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Macs in the enterprise: How d'you like them Apples

o ComputerWorld Canada staff
02.05.2008 kl 23:19 |

Slowly but surely, Apple is creeping into the enterprise. There's may be some italics on that 'slowly,' due to administrator reluctance and Microsoft's near-monopoly, but plenty of IT professionals are getting their first taste of Apple, including the new business-based features in Leopard, improved admin ability, and a hankering for one of those MacBook Airs (well, maybe).

 

Slowly but surely, Apple is creeping into the enterprise. There's may be some italics on that 'slowly,' due to administrator reluctance and Microsoft's near-monopoly, but plenty of IT professionals are getting their first taste of Apple, including the new business-based features in Leopard, improved admin ability, and a hankering for one of those MacBook Airs (well, maybe).

Just the facts, ma'am

Corporate interest in Macs is up dramatically among IT executives, driven by changes in what the Mac has to offer, by Apple's success in the consumer market and its other niches, and by corporate trends where, thanks to virtualization and a migration to Web-based applications, Windows' grip on the desktop may be starting to loosen just a bit.

"I'm getting more and more questions about bringing Macs into the enterprise and what it would take," says Tim Bajarin, president of strategic consulting firm Creative Strategies Inc. in Campbell, Calif.

Charles Smulders, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., says he too has experienced a substantial increase in Mac inquiries from corporate customers.

The surge of interest in the Mac is a direct result of two developments from 2006: first, the evolution of more Windows-friendly, Intel X86-based Macs, and second, the introduction of Boot Camp, which allows a full Windows environment and its complement of applications to run natively in a separate hard drive partition on any Mac.

Boot Camp, in particular, garnered a lot of attention out the gate. According to Apple, 1.5 million copies of the beta version of Boot Camp were downloaded before the program's release as part of the Leopard version of OS X. The full integration of Boot Camp into Leopard has spurred some IT managers to actively review the potential of OS X as an alternative for general business computing.

While most of the Santa Monica-based IT consultancy 318's clients that use Macs extensively are in the video, sound and advertising realm, director of technology Charles Edge says he is seeing more nontraditional customers willing to make a move. "We have two energy companies and a fountain design company that switched [from Windows] to Macs last year," he says. None of those, however, were large companies, meaning those with more than 500 employees.

No love from daddy

There's just one problem. "Apple will tell you that they are focused on [the commercial business market], but at the end of the day, it's not a big priority for them," says David Daoud, an analyst at IDC.

An Apple spokesperson said the company does support corporate customers but declined to elaborate on Apple's enterprise strategy.

That ambivalence is a concern for IT managers like Dale Frantz, CIO at Auto Warehousing Co. (AWC) in Tacoma, Wash., which last year began a corporate-wide project to migrate to Macs across 23 locations. "The biggest weakness at this point I'd say is the lack of a cohesive enterprise strategy on the part of Apple," he says.

Outside of a few large media and advertising firms, corporations are simply not one of Apple's core markets. "There is no pretense on their part that the next mountain they have to conquer is the enterprise," says Bajarin.

Service and support are another hurdle. "You're transferring to a platform from a vendor that's not committed to supporting large enterprise needs. From what we've seen, the tools available and the support [to enact that change] are not enterprise-class," Smulders says.

On the support side of the equation, small and large companies with just a few Macs to support can find themselves caught in between Apple support offerings. Apple does offer enhanced support for larger customers. "There is an enterprise agreement where you pay [US]$50,000 and you get stellar support, including a dedicated support guy," says Edge. "They really go all out."

But that kind of money may not fit into the budget of companies with just a few dozen Macs in the marketing department or that of smaller companies. According to Stephan Pinheiro, president of the Montreal-based Apple resellers humanIT and Mac 911, he can definitely sometimes find it a little lacking when it comes to Apple's supporting its enterprise customers. While there has been an improvement over the last few years, he said, Apple has struggled with providing budget-friendly and effective support and service.

How can we (not) serve you?

Apple's constellation of server products--Xserve, Leopard Server and Xsan--are intended to service the small business and departmental islands of Macs in its core markets rather than corporate at large. Improvements in the operating system on the desktop and server products have been mostly consumer- and small business-oriented. Leopard Server, for example, focuses heavily on ease of setup for small business and offers a suite of workgroup-oriented tools.

