Cisco shows how to manage 35,000 Macs

The iPhone and iPad have given the Mac new life in business -- but how to handle them puzzles many IT admins

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But then came the iPad, which didn't support ActiveX and couldn't run native virtualization apps as OS X could. Cisco saw strong value in tablets, so it made the significant effort to rework its Web apps to be platform-independent, meaning dropping ties to ActiveX and IE6. As a byproduct of that iPad enablement, Cisco's Web apps could run on Macs and many other platforms (such as Linux, which is now a supported PC choice for employees, in addition to Windows PCs and Macs).

Changes in computing have removed or reduced many admin needs
Apple deserves credit for making OS X friendlier to IT management needs, but it was clear from my conversation with Belding that external factors were even more important to Cisco's ability to embrace the Mac.

The iPad and iPhone were the key change agents, forcing IT to first accept and then embrace heterogeneity as well as move beyond proprietary ties to Windows technology. It was iOS that got IT to accept having a second management platform in addition to its Windows tools; Apple was simply smart enough to hitch OS X to the same MDM wagon.

The same phenomenon has been playing out in the world of application providers: SaaS apps aren't typically tied to a specific operating system, so the platform used to access them matters even less. As a result, the percentage of applications that don't run on OS X has declined. That has removed a key technical obstacle to allowing Macs and other non-Windows platforms into Cisco as equal citizens.

A different aspect of the cloud figures into the backup equation. As noted, Cisco found that more and more data was being stored on cloud services and corporate servers because doing so let employees access it at the office, at home, or on the go with whatever devices were in hand. Cisco quickly realized that server-based data was more easily tracked, managed, and secured than those scattered across local hard drives, personal cloud services, and thumb drives. So rather than block the use of cloud storage as many companies today do, it encouraged the use of such services -- provided by Cisco in an enterprise-managed version, of course.

"We want IT to be the path of least effort. You get security and experience that way. ... People usually want to do the right things, so you really need to show them how."

As for the fear of iCloud that I often hear from IT admins, Cisco monitored where users stored their business documents, and it wasn't in iCloud. One reason is that most employees use Microsoft Word, which has Windows and OS X versions, but no iCloud-compatible version. Likewise, the tools for working with PDF documents aren't typically iCloud-enabled, and OS X's iCloud-enabled Preview has no iOS version. In both cases, users tend to use a Cisco-sanctioned cloud storage service that has no such dependencies or availability mismatches. iCloud is mostly used for personal information, such as photos and music. "So iCloud not really an issue."

Another technology-related change is Apple's decision to provide months-long developer previews for new OS X (and iOS) versions. That gives IT three to six months to test applications for compatibility, as well as get comfortable with new OS-level capabilities. Microsoft has long provided preview releases so IT customers can be prepared. Now Apple does, too. (Google, on the other hand, does not, but the uneven rollout of Android versions across device makers and carriers helps build in comparable testing time.)

Cisco's IT group stopped thinking about computers as separate from mobile devices. "They're all devices, and we accept them if they meet our policies," Belding said. That mental shift helped create a unified framework for managing whatever users might have today and tomorrow. The solutions may need tailoring to specific devices, but the principles and requirements could be made consistent, as could the supporting services. That reframed the issue from one of endless stovepipes to one of a common framework for computing and information management.

And Cisco's IT group realized that everything "moves at the speed of mobile, and we need to move with it." Providing an app catalog for all platforms of both provided and recommended apps, offering managed cloud storage, using policy-oriented management tools to validate compliance on the fly of user devices, testing devices in beta phases, proactively communicating with users (such as saying, "We know many of your will buy the X device being released next week; please give us a week to make sure it works fine before you do"), and looking for ways to say yes quickly are all methods Cisco's IT has used to do that.

It's not easy, but it has let Cisco satisfy employees' personal work styles, take advantage of more technology adoption, and make IT a positive force in the company.

This article, "Cisco shows how to manage 35,000 Macs," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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