Macs in Enterprise: Management Headaches Linger

Even as the number of Macs in the enterprise rises, some management challenges remain. Will a cross-vendor developer alliance help? For some customers, desktop virtualization provides a shortcut to a mixed environment.

Are you bringing Macs to your corporate environment? Many folks in corner offices want them. Other staffers envy creative co-workers' Macs and want them too. Each year, more Macs make their way into organizations and industries.

Bringing Macs to the enterprise, though, isn't easy.

The road to Mac-PC nirvana has sharp turns and pitfalls, say Mac engineers. Few sign posts point the way to success for those integrating Macs in the enterprise. For instance, most enterprise Windows software vendors continue to pay Macs lip service while dragging their heels. And don't expect a lot of help from Apple, Mac engineers add.

[ Mac engineers face three nightmares when managing Macs, CIO.com reports. | More Macs are poised to enter the enterprise, survey says. ]

Yet there have been some encouraging developments lately for Macs in the enterprise. Desktop virtualization, which can eliminate some of the hassles around desktop operating systems, has started to take hold. Also, IBM just joined the Enterprise Desktop Alliance, a group of software developers who've banded together to deploy and manage Macs in the enterprise.

Two out of three IT administrators at large organizations with Macs and PCs said they expect to see an increase in the number of Macs this year, according to results of a survey of 322 IT administrators released last week by the Enterprise Desktop Alliance. As Macs drive deeper into companies, the pressure is on IT folks to support them.

The Enterprise Desktop Alliance survey points to big Mac integration issues plaguing IT staffs today. Chief among them are: security and file sharing between operating systems, client management, backup and data recovery of Mac files, Active Directory integration, application compatibility, configuration consistency, cross-platform help desk and knowledge base support, and standard management utilities for both Macs and PCs.

A Decade of Challenges

Ben Hanes, senior systems administrator at Children's Hospital of Oakland Research Institute, has been dealing with these issues for years. His three-person team supports some 400 people from 30 different labs using 500 machines that are equally split between Macs and PCs.

"It's always been a challenge because we have Windows file servers," Hanes says. "Microsoft has not been a friend [in supporting Macs]. For many years, Macs have been a second-class citizen."

Hanes and other Mac engineers complain that problems with the 2003 transition to Mac OS X still rankle some users and even today, Apple doesn't give them a roadmap for products. They need this sort of heads up to test upcoming Apple products and make sure they work flawlessly in their environments before users demand them. "We would really love to see Apple take a stand, but that's not happening," Hanes says.

Pre-releases can make all the difference, Hanes adds. A few years ago, Apple did release Spotlight search in beta. Spotlight search copied entire directory files locally in order to generate previews. If employees used this Apple tool, servers would have come to a screeching halt. Luckily, Group Logic built a fix that restricted previews, thus saving enterprises from that fate, Hanes says.

Despite Apple's bad rap in the enterprise, Hanes says the company has made strides in enterprise support in recent years. "From a pure support standpoint, whenever we have issues, Apple is there for us," he says.

Active Directory: An Ongoing Battle

Late last year, Children's Hospital of Oakland Research Institute began migrating to Active Directory to better manage network resources. Despite Hanes' pleas for Macs to tie into it, outside IT consultants that they hired to do the migration left Macs out of their project scope. So Hanes spent a couple of months working with Apple technicians to bring Macs into Active Directory.

Together, Hanes says, they leveraged Apple's Active Directory plug-in to handle 90 percent of the Mac cases. Yet, at times, some people still couldn't log in. "It gets a little flaky," Hanes says. And so Hanes is planning to bring in Centrify, a software company that provides Active Directory-based authentication and access control for Macs, this year for tighter Active Directory integration.

Although many enterprise software vendors claim they support both Macs and PCs, in reality that's not always the case.

Case in point: The IT staff at Children's Hospital of Oakland Research Institute worked with multiple help desk systems, often spending their days jotting down notes about problems and then putting them into their proper system.

Last year, Hanes brought in Absolute Software for asset management and Web Help Desk. The two packages are nicely integrated, Hanes says. Now he can see every piece of software on a PC or Mac, push out packages, control the computer's power, remote into any system from any system and track help-desk problems.

"We're pretty close at giving Mac users everything the PCs users have," Hanes says.

Is Virtualization a Smart Alternative?

Yet many CIOs might cringe at Hanes' years-long march to bring Macs and PCs together. Some hope desktop virtualization can be a short cut for integrating Macs in the enterprise.

Two years ago, lawyers at a Silicon Valley law firm that runs solely on Windows wanted freedom of choice over their computers. "Thirty percent of them were vocally upset about it," says the CIO, who did not wish to be identified.

And so the CIO turned to MokaFive, a desktop virtualization vendor, to allow lawyers to pick between a Lenovo or Mac with a Windows virtual machine. Half of the lawyers chose a Mac.

Yet even Macs in a desktop virtualization scenario face challenges. "When you do a change like this, there are some 'gotchas' that you have to work through," the CIO says.

On the upside, the CIO says his new desktop virtualization environment allows for bit updates rather than whole image updates, making updates practically transparent to the end user. "In our environment, we recommend to run a Mac," says the CIO. "It seems to work a little bit better."

Despite the integration challenges, Apple products are aimed at the consumer, says the CIO, and "we're doing everything we can to embrace consumer technologies. We have to get there because, if not, they are going to drag us there and we are going to lose."

Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer for CIO.com in Silicon Valley. Send him an email at tkaneshige@cio.com. Or follow him on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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