But Apple has beefed up some features that are important to corporate users. Integration problems with Microsoft's Active Directory---a big sticking point that required third-party tools and work-arounds--have been resolved in the Leopard release. Users can now update their own directory profiles, and digital signing is now supported, allaying the fears of security-minded IT folks.

Adding to its appeal with administrators is the fact that OS X, unlike Windows, is based on the Unix operating system and open standards such as Samba file and print services, the NFS file sharing protocol, RADIUS secure remote access and LDAP directory services.

"The biggest attraction for the Mac as a client machine is the stability of the Unix foundation for OS X as an operating system," says AWC's Frantz. And using Macs as clients on an OS X Server network offers several other benefits, he says, specifically in the areas of remote client administration and service, remote disk imaging and system configuration. Finally, improved communication tools like video iChat also make support easier, he says.

In his consulting practice, Edge still runs across a few lingering problems. "There's still no way to cluster file-sharing services, which is a biggie," Edge says, and he's had some issues with fail-overs in active/passive clustering configurations.

But on the whole, it's much easier to plug Macs into a corporate setting than it was just 12 months ago.

And it may be cheaper, too. On the server side, Apple has a licensing cost advantage over Windows. Apple's software licensing model was "a primary reason" why Frantz decided to standardize on Mac servers.

Apple licenses Leopard Server on a per server basis -- no client access licenses (CALs) are required to access file sharing, e-mail, chat, shared calendars and other basic features. (However, its management tool, Apple Remote Desktop, is sold either as a 10-concurrent-user or unlimited-user license). "The soft costs of CAL administration and tracking is also a factor," Frantz says, explaining that managing client access licenses can be a headache.

The kids like it alright

With its server and desktop products, Apple is now in a good position to tempt corporations. And it's got something else going for it: an incredible amount of goodwill among rank and file computer users.

Apple is selling plenty of hardware to prove it. Not long ago its share of PC shipments in the U.S. hovered around three percent. How times change. In the third quarter of 2007, the Mac's share of PC shipments climbed to 6.9 percent, with year-over-year growth of 29 percent, according to IDC.

In the laptop space, which is steadily eating away at the desktop market, Apple is rushing ahead. In the same period, it ranked fourth in laptop shipments, with a 9.7 percent share in the third quarter and year-over-year growth of 43.6 percent. To be sure, most of those machines did not ship to large businesses. "You have a really strong education market in the U.S., followed by a pretty good consumer market. The rest is pretty small," says Daoud.

That said, success in the home and education markets is creating a grass-roots lobbying effort that is starting to hit some IT organizations from all sides.

More college grads are joining the corporate workforce with Mac experience--and expectations--in tow. At Georgetown University Law Center, nearly 50 percent of the college's 30,000 students are using Macs--up from less than one percent just a few years ago, says CIO Pablo Molina. The same phenomenon is occurring at technical schools such as MIT, where Macs now represent 30 percent of all personal computers on campus, up from 20 percent last year.

"This incredible rise in the use of Macs by college students is going to put pressure on IT departments to support Macintosh PCs [in the workplace]," Molina predicts.

Both Bajarin and Edge say their corporate clients have been approached by new hires lobbying for Macs. Says Bajarin: "The younger kids who grew up on Macs are frustrated with the tools they're being given."

In some situations IT organizations also face pressure from the top to support Macs and even iPhones. "You now have executives who have cut their teeth on Macs and they're coming in at relatively high levels," Bajarin says.

And in a December 2007 e-mail poll of 1,400 IT consultants at Deloitte Consulting, 45 percent said they own a Mac. "We have a whole new generation of very tech-savvy super users saying, 'No, we won't use that. I'm not going to take a giant step backward on technology to come work for you,'" says Doug Standley, principal and lead in Deloitte's technology innovation strategies group.

The future's so white I gotta wear shades

Aside from cost, the primary reason that IT executives are keeping Macs out of the corporate setting is that they don't want to "break" the legacy environment, according to Standley. Deloitte's surveyed consultants estimate that 10 percent of its business clients are using Macs as a primary corporate tool, but if legacy issues were not a factor, perhaps 50 percent to 60 percent of that group would at least consider the Mac as the primary personal computing platform for general business use.

