Stepping Up ITAM Practices – The Moving Targets of a Mobile World

By Mike Cooper

The world of IT has been on an unstoppable march from fixed locations to go-anywhere rapid mobility for decades. This trend is not going to slow down, let alone stop. The sooner IT departments put a plan together, the faster they can get ahead of the curve.

The Old Mobile Days

Just a few decades ago, IT support was fairly straightforward and some might even say it was simple. Employees had a desktop PC semi-permanently fixed to a single location. It always was in the same location, on the same internal secure private LAN. It was physically located inside a building locked or even guarded during off hours. If a PC had a problem, somebody from IT could walk over to it and fix the problem.

This static desktop world started to change with the introduction of the laptop computer. With the introduction of laptops, most employees kept their desktop and added a laptop. The laptop was typically used for travel and would eventually make its way home to an office. This was a difficult concept to support at first, but IT adapted. At first, many IT departments simply ignored laptops, thinking of them as a passing trend. Others thought of them as nice-to-have, but not critical for the employee like a desktop.

Over time, laptops evolved from secondary systems to the primary computer of many employees. This was the renaissance of mobile computing. Employees with only a laptop were now on the cutting edge. IT departments certainly thought so. After building up infrastructure and processes around static desktops, IT departments had to start overhauling their systems and processes to support this new mobile laptop era.

This was the first time in history that IT departments had to solve hard issues such as; how to fix a laptop located in Finland when the IT department is in San Jose, California, tracking laptops as assets when the laptops rarely connected to the same internal LAN or only via VPN over the internet, and how to remotely fix an employee’s laptop at a conference in Maui, Hawaii without flying there.

For these issues and more, IT departments throughout the world have mostly conquered the mobile laptop world. What they face now is even more daunting.

Today’s Mobility

Mobile computing is now moving to smartphones and tablets. The first hurdle to overcome is just sheer numbers. At the end of 2010 there were 4.6 billion phones in the world. Everyone has one.

Unlike PCs and laptops which have one dominant operating system (Microsoft Windows), the smartphone and tablet world has a robust set of operating systems including Apple iOS, Google Android, RIM BlackBerry, Windows Phone, and HP webOS. Each of these platform vendors has their own approach to platform management.

Apple tightly controls iOS platforms. IT departments cannot directly deploy apps to iOS devices without going through the iTunes store or jail-breaking each iOS device first. Android from Google is much more open and allows for installation of apps by any organization without going through a central app store. BlackBerry’s are somewhere in between Android and iOS. You can deploy apps directly to them, but management is tightly tied to running RIM’s Blackberry Enterprise Server. Windows Phone and HP webOS trail quite far behind iOS, Android, and BlackBerry in terms of devices sold, but could surge forward given the company’s which back them.

On top of all the platform differences, employees typically consider their phone a personal device which has private information on it. Yet they still want full access to internal company applications and data. IT departments are tasked with protecting company data and providing secure access to it. That’s not something easily done on a device which fits in a pocket and is rarely connected to a company LAN directly.

In the desktop era, IT dealt with games and other third-party apps installed by the user. Many IT departments disabled the user’s ability to install apps to reduce the chance of a security problem or instability to the desktop. Users of smartphones and tablets are much more of a challenge to manage since most mobile platforms don’t have a means of disabling app installs by their users. Those unauthorized apps are also constantly connected to the internet without being forced through a company firewall.

Whenever there is a new IT challenge, there is usually an opportunity to make money by solving the problem. The emerging Mobile Device Management (MDM) industry is rapidly building solutions to solve many of the challenges of rapidly moving mobile devices. There are several dozen MDM solutions on the market today. The challenge to IT, of course, is to get ahead of the trend by selecting an MDM platform and implementing it. No small task, but certainly one that shouldn’t be ignored.

What will be the next big IT trend after mobility? That’s difficult to say, but when it arrives, we will all look back at the mobility trend and say how simple it was back then.

About the Author

Michael Cooper is the President and CTO of MagniComp.