Managing The Mobile Platform Diversity Challenge

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Mobile device management of disparate platforms needs careful thought. J. Gerry Purdy looks at how IT managers can take control

Supporting, maintaining and accounting for mobile technologies, whether a laptop, smartphone or, now, a tablet, has never been easy for enterprise IT managers. Take the laptop, for instance, one of the first devices that left the corporate walls with road warriors, salespeople and executives on the go.

At first, laptops weren’t always connected to the Internet, so they were more difficult to manage than a fleet of connected, corporate desktops. During this time, companies began developing IT management software to keep track of the always connected, corporate LAN PC fleet. Since laptops weren’t always connected, IT managers began using this new software to update, monitor and account for employees’ laptops.

Laptops, tablets and BlackBerries, oh my

However, as the laptop became ubiquitous, and software companies developed better applications to keep track of them, watching after laptops, and what data could be downloaded or uploaded from them, became easier.

Then, Research in Motion (RIM) gave the business world the BlackBerry, which complicated the mobile environment again, with small handhelds that helped busy executives get email and appointment reminders while they were away from their offices. With that freedom came more corporate data and information that could easily wander away from the firewall.

Now, the typical travelling executive has three mobile devices: a laptop, a smartphone and a tablet. And another strange thing has happened back in the office: Laptops have replaced desktops as the PC of choice for most employees. Thus, mobility is now the centrepiece of enterprise computing for employees.

The challenge through the proliferation of mobile-system deployments is to maintain management and control over the company’s IT assets. Corporate standard configurations of software for PCs now have to incorporate multiple configurations and multiple manufacturers, including traditional Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS X, Apple iOS, BlackBerry OS, Google Android and Microsoft Windows Phone. Each platform demands different device-management services.

The challenges IT administrators face in the management of mobile devices include the following:

  • The ability to manage the employee’s new mobile lifestyle (Think: “How do I maintain the software on all these devices, provide access to the enterprise servers and synchronise personal information as well?”)
  • The ability to ensure full lifecycle management and support across a range of different devices, including smartphones, laptops and tablets, and multiple operating systems (Think: “Mobile devices are continually being certified, retired and replaced and maintained in a not-always-connected environment.”)
  • The ability to provide the right technology to manage applications, as well as the distribution of documents across an entire organisation (Think: “We now have more applications, more documents and more ways for employees to access them.”)

Questions answered

The question then arises: Where does this leave IT managers when they are considering mobile-device management (MDM) software?

Here are a few suggestions: The software must provide a single device-management application for all devices, including notebooks, PC and Macs, as well as smartphones and tablets. Any viable solution must be able to manage devices via wireless communications since they are not always directly connected to the corporate network.

The MDM software must also deliver a centralised dashboard for status and reporting, while providing a centralised policy declaration and compliance. It must also provide appropriate security on every device, including device passwords and encryption, and be able to wipe off corporate data if the device is lost or the employee leaves the company. Finally, it must manage the constantly changing mobile-device landscape.

Why are these criteria important? IT managers may have iPhone users who insist their devices are secure and demand access to corporate systems. Or administrators are confronted with Android users who are trying to gain backdoor access to the Microsoft Exchange server through ActiveSync. The worst mistake for any IT pro is to do nothing as this could lead to data wandering out the front door or backdoor. This is why a solid MDM is needed.

Spolit for choice

There are both server-based and remote cloud-based solutions for MDM. Most small and midsized organisations will opt for MDM that operates in a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model provided by a third party. This provides them with no servers to install, no complex configurations and no up-front costs. The cloud-based SaaS solution eliminates the strain that rapidly changing mobile devices are placing on IT organisations by seamlessly incorporating the continuous updates to both the platform and each mobile device supported on the network.

Larger organisations will often select an in-house server-based solution to maintain direct control over their enterprise IT assets.

Device-management systems for mobile applications include Airwatch, Fiberlink MaaS360, Silverback, Sybase Afaria, Tangoe, and Giesecke & Devrient.

Make sure that the MDM solution you acquire provides software inventory and control (the ability to update applications, data and policies). The MDM technology should also have the ability to refresh, locate and send a message to the device, as well as lock the device, reset the password, wipe the device, change device policies and automatically quarantine devices.

On top of managing the allowable software to be loaded and maintained on these devices, there’s a proliferation of applications from application stores. Policies need to be provided to declare what applications, if any, are allowed to be installed from any application store.

In summary, all small, medium or large enterprises need to use MDM software and services to manage their notebook PCs, smartphones and tablets. Viable solutions are available that will support all these devices. Complexity (in the mobile-device mix) just got simplified by using MDM.

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