Those legacy concerns may be starting to fade. Traditionally, desktop hardware and operating systems were closely aligned with corporate applications built around Microsoft Windows. Now, the migration toward more desktop virtualization and Web-based technologies means corporations can operate in a more platform- and operating system-neutral manner. That has created a small opening for alternative platforms such as the Mac.

Some legacy programs are being rewritten as Web-based applications. In other cases, the "fat" client that normally runs on a Windows computer is being moved to a virtual PC environment, such as Citrix Presentation Server. The latter executes the user's desktop applications on back-end virtual PC servers and requires only a browser plug-in on the client for full access from any machine, be it a Windows, Mac or Linux client.

IT managers out and proud about Apple

Oregon State University's IT manager for the college community network Dave Nevin said, "Since I went to a Unix base, it's become easier to find people who are familiar with the core of the Mac OS," says Nevin. "So support is getting simpler because of that familiarity," He adds that Macs are faster to deploy than PCs and training users goes more smoothly. That said, PCs on the whole are easier to support since updates can be created centrally and rolled out to users automatically, but not as yet with Macs. That may change as the number of users justifies expenditures on Mac server support.

And one trend is making that centralized support less important--the increased use of Web-based applications. Traditionally, most applications were client-server based, so centralized support was mandatory for cost-efficiency. But with the ability to go to the Web for more and more needs, the type of operating system a user has becomes less important, says Tammy Barr, director of technology services with Oregon State.

But neither Nevin nor Barr see Mac adoption coming close to the number of PCs at Oregon State or in businesses more generally just yet.

"The key factor is Mac. Apple is not targeting the enterprise market effectively," says Nevin. "Until they do I think you'll only see piecemeal adoption instead of grand scale shift."

Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder agrees. "Apple is not trying to create holistic systems the way Microsoft would; Apple is designing to the end user."

You've come a long way, baby

On the ground, however, IT managers and administrators are finding it easier to master their Macs, said John Welch, a Unix/open systems administrator for Kansas City Life Insurance. Before, he said, you had to pay, quite dearly, for development tools. Writing Mac software, especially stuff that talked to hardware at a low level, was not easy, and writing Mac software pre-Mac OS X was like nothing else. There was no way to just download, build, and install what you needed the way Unix administrators did, and there wasn't as much of a commercial infrastructure as Windows administrators had.

Welch said that changed with Mac OS X, and more importantly, with Apple's decision to give away its development tools such as Project Builder/Interface builder, Shark, Quartz Composer, and others, with every copy of the operating system. Users could, for the most part, download the source for various tools from places like SourceForge, and a few hours later, have the tools up and running.

Making things even easier were the creation of Mac OS X package managers like Fink and DarwinPorts, (now known as MacPorts). With the advent of package managers, using open source tools became even simpler, as package managers take care of the various requisites and requirements that are needed to build and install the kinds of applications an IT manager will use. So instead of manually building and installing a half dozen bits to install say, Nagios, with MacPorts installed, the initial build and install is a matter of typing sudo port install nagios.

That's a big reason why admins are warming to the Mac OS X as a network management platform, he said. They could use Linux, but at some point, they also need to manage Macs, and integrate with Active Directory. And, according to Welch, while Linux-based tools can do the latter, it's not always very good at the former; honestly, without commercial tools, plugging Linux into Active Directory is still not as easy as doing the same with Mac OS X.

This is not only convenient for IT administrators, but it's also an important advantage over Windows. Regardless of the version, Windows doesn't ship with any kind of developer tools other than the ability to do some rudimentary Visual Basic (for Applications) work, said Welch. With Mac OS X, developers have the tools to write everything from device drivers to large database-driven applications, for free with the OS. He said, "Install the OS, run the Xcode installer, and voil√°! Instant pro-level development tools. With Windows? Not so much."

And when it comes to using open source, the Apple environment has an advantage over the Mac, too. Windows requires you either only use packages with pre-built binaries, or you do a lot of plumbing upgrades just to get to where Mac OS X is with a single post-OS-setup installer, he said.

