Macs in the enterprise: How do you like them Apples?

Compiled by Briony Smith

Slowly but surely, Apple is creeping into the enterprise. There’s may be some italics on that ‘slowly,’ due to administrator reluctance and Microsoft’s near-monopoly, but plenty of IT professionals are getting their first taste of Apple, including the new business-based features in Leopard, improved admin ability, and a hankering for one of those MacBook Airs (well, maybe).

Just the facts, ma’am

Corporate interest in Macs is up dramatically among IT executives, driven by changes in what the Mac has to offer, by Apple’s success in the consumer market and its other niches, and by corporate trends where, thanks to virtualization and a migration to Web-based applications, Windows’ grip on the desktop may be starting to loosen just a bit.

“I’m getting more and more questions about bringing Macs into the enterprise and what it would take,” says Tim Bajarin, president of strategic consulting firm Creative Strategies Inc. in Campbell, Calif.

Charles Smulders, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., says he too has experienced a substantial increase in Mac inquiries from corporate customers.

The surge of interest in the Mac is a direct result of two developments from 2006: first, the evolution of more Windows-friendly, Intel X86-based Macs, and second, the introduction of Boot Camp, which allows a full Windows environment and its complement of applications to run natively in a separate hard drive partition on any Mac.

Boot Camp, in particular, garnered a lot of attention out the gate. According to Apple, 1.5 million copies of the beta version of Boot Camp were downloaded before the program’s release as part of the Leopard version of OS X. The full integration of Boot Camp into Leopard has spurred some IT managers to actively review the potential of OS X as an alternative for general business computing.

While most of the Santa Monica-based IT consultancy 318’s clients that use Macs extensively are in the video, sound and advertising realm, director of technology Charles Edge says he is seeing more nontraditional customers willing to make a move. “We have two energy companies and a fountain design company that switched [from Windows] to Macs last year,” he says. None of those, however, were large companies, meaning those with more than 500 employees.

No love from daddy

There’s just one problem. “Apple will tell you that they are focused on [the commercial business market], but at the end of the day, it’s not a big priority for them,” says David Daoud, an analyst at IDC.

An Apple spokesperson said the company does support corporate customers but declined to elaborate on Apple’s enterprise strategy.

That ambivalence is a concern for IT managers like Dale Frantz, CIO at Auto Warehousing Co. (AWC) in Tacoma, Wash., which last year began a corporate-wide project to migrate to Macs across 23 locations. “The biggest weakness at this point I’d say is the lack of a cohesive enterprise strategy on the part of Apple,” he says.

Outside of a few large media and advertising firms, corporations are simply not one of Apple’s core markets. “There is no pretense on their part that the next mountain they have to conquer is the enterprise,” says Bajarin.

Service and support are another hurdle. “You’re transferring to a platform from a vendor that’s not committed to supporting large enterprise needs. From what we’ve seen, the tools available and the support [to enact that change] are not enterprise-class,” Smulders says.

On the support side of the equation, small and large companies with just a few Macs to support can find themselves caught in between Apple support offerings. Apple does offer enhanced support for larger customers. “There is an enterprise agreement where you pay $50,000 and you get stellar support, including a dedicated support guy,” says Edge. “They really go all out.”

But that kind of money may not fit into the budget of companies with just a few dozen Macs in the marketing department or that of smaller companies. According to Stephan Pinheiro, president of the Montreal-based Apple resellers humanIT and Mac 911, he can definitely sometimes find it a little lacking when it comes to Apple’s supporting its enterprise customers. While there has been an improvement over the last few years, he said, Apple has struggled with providing budget-friendly and effective support and service.

How can we (not) serve you?

Apple’s constellation of server products—Xserve, Leopard Server and Xsan—are intended to service the small business and departmental islands of Macs in its core markets rather than corporate at large. Improvements in the operating system on the desktop and server products have been mostly consumer- and small business-oriented. Leopard Server, for example, focuses heavily on ease of setup for small business and offers a suite of workgroup-oriented tools.

