Employees are demanding to bring their own devices to work, but IT has to manage them.
Consumer technology in the workplace is the stuff of nightmares for IT managers the world over grappling with changes - and, potentially, threats - to the way modern businesses run their corporate computer systems.
The global drift towards allowing employees to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is something of a love-hate relationship. On one hand, permitting a hotch-potch of employees' personal smartphones or tablets access to the corporate network poses an unprecedented threat to the integrity of a business' systems, yet the possibility of significantly reduced acquisition and maintenance costs for both hardware and software, plus increased employee satisfaction, are just too great to ignore.
Naturally, this very 21st century dilemma has spawned a new and lucrative product category: mobile device management (MDM). Although the world's enterprise software giants Oracle, RIM, IBM and SAP have MDM offerings, they're not the only ones, nor are they necessarily the best-known players in this nascent industry.
MDM vendors claim it offers businesses the best of both worlds, a way to reap the potential cost-benefits of BYOD, while ensuring their networks and commercially sensitive data contained on them, are not compromised. All while removing the inefficiencies of managing a fleet of mobile devices manually.
Though modern software companies, everyone from Microsoft to McAfee, now offer MDM-aware features within their core products and telcos such as Telstra offer pseudo MDM services (usually confined exclusively to mobile phone management), hundreds of MDM-only businesses have emerged over the past 36 months.
In last year's Magic Quadrant report on MDM global offerings, Gartner whittled this very large list down to about 30 stand-out MDM suppliers. It suggested four - Sybase, Good Technology, AirWatch and MobileIron – as the Quadrant Leaders, vendors whose offerings truly stood out in an increasingly crowded space.
"BYOD is one of the things that keeps IT managers awake at night,'' says Rob Roe, MD of the Australian arm of AirWatch, whose local customer base has doubled this financial year.
"There's a constant flow of questions; how to manage BYOD devices, how to secure them, how to create policies around them? How do I manage multiple groups? The list goes on."
The right MDM software suite will provide solutions to these pressing questions and are, generally available in two flavours: basic services, with features made that exploit the same device APIs every developer has access to; and high-end, more complex solutions that truly free up limited IT resources.
Roe says only a handful of providers off the highest end products offer "the ability to manage a diverse fleet of devices with diverse requirements over multiple departments and employees at different levels from contractors to executives, but all from one central dashboard."
Even RIM, the long-time leader in MDM, acknowledged the need for device-agnostic solutions, last month, when it launched management facilities for competing iPhone and Android devices via its Mobile Fusion MDM platform,.
"When choosing an MDM solution, I would say the solution needs to have the required features for the mobile platforms you plan to manage (both current and future), as well as a suitable price range and, if desired, availability of SaaS [software-as-a-service] managed services," says Song Chuang, Research Director of Gartner's Mobility and Client Computing group.
"MDM can be purchased as an on-premise solution or via SaaS. Fiberlink was one of the first vendors to focus on SaaS, these days most vendors provide SaaS too but, though SaaS is a great option, there are still companies that simply won't touch the cloud."
Song adds the ideal MDM solution must support the latest version of the mobile operating systems required – and be able to deploy new ones at short notice.
Though there BYOD solutions ranging from free iPhone apps to comprehensive enterprise offerings by the likes of AirWatch and SAP (which owns Sybase), Roe says the magic number for deploying an MDM suite appears to be around the 20-device mark.
"It's at this point we usually get the call from companies saying, 'we've been managing these devices manually, but now my head is about to explode,'' says Roe, whose company took just two months to get 17,000 devices onto its MDM platform for an American retailer giant.
"Typically, they've been using the iPhone BYOD configuration utility, but one device at the time. You can see how it becomes labour intensive very quickly, more so when you've got multiple devices from multiple manufacturers and then multiple generations of those devices on one network."
Companies such as AirWatch generally charge clients monthly, on a per-device basis, anything from about $2.50 per device for bare bones management to about $18 per device for the full gamut of services, which may include secure "lockers" on an employee's device where confidential company data and services can be accessed but not stored.
Whatever the obvious benefits of an MDM service to business, SAP's Australian head of mobile solutions, Andrew Fox, says that the industry is so new, there are lots of unexpected benefits still being unearthed, as the German enterprise software giant discovered the wake of last year's tsunami in Japan.
"We have a mix of more than 20,000 blackberries, 10,000 iPhones and 14,500 iPads accessing our networks annually and, though most of them are company-issued, the number of BYOD devices increases every day, so we'd been working on a BYOD system for 18 months but we hadn't yet rolled it out," says Fox who now sells that same MDM system, Afaria, to customers.
"Then the tsunami hit Japan and we had to roll it out overnight and get 900 SAP employees online ASAP. Because we had a policy and infrastructure in place and ready to roll out, we managed to get 130 personal devices up and connected to the network almost immediately.
"It was remarkable. Our entire Japanese business was able to continue - even in the face of such adversity."