But that's only part of it. The other thing Apple did by providing a free, full-featured copy of its developer tools was to make every single user of Mac OS X a potential developer, according to Welch. The company didn't invent this concept, but it has been able to implement it on a far wider scale than anyone else. Note: that's a full-featured copy of its developer tools. No "student" or "express" versions, that only support a single language, with a long list of every more expensive "standard", "pro" and "team" versions, reaching into the many thousands of dollars at the high end. No separate download, it's right there on the install media, and if you want, a free option to join the Apple Developer Connection, said Welch.

He said, "Now, anyone who thinks that every Mac user immediately plunges into Cocoa and Obj-C is delusional, but the fact that every Mac user can means that every CompSci student with a Mac has all the tools they need to use what they've learned. It means that every Mac user who is interested in learning how to program has the tools they need right there. That is what you call a decision with far-reaching effects, and all it required was someone to decide that maybe making money off of developer tools is less important than creating millions of potential developers every year."

Welch himself has found success with this model. He said, "I can tell you, as a Mac user, and an IT administrator, not only has it worked, it has worked spectacularly. By making the running of an installer the only thing you have to do to have the Xcode tools and the gcc-related tools at your fingertips, it made the amount of applications available to the platform far beyond anything Windows has, or will have until Microsoft is willing to make the same kind of decisions that Apple did. In the 1990s, by pricing Visual Basic cheap, Microsoft created millions of reasons to move to Windows and stay there. In this century, by pricing Xcode at free, Apple has taken that example, and implemented it better. I, and every other Mac user at every level have been reaping the benefits ever since."

More of management made easy with Macintosh

Over at the Orlando-based educational publisher Harcourt, senior technical support analyst Randy Rowles is happy that he gets to manage the educational publisher's 1,000 or so Macintosh systems--perhaps even a little smug, as Mac aficionados can be, about how the stability and ease of use of the systems makes his job so easy. With fewer Mac technicians needed than on the Windows side of the house, "our TCO from a support standpoint has always been lower," Rowles said, referring to total cost of ownership.

Wilkes University has also pulled the plug on PCs in favor of Macs, saying the move--which actually began last year--will save the Pennsylvania liberal arts college more than US$150,000 while still letting students and faculty continue to run Windows applications.

Touted by Apple Inc. as one of the first colleges to mandate a campus-wide shift from Windows PCs to Macs, the Wilkes-Barre, Pa. school wasn't a bastion of all things Apple before the decision, said Scott Byers, vice-president for finance and the head of campus IT. Macs, in fact, were a minority.

Rather than take bids from the usual PC suspects--Dell and HP--as well as Macs, Wilkes decided to go all-Apple because the aforementioned 2006 innovations: the new Intel-based models and the BootCamp dual-boot software, which would let the school reduce the number of machines campus-wide. "This is an aggressive technology refresh," Byers said.

"We'll be able to reduce the number by about 250" across the campus, said Byers, because labs and classrooms were typically outfitted with an inefficient PC-Mac mix. A class suitable for 30, for instance, might be equipped with 20 PCs and 20 Macs, "because each class and each department had its own preference for what computers and what software they liked to use," Byers said.

Now, that class boasts 30 Macs, able to swing both ways at will, courtesy of BootCamp.

"We think it will save $150,000 directly, in buying fewer units--even though the Macs cost more per unit than PCs," he said. The school, which enrolls about 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students, will reduce its inventory from nearly 1,700 computers to around 1,450 after the change-over. Other costs savings, however, will be harder to measure. "By standardizing, the IT department should be more productive," Byers said.

He also cited the additional security of Mac OS X, school-wide access to Apple's iLife suite, and Apple's OS itself as side benefits. "It is, well, the superior OS, isn't it?" said Byers, who before the switch was a dyed-in-the-wool Windows user.

The university's management application--which tracks students from application through graduation--is a Windows app, for instance, and couldn't be abandoned. With BootCamp, such a move isn't necessary.

Although the $1.4 million, three-year switch--which started last year with the purchase of approximately 500 Macs--means Wilkes is all-Apple, students are free to choose any operating system, said Byers. "There's no Mac mandate." Most of them pick one anyway: "This generation seems to prefer Macs," he added.

