive a hard reset and does not need battery power to remain in memory. Provided that there is room in flash, programs and read-only databases can be loaded into flash memory (data that is modified in flash memory can render the PDA unstable). So if someone lets the batteries go a little too long before replacing them, their programs are safe in flash.

Many feel flash that is not used by the operating system is simply unused space. Because the size of each operating system varies according to the device, it's hard to determine how much you'd have to work with. For example, the Palm VII technically has flash memory, but it's virtually unusable because the operating system uuses all but a few bytes. The Palm III, on the other hand, uses barely 1M byte of the 2M bytes available.

An image can be made to only incorporate the flash memory, only the regular RAM, or both. If only the flash is updated, it leaves any additional programs and data the user has installed intact. But, if a "clean" refresh is desired, wiping away both the flash and the RAM is the way to go.

Finally, TRG has made it easy to image several devices concurrently. If your computer has serial port expansion hardware, such as Comtrol's RocketPort or the Digi Accelleport, you can take advantage of TRG's Multiple Loader application. Up to 32 devices can be concurrently loaded. It takes 2M bytes of flash roughly 5 minutes to load, and 1M byte of RAM takes less than 2 minutes. Obviously, the faster the serial ports, the shorter the times. When you consider that you can do up to 32 devices simultaneously, the overall installation time drops quickly.

While we did not have any of the serial port expansion hardware available for testing, we did use the Multiple Loader with the two serial ports in our Dell OptiPlex workstation. Whether we did one at a time, two simultaneously, or two with a staggered start time, the results were the same.

The installation was straightforward, with no noteworthy obstacles. The included documentation is fairly complete, even containing a list of error codes where appropriate. It is segmented into many parts, which may seem strange at first, but as the saying goes, "form follows function." Each function, such as the RAM and flash extractors and the image builder, are separate programs, and therefore have separate manuals. There are overview documents to bring the pieces together, however. Once you get a feel for how the documentation is organized, it is easy to find what you are looking for.

Simplify your life

The second product we tested, InstallPro Application Guard, makes it easy to install large or complex applications using standard HotSync technology. Applications that use many databases or have auxiliary programs can quickly make the number of files to install grow. This requires that the user get all of the files installed, or run the risk of not having the application work properly.

Here's where InstallPro works its magic. You can distill all of these files into a single install program that is synchronized to the PDA as one .prc installation file. From there, it installs all of the files and databases individually. In addition, InstallPro lets you install parts of your application into that coveted flash memory space.

The final stroke is that you can create a companion .prc to use as an "uninstall" and clean up after itself. Normally when you delete an application, it deletes all databases with the same creator ID. But if your application uses several databases, the uninstall will ensure that everything added will be removed.

As before, InstallPro installs rather painlessly. The documentation is organized similarly to ImagePro's, with each program receiving its own manual.

ImagePro and InstallPro are great products. If your company uses (or plans to use) Palm OS-compatible PDAs with a core set of applications for a large number of users, ImagePro will save you a lot of time and headaches. If you're looking for a simple way to deliver a complex application, especially one that can install itself into nonvolatile flash memory, look no further than InstallPro.

This story, "Taming the PDA monster to keep data current" was originally published by Network World.

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