But Apple has beefed up some features that are important to corporate users. Integration problems with Microsoft’s Active Directory-–a big sticking point that required third-party tools and work-arounds—have been resolved in the Leopard release. Users can now update their own directory profiles, and digital signing is now supported, allaying the fears of security-minded IT folks.

Adding to its appeal with administrators is the fact that OS X, unlike Windows, is based on the Unix operating system and open standards such as Samba file and print services, the NFS file sharing protocol, RADIUS secure remote access and LDAP directory services.

“The biggest attraction for the Mac as a client machine is the stability of the Unix foundation for OS X as an operating system,” says AWC’s Frantz. And using Macs as clients on an OS X Server network offers several other benefits, he says, specifically in the areas of remote client administration and service, remote disk imaging and system configuration. Finally, improved communication tools like video iChat also make support easier, he says.

In his consulting practice, Edge still runs across a few lingering problems. “There’s still no way to cluster file-sharing services, which is a biggie,” Edge says, and he’s had some issues with fail-overs in active/passive clustering configurations.

But on the whole, it’s much easier to plug Macs into a corporate setting than it was just 12 months ago.

And it may be cheaper, too. On the server side, Apple has a licensing cost advantage over Windows. Apple’s software licensing model was “a primary reason” why Frantz decided to standardize on Mac servers.

Apple licenses Leopard Server on a per server basis — no client access licenses (CALs) are required to access file sharing, e-mail, chat, shared calendars and other basic features. (However, its management tool, Apple Remote Desktop, is sold either as a 10-concurrent-user or unlimited-user license). “The soft costs of CAL administration and tracking is also a factor,” Frantz says, explaining that managing client access licenses can be a headache.

The kids like it alright

With its server and desktop products, Apple is now in a good position to tempt corporations. And it’s got something else going for it: an incredible amount of goodwill among rank and file computer users.

Apple is selling plenty of hardware to prove it. Not long ago its share of PC shipments in the U.S. hovered around three per cent. How times change. In the third quarter of 2007, the Mac’s share of PC shipments climbed to 6.9 per cent, with year-over-year growth of 29 per cent, according to IDC.

In the laptop space, which is steadily eating away at the desktop market, Apple is rushing ahead. In the same period, it ranked fourth in laptop shipments, with a 9.7 per cent share in the third quarter and year-over-year growth of 43.6 per cent. To be sure, most of those machines did not ship to large businesses. “You have a really strong education market in the U.S., followed by a pretty good consumer market. The rest is pretty small,” says Daoud.

That said, success in the home and education markets is creating a grass-roots lobbying effort that is starting to hit some IT organizations from all sides.

More college grads are joining the corporate workforce with Mac experience—and expectations—in tow. At Georgetown University Law Center, nearly 50 per cent of the college’s 30,000 students are using Macs—up from less than one per cent just a few years ago, says CIO Pablo Molina. The same phenomenon is occurring at technical schools such as MIT, where Macs now represent 30 per cent of all personal computers on campus, up from 20 per cent last year.

“This incredible rise in the use of Macs by college students is going to put pressure on IT departments to support Macintosh PCs [in the workplace],” Molina predicts.

Both Bajarin and Edge say their corporate clients have been approached by new hires lobbying for Macs. Says Bajarin: “The younger kids who grew up on Macs are frustrated with the tools they’re being given.”

In some situations IT organizations also face pressure from the top to support Macs and even iPhones. “You now have executives who have cut their teeth on Macs and they’re coming in at relatively high levels,” Bajarin says.

And in a December 2007 e-mail poll of 1,400 IT consultants at Deloitte Consulting, 45 per cent said they own a Mac. “We have a whole new generation of very tech-savvy super users saying, ‘No, we won’t use that. I’m not going to take a giant step backward on technology to come work for you,'” says Doug Standley, principal and lead in Deloitte’s technology innovation strategies group.