Pass me the Apple Remote

And, in response to these increased Mac sales overall as well as among some business users, management tools vendors are boosting their cross-platform capabilities and bringing their Mac administration features closer to par with their Windows capabilities.

For instance, LANDesk Software recently rolled out Version 8.8 of its namesake suite of management tools. The South Jordan, Utah-based company said its software now lets IT administrators remotely control Macs from a PC running Windows Vista, and take more detailed inventories of their Macintosh systems and the software residing on them.

According to LANDesk, its Management Suite is used to manage more than a half-million Macs, in addition to a far greater number of PCs.

Terrence Cosgrove, a Gartner Research analyst, said via e-mail that, among management tools vendors, LANDesk is furthest along in supporting Macs. He added that LANDesk Management Suite "can do OS deployment, data [and] settings migration, software distribution, inventory and remote control for Mac machines."

LANDesk said that one customer it declined to identify plans to increase the number of Macs used internally from about 400 now to 4,000 by year's end because of the new management capabilities. Version 8.8 already can administer and patch virtual machines, and late this year it will be able to manage Apple's iPhone devices, according to Coby Gurr, a business line manager at LANDesk.

The LANDesk Management Suite's next-closest competitor is Symantec Corp.'s Altiris Client Management Suite, a cross-platform software offering that a Symantec spokesman said is used by about 22,000 customers. The spokesman said Symantec doesn't have exact statistics on how many Macs are being managed with its software, but he added that "customer interest and sales of Altiris management solutions for the Mac skyrocketed in 2007."

Altiris has supported Macs since 2002. It introduced disk imaging and deployment features for the Apple systems last year, and the spokesman said that "more significant enhancements" are expected late in the year.

Even Apple has responded over the past several years, making many needed improvements to Apple Remote Desktop. That has pleased the growing number of Mac corporate sys admins, many of whom haunt Web sites such as MacEnterprise.org and search desperately for tips on how to better manage their Apple machines.

But although Apple Remote Desktop can remotely control Windows and Linux systems in addition to Macs, it relies on the Virtual Network Computing protocol, which some consider too insecure to use in corporate settings. As a result, Apple's software remains in practice a Mac-only tool.

So companies such as Harcourt have turned to cross-platform tools from third-party vendors such as LANDesk to manage both Windows PCs and Macs from a single console. Rowles said that LANDesk's cross-platform capabilities are its biggest selling point for him. "I'd say that 90 percent of the Windows features I need are available for the Mac," he added.

Michael Gonzalez, a senior IT analyst at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, agreed with Rowles' assessment. "For what I use it for, LANDesk is dead-on equal for Windows and Mac," Gonzalez said.

About 800 of the 6,300 systems used by Baylor employees or within its labs are Macs, Gonzalez said. He noted that LANDesk's cross-platform capability enables the university's IT department to have a liberal attitude toward different hardware platforms. And that is resulting in an uptick in Mac usage, Gonzalez said.

Meanwhile, Rowles said that LANDesk's software has helped Harcourt reduce its TCO for Macs even further. That should result in the company boosting the overall percentage of Macs among its end-user systems in the coming years. Currently, that figures stands at about 20 percent.

But not everything that Rowles wants to see in LANDesk's Management Suite is there now. He said that the software has weaknesses when it comes to letting users directly set group policies into Microsoft Corp.'s Active Directory or the Mac's equivalent technology, which is called Open Directory.

And Rowles said he's cautious about giving too much credit at this point to LANDesk's new Mac remote-software deployment feature, which he has played around with. "It shows a lot of promise," he said politely.

Gartner's Cosgrove said another feature that cross-platform management vendors have largely failed to port over to the Mac is a so-called targeted software distribution capability, which lets administrators deploy software to users and not simply to PCs.

But where will you find these administrators?

