Will Mac OS X Lion roar in the enterprise?

Apple's latest OS has lots of new features for consumers, but enterprises will find the upgrades to be a mixed bag

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Apple basically expanded Profile Manager beyond its iOS roots to serve as a client management tool in Lion Server. Using it, with or without other Lion Server features or a service like Active Directory, admins can define a powerful set of configuration options for Lion as well as a slate of user restrictions.

Profile Manager

Apple has expanded Profile Manager to serve as a client management tool in Lion Server.

End users can enroll their Macs using a Web interface or administrators can define enrollment as part of the deployment process. Administrators can update managed settings at any time and have those changes propagate to clients via a push notification, regardless of whether the device is online when the change is made.

Client management isn't new (for either Macs or IT), but the ability to enact it without requiring a central directory system is a novel concept. The ease and simplicity certainly has an appeal for small and medium-sized organizations, but it also offers some new options for larger enterprises -- particularly in that permission to a central directory isn't needed to implement it or to make changes. This can simplify the setup of management policies, reduce the cost of managing Macs to $79 -- the cost of Lion plus Lion Server -- and even move some of the management burden off IT and onto individual departments or managers. The self-enrollment option allows employee-owned hardware to be managed without binding the devices to a directory or even requiring IT to configure them.

As the role of IT continues to evolve and support for employee-owned devices becomes more prevalent, Lion Server's Profile Manager looks like a worthy investment.

The Mac App Store and software licensing

One of the big complaints about Apple's iPhone and iPad in business is that the devices are tied to a user's iTunes account for activation as well as for purchasing and installing apps. With Apple moving to an App Store model with Lion, there's bound to be hesitation about how this will play out in business.

So far, it's too early to tell how the Mac App Store will affect larger organizations. As it stands now, the App Store is one option for purchasing software, but it is decidedly consumer-focused. Given that Lion supports the same set of deployment options as earlier OS X versions, this doesn't seem like an immediate concern. Organizations can continue to volume and site license most software directly with manufacturers or vendors, side-stepping the App Store completely. Microsoft's Office for Mac isn't even available via the App Store.

The exception, of course, is Lion itself and other Apple software titles: iLife, iWork, Aperture, Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor, and Apple Remote Desktop. In these cases, businesses can make volume purchases from Apple and receive redemption codes for the Mac App Store. Those apps can be deployed using conventional techniques or installed on individual Macs via the App Store using those redemption codes.

Apple has also recently begun to allow volume licensing of iOS apps for businesses using a similar model; redemption codes are distributed to employees. I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple extend that model to third-party software in the near future.

For now, outside of Apple software or applications from small developers whose only presence is in the Mac App Store, IT will have a choice of using the App Store or sticking with conventional ways of installing software on users' hardware.

Screen sharing and virtualization

Since the introduction of Leopard in 2007, OS X has supported screen sharing. Lion now allows simultaneous user sessions, both local and remote. In theory, this could allow the equivalent of a Mac terminal server, although Apple has forbidden that in its end user license agreement. The multiple user session capability could be used for remote support in which a help desk agent could log into a Mac using an admin account while a user is logged in with a more limited account. In practice, however, organizations are better off using more robust remote access and management tools.

Lion also is the first release to support virtualizing OS X itself. This has some potential for developers and users who need to test how their apps will work on virtualized OSes. Not surprisingly, Lion can be virtualized only on Apple hardware and a given Mac can run only two virtualized instances of Lion. Right now, no Mac virtualization software supports running Lion in a VM.

New options for policy banner at login

One change in Lion is that the login screen now sports a full-screen tweed-patterned background with a login dialog. This means that some of the previous ways of customizing the login screen have changed.

Probably the biggest customization any organization makes is to display an acceptable use policy, ideally requiring users to read/acknowledge it before they can log in. Apple has now built this ability into Lion (including the acknowledgement requirement). Simply place a text or rich text file into the /Library/Security/directory on the startup drive. No special tricks, hacks, or client management tools are required.

User training and guidance

Providing training and education to both end users and support staff is a critical part of any upgrade or migration. Since Lion changes many long-standing areas of the Mac user interface, this is a particular concern for organizations that will be upgrading.

Providing basic user guidelines, a transition guide or an internal Web page or email with information about Lion is a must. It will help users make the transition more easily. And, of course, it's critical that support staff are familiar with Lion in general, as well as with how to troubleshoot any problems that arise.

Overall, is Lion good for the enterprise?

There's no doubt that Lion offers a unique update compared to past Mac OS X releases; it almost certainly represents the future of computing in many ways. Gestures will be used more and more to navigate through the OS and individual apps. Features like Versions and File Vault 2 offer increased data protection and security. And Mac users (old and new) have an interesting new set of interface options that should allow them to work in a manner that best suits them. All of those things (along with the evolutionary bumps to enterprise features like multiple Exchange account support) are benefits to users and businesses large and small.

Despite all the changes, Lion itself doesn't have to be a huge burden in terms of new enterprise processes. For organizations just now considering the Mac, Lion offers a broader set of initial testing and deployment options, particularly when it comes to client management. Those are good things in terms of fitting Macs into an organization -- and they're well worth consideration by companies already using Macs.

Overall, however, the OS itself may seem more evolutionary than revolutionary to IT. There are lots of useful updates and changes, but nothing that's a show-stopper.

Lion Server, on the other hand, has undergone a massive transformation. I'll be offering an in-depth look at it soon.

This story, "Will Mac OS X Lion roar in the enterprise?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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