The future’s so white I gotta wear shades

Aside from cost, the primary reason that IT executives are keeping Macs out of the corporate setting is that they don’t want to “break” the legacy environment, according to Standley. Deloitte’s surveyed consultants estimate that 10 per cent of its business clients are using Macs as a primary corporate tool, but if legacy issues were not a factor, perhaps 50 per cent to 60 per cent of that group would at least consider the Mac as the primary personal computing platform for general business use.

Those legacy concerns may be starting to fade. Traditionally, desktop hardware and operating systems were closely aligned with corporate applications built around Microsoft Windows. Now, the migration toward more desktop virtualization and Web-based technologies means corporations can operate in a more platform- and operating system-neutral manner. That has created a small opening for alternative platforms such as the Mac.

Some legacy programs are being rewritten as Web-based applications. In other cases, the “fat” client that normally runs on a Windows computer is being moved to a virtual PC environment, such as Citrix Presentation Server. The latter executes the user’s desktop applications on back-end virtual PC servers and requires only a browser plug-in on the client for full access from any machine, be it a Windows, Mac or Linux client.

IT managers out and proud about Apple

Oregon State University’s IT manager for the college community network Dave Nevin said, “Since I went to a Unix base, it’s become easier to find people who are familiar with the core of the Mac OS,” says Nevin. “So support is getting simpler because of that familiarity,” He adds that Macs are faster to deploy than PCs and training users goes more smoothly. That said, PCs on the whole are easier to support since updates can be created centrally and rolled out to users automatically, but not as yet with Macs. That may change as the number of users justifies expenditures on Mac server support.

And one trend is making that centralized support less important—the increased use of Web-based applications. Traditionally, most applications were client-server based, so centralized support was mandatory for cost-efficiency. But with the ability to go to the Web for more and more needs, the type of operating system a user has becomes less important, says Tammy Barr, director of technology services with Oregon State.

But neither Nevin nor Barr see Mac adoption coming close to the number of PCs at Oregon State or in businesses more generally just yet.

“The key factor is Mac. Apple is not targeting the enterprise market effectively,” says Nevin. “Until they do I think you’ll only see piecemeal adoption instead of grand scale shift.”

Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder agrees. “Apple is not trying to create holistic systems the way Microsoft would; Apple is designing to the end user.”

You’ve come a long way, baby

On the ground, however, IT managers and administrators are finding it easier to master their Macs, said John Welch, a Unix/open systems administrator for Kansas City Life Insurance. Before, he said, you had to pay, quite dearly, for development tools. Writing Mac software, especially stuff that talked to hardware at a low level, was not easy, and writing Mac software pre-Mac OS X was like nothing else. There was no way to just download, build, and install what you needed the way Unix administrators did, and there wasn’t as much of a commercial infrastructure as Windows administrators had.

Welch said that changed with Mac OS X, and more importantly, with Apple’s decision to give away its development tools such as Project Builder/Interface builder, Shark, Quartz Composer, and others, with every copy of the operating system. Users could, for the most part, download the source for various tools from places like SourceForge, and a few hours later, have the tools up and running.

Making things even easier were the creation of Mac OS X package managers like Fink and DarwinPorts, (now known as MacPorts). With the advent of package managers, using open source tools became even simpler, as package managers take care of the various requisites and requirements that are needed to build and install the kinds of applications an IT manager will use. So instead of manually building and installing a half dozen bits to install say, Nagios, with MacPorts installed, the initial build and install is a matter of typing sudo port install nagios .

That’s a big reason why admins are warming to the Mac OS X as a network management platform, he said. They could use Linux, but at some point, they also need to manage Macs, and integrate with Active Directory. And, according to Welch, while Linux-based tools can do the latter, it’s not always very good at the former; honestly, without commercial tools, plugging Linux into Active Directory is still not as easy as doing the same with Mac OS X.

This is not only convenient for IT administrators, but it’s also an important advantage over Windows. Regardless of the version, Windows doesn’t ship with any kind of developer tools other than the ability to do some rudimentary Visual Basic (for Applications) work, said Welch. With Mac OS X, developers have the tools to write everything from device drivers to large database-driven applications, for free with the OS. He said, “Install the OS, run the Xcode installer, and voil

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