The added platform choice is great news for end-user morale and productivity, but it can put an added burden on IT support staff who need to keep all those various computers running and in corporate compliance. When it comes to finding and creating trained technicians who can adequately support Mac users, the answer could be UNIX and Linux admins. "The more UNIX you learn," says Jordan Kirkpatrick, vice-president of information systems for the Miami-based advertising firm Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, "The better you are with Macs." Mac OS X is, after all, built on top of a flavor of UNIX, and it inherits the entire UNIX philosophy. While the graphical user interface makes a lot of things easy for end-users, the people who have to work on a computer's underbelly may need access to the underlying system. Someone who is comfortable with UNIX will be happy to use the Terminal command line to get things done.

To grow expertise, the answer is for IT departments adopting Mac OS X to search for UNIX and Linux professionals when they can't find Mac specialists. In fact, Kirkpatrick recommends, you can easily hire a UNIX expert who has never touched a Mac, and they'll take to it without any problem.

And finding qualified people was certainly a primary issue for Kirkpatrick, who has been converting his company from Windows to Macs to the point that the company is now about 85 percent Mac, where it was once 90 percent Windows. "Our technical challenges aren't caused by the operating system or incompatibilities but rather by IT people who don't know the opposite platform," Kirkpatrick says. Yet good Mac OS X technologists are rare, and often, he claims, "Windows guys don't want to learn OS X."

Mark Jeffries, senior desktop engineer at the San Francisco-based biotech company Genentech, said that oftentimes, "Windows guys come at things as 'everything is broken,'" a Calvinist view in which the tech assumes that everything is doomed. That attitude produces issues particularly around deployment, and also creates well-meaning but inaccurate support solutions. For example, Jeffries explained, the "Windows guys" will blow away plists rather than check system and application permissions, because they think a system fix requires a direct attack on the Windows registry.

You also won't need as many support staff to keep the Macs running, and running well. Jeffries said the ratio of Mac-to-Windows tech support calls coming in at his company is 1:10. But the people you have do need to embrace the OS. Plus, you must rely on them to train the people around them. In an aptly named session, "One man, 20,000 Macs," Dr. George Vensel, who runs the IT department for the Manatee County School District in Florida, explained that his team of 13 network techs and six computer techs includes his "best expert" who works with other techs, school administrators, and the instructional experts.

That doesn't mean that the people you hire to support Macs in the enterprise can be clueless about Windows. Mac support staff need to understand both sides of the subject for interoperability reasons, and should know how to support Active Directory and other Windows concepts because they can't depend on Windows techs to understand how Mac work. Kilpatrick advises, "If you can't talk Windows to those guys, you're nobody."

How a Leopard can change their thoughts

Any proper techie, though, can usually appreciate cool features--especially if they have application in the enterprise. Apple's newest operating system has plenty of features that the Macheads can trot out to the uninitiated. The features of Leopard, the new Mac OS X Server 10.5, is filled with consumer-friendly add-ons, but also has the potential to break out of its small business niche, experts suggest.

According to Alykhan Jetha, president and CEO of Markham, Ont.-based third-party Apple software company Marketcircle, the beta version of the server (set to be released this fall), is very user-friendly. "(Apple's) business strategy is calling attention to the product's ease of use. They will use this to try and expand throughout the server world as much as possible," he said. Leopard's simplicity should really kick-start it in the SMB business sphere, said Jetha, but Apple will be sticking to the small and medium size business world for a good while, and its steady clients in specific verticals like the science industry. The server runs on Objective-C 2 code, which is backward compatible for the old standard, Objective-C. It also has a more streamlined code structure, according to Jetha.

Leopard also allows business users to create wikis, while the server stores them (and all the contributed information and process trail). Jetha said that the simple set-up with this wiki option will probably encourage more people in the business space to make use of them. "Wikis can be quite useful in small businesses. You can actually just start using (the Leopard wiki server) -- it's very cool, as set-up of wikis can sometimes be difficult. Here, it's really easy," said Jetha.

According to Maurice Pelletier, a multimedia specialist with the Edmonton-based Learn Alberta (a provincial educational program that uses multimedia to augment the K-12 curriculum), this seemingly consumer-used toolset could actually prove a good selling point. He said, "More and more people in the enterprise are using stuff like that--they're creating more and more multimedia things, from podcasts to wikis to graphics. What was once outsourced is now done in-house. iApps, especially, make it really easy, too."

Another new, Web 2.0-type feature is the Podcast Producer, which allows users to turn rec

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