Bringing Macs into business: Real-life IT stories

Several companies share the lessons -- good and bad -- that they have learned

As more businesses bring Apple Macintoshes into their regular operations, IT has to figure out how to ensure the Macs play well in the typical Windows-dominated environments. Several companies share the lessons -- good and bad -- that they have learned.

Among the main consideration: desktop management, security, and Apple's non-enterprise focus. But with some creativity and an increasing reliance on users to be more responsible for the systems they choose, the majority experience is positive.

[ Read why more businesses are adopting Macs. | Discover why the forthcoming Mac OS X Snow Leopard may be Apple's secret business weapon. ]

Citrix succeeds by putting users in charge
A perfect example is virtualization provider Citrix Systems, which has instituted Bring Your Own Computer (BYOC), a program that lets employees choose their own laptop computer, which they can use for both work and play. "We wanted to give employees the opportunity to use the device they're most comfortable with," says CIO Paul Martine. More than a third have chosen Macs. (IBM has a similar initiative.)

Martine estimates that the traditional IT procurement, imaging, and tracking process costs Citrix about $2,500 to $2,600 every three years, so under the BYOC program, Citrix IT gives each participant a $2,100 stipend to get whatever system he or she wants. And IT has no problem if users spend more than the stipend -- from the users' budget, of course -- to get their preferred systems.

But participating in BYOC does come with two requirements: The user must purchase a three-year warranty and maintenance program and must have client security software installed. Citrix's IT group provides the security software at no charge. Users so far have been responsible in managing their security: All four virus incidents that occurred this past year all started on IT-managed systems, not those under BYOC.

Given Citrix's business, it's not surprising that it handles application incompatibilities and security issues thin-client-style using Citrix's own XenApp application (provided free to employees), which serves up corporate and most client applications, including Microsoft Office, from servers in the datacenter. However, if employees want to run Mac versions of Office or other applications, such as Apple's Keynote presentation tool, they are free to do so.

Users are responsible for their own hardware maintenance and repairs. "That's what the three-year warranty is for," says Martine. "Even my kid knows how to keep his system up to date," he adds, "and we've found that the users take care of their own equipment much better than they take care of IT's."

For other issues, the help desk -- which has both Mac and PC expertise -- is available. User files are kept on the servers and backed up internally, but users are allowed to copy files to local drives, as long as they understand securing such files are their responsibility.

A survey taken both before and after the pilot of the program found that 56 percent of participants felt that using their preferred device made them more productive. Their managers weren't so sure, but they did notice a definite increase in staff job satisfaction. Meanwhile, IT is saving on acquisition costs and has fewer client PCs to manage.

Facebookfaces few limitations to Mac integration
Facebook is even more of a mixed Mac and Windows corporate environment than Citrix. IT director Kunal Malik estimates the company is 60 percent Mac and 40 percent Windows. "We found early on that Macs were better at multitasking and a much better environment for coding than Windows," he says.

As the company grew, Macs spread to sales, marketing, and business development, whose users much prefer Apple's Keynote to Microsoft PowerPoint. "Our CRM, ERP, and financial applications are all Web-based and Firefox-compliant, so we have no issues running them on a Mac." But most of their financial users are primarily Windows-based because the latest Mac version of Excel doesn't allow the use of Visual Basic macros.

[ Find out how to make Macs work as part of your business's IT infrastructure. | Learn how to make your Macs secure. ]

Like its more Windows-based brethren, the company runs Active Directory, which integrates well with Apple's Open Directory. But integration with Microsoft Exchange is not so smooth. The Mac Exchange client, called Entourage, doesn't support all Exchange functions, but Mac users have managed to get around most of them by relying more heavily on their BlackBerrys and iPhones and using discussion forums to substitute for long e-mail threads.

Despite the Mac's dearth of malware, Facebook requires Mac users to run client security software, since the Mac has recently become a network entry point for Windows malware.

OrangeCountysheriff misses Dell's level of service
Although many companies have successfully brought Macs into their Windows-oriented infrastructure, not all mixed Mac/PC shops' experiences are rosy.

After using Macs to create training podcasts, the Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department expanded Mac use to its investigative staff and environments with little desk space, such as in a helicopter. "Dell didn't have the form factor we were looking for," says Chris Cao, a technical system specialist. So the agency deployed Mac notebooks running Windows via Apple's Boot Camp technology, which creates a separate partition to boot into Windows.

What IT hadn't planned for, however, was the hard time it would have getting Dell's enterprise level of support from Apple. "Apple won't let us crack open the cases unless we're Apple certified, and replacement parts take a while to get here," says Cao. For confidentiality reasons, investigator laptops simply cannot leave the grounds, but it took a full nine months to convince Apple that on-site service was needed. "Dell would just come out the next day, part in hand," says Cao. (Facebook's Malik points out that it's easy to protect confidential data with encryption and that, unlike Orange County, he hasn't had any problems getting next-day on-site service.)

Cao also complains that Apple won't support Windows on a Mac and that Boot Camp doesn't yet play well with Windows XP Service Pack 3, though Apple did release a Boot Camp patch to support SP3. Updates and reimaging are also more involved, since there are two OSes to deal with. "With Dell, you just yank out the drive, put it in the drive image machine, and you're done in 10 minutes." However, as with Citrix, many organizations address Apple's enterprise support shortcomings by shifting more of the management and repair burden to their Mac users.

There are also the usual complaints from IT departments about Apple's lack of product road maps, which makes planning just about impossible. To address that issue, Facebook simply keeps extra inventory around. "We accumulate lots of inventory right before Apple events because we know that's when they'll probably announce changes. This allows us to react and manage those changes until we're ready to move to a new platform." And the road map issue may not be that critical in reality: "Beyond three months, most technology road maps are lies anyway," says John Welch, senior systems engineer for the Zimmerman and Partners ad agency.

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