Business

Letting Apple into the enterprise isn’t easy

Eighteen months ago, Serena Software began exploring the feasibility of supporting Apple MacBooks as an option for its users, most of whom are developers. It was interested in lowering support costs and increasing satisfaction among employees who used Macs at home, including the CEO.

Today, half of Serena’s workers opt for the MacBook over a Lenovo laptop when they’re hired or due for a hardware refresh, bringing the number of Apple users to about 100 out of 800 globally, according to Ron Brister, senior manager of worldwide IT operations. Not only have support calls declined, but users are also grateful for the choice.

“Gone are the days when IT dictates how people get their jobs done,” Brister says. There have been no problems when it comes to interoperability with Serena’s Windows-based data center, he says. And with the discount Apple offers, the MacBooks are roughly the same cost as the Lenovo T61, according to Brister.

Anthony DeCanti, vice president for technology at Werner Enterprises, has a markedly different story to tell. Five years ago, Werner brought Macintoshes into the company to offer users an alternative to Microsoft Windows. But over the past two years, DeCanti has seen a steady decline in Apple’s enterprise efforts.

“Two years ago, I would have been fired up and telling you this thing has wheels,” he says. “But I really feel like Apple has taken its eye off the ball for acceptance into the enterprise and put its efforts into the iPhone. From a shareholder’s perspective, maybe that’s a great idea, but from an enterprise standpoint, I really feel let down.”

While Apple will likely infiltrate more corporate environments—thanks to the enthusiasm it has generated in the consumer market and the enterprise-friendly features added to the Mac and iPhone—that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Even Mac veterans say Apple doesn’t always act like other technology partners and that doing what it takes to mix Apple into the environment takes time and research.

A Mac enthusiast, DeCanti lauds the computer’s “incredible elegance, great operating system and incredible graphics.” However, his list of frustrations includes poor Active Directory integration, Apple’s exit from the storage hardware market and a lack of advancement with the Safari Apple browser.

Worse, whereas he used to get access to Apple engineers and insights into product road maps through nondisclosure agreements, annual meetings and executive briefings, that has ended, he says. As a result, DeCanti has decided to freeze Mac purchases for the time being while continuing to support the Apple machines Werner already has, including 250 desktops and 14 servers used to perform route optimization.

Is it, or isn’t it?

For years, religious wars have been waged over whether Apple is a full-fledged enterprise citizen. Recently, the pro-Apple argument has grown more compelling for a number of reasons.

“There are fewer and fewer reasons not to choose Apple for the enterprise, as prices are competitive, the technology integrates well with most enterprise infrastructures, and there are very few things you can’t do on the Mac, including running Windows,” says Michael Gartenberg, vice president of mobile strategy at research firm Jupitermedia in Darien, Conn., and a Computerworld columnist. “It’s harder to argue against keeping technology out when it does what people need it to do.”

And the company’s iPhone now offers business-friendly features such as increased security, e-mail synchronization with Microsoft Exchange and a software development kit for developers. On top of that, Apple’s Intel hardware can now use virtualization software from VMware and Parallels Inc. to run Windows as an instance on the Mac.

But the most influential factor may be what some analysts refer to as the halo effect of the iPod and iPhone: the idea that consumers who use these devices will become converts to Apple’s overall brand, flocking to the Macintosh and pressuring IT to support the platform as a PC alternative.

The integration woes that companies like Werner are experiencing, Gartenberg says, are an exception. “There’s always a degree of ‘your mileage may vary,’ depending on how you set the technology up, whether you’re integrating Mac OS or Vista into the XP environment,” he says.

But when you look inside the companies that have been treating Apple as a first-class enterprise citizen for a while now, you see a mixed bag of satisfaction. While some users award Apple high marks for its performance as an enterprise player, others, such as DeCanti, are on the other side of the scale, while still others, like Brister, are right in the middle.

Although basically happy with Apple technology, Brister is critical of the company’s support, global delivery capability and opaque approach to sharing future product plans. “I think Apple in the enterprise is something they’ve not put a lot of focus on,” he says.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at research firm Gartner Inc., agrees that, business-friendly iPhone efforts aside, Apple is not fundamentally an enterprise-friendly organization. Dulaney does see the “halo effect” occurring and says that, particularly for companies using browser-based applications, the Macintosh is a real possibility in a mixed environment.

However, “an enterprise-friendly organization would provide staff to go into the enterprise to support them; they’d give customers visibility into future products over a year’s time frame; they’d provide detailed lists of changes every time they released a device,” Dulaney says. “That’s not something Apple does today. They want to do just enough to get past the enterprise barriers involved.”

While Apple will support the kinds of customers it wants to have, like Disney or Nike, Dulaney says, “if you’re talking Ford Motor Co., I’m not sure that’s in the cards.”

Not that Dulaney blames Apple; after all, he says, it’s certainly fulfilling its commitment to stockholders through its current efforts, and “the enterprise market takes time and effort,” he says.

While Gartenberg concedes that Apple hasn’t made a major push into the enterprise, he believes it’s in the cards. He points to the next major OS X release, currently called Snow Leopard, which promises integration with Microsoft Exchange. “It’s just a series of slow steps that allow Apple to become a credible player in the market,” he says. “As we move into 2009 and 2010, we’ll see a strong, concerted effort to go after this market in a big way.”

Apple declined to comment on its enterprise strategy and instead referred Computerworld to analysts familiar with Apple’s market strategy. And that strategy, says Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research in Hampton, N.H., is to maintain its focus on the end user.

“They’re happy to support the enterprise, but they’re going to do it for the most part by creating the desire to have their products inside the enterprise,” Gottheil says. Whereas the IT guy is the customer of Microsoft and other PC vendors, he says, “Apple doesn’t want any disturbance to their strategic center of balance, which is oriented toward the end user.” That means the company will be reluctant to make any compromises to design or product decisions based solely on the desire of the enterprise, he says.

“I think they’re sticking with their ground game, doing what they’ve always done, which is to increase the desire for their products by making them work well and increasing their compatibility, but they don’t want to be driven by the desires of the enterprise,” Gottheil says.

He does find it interesting, however, that Yale School of Management Dean Joel Podolny was recently hired by Apple to serve as vice president of a new program called Apple University. It’s not yet clear what the program’s goals are, but Gottheil says the move could signal a certain increase in responsiveness to the needs of the enterprise or to help inculcate Apple staff in dealing with the enterprise.

Compelling numbers

Recent data backs up the notion of Apple’s growing influence, both in the minds of the general populace and in corporate America. On Oct. 21, Apple announced that it sold 2.6 million Macs in the fourth quarter, representing 21 percent unit growth from the year before. And early last month, Mac OS X market share cracked the 8 percent mark for the first time, reaching 8.2 percent, according to Net Applications, which records the operating systems of the machines that access the 40,000 sites it monitors. Windows’ share was 90.3 percent.

In terms of enterprise penetration, Forrester Research says that Mac OS use rose from 3.6 percent in October 2007 to 4.5 percent in June 2008, based on more than 50,000 clients connecting to Forrester’s Web site. And according to in Steve Jobs in his keynote address at the Apple World Wide Developer’s Conference in June, 35 percent of the Fortune 500 are testing the iPhone’s new enterprise features, including Walt Disney, Oracle, Genentech and Kraft Foods. Jobs also claimed that more than 250,000 developers have downloaded the iPhone SDK.

Outside of Apple’s own efforts, five software companies formed an alliance in June to promote the use of the Mac in the corporate environment, including Atempo, Centrify, Group Logic, LANrev and Parallels.

The group, dubbed the Enterprise Desktop Alliance, says its products enable IT organizations to deploy, integrate and manage Macs, using the same standard tools used for Windows. It claims that enterprises can achieve the same level of control, security, policy compliance and services that they currently have with their Windows platforms.

With all the momentum, there seem to be strong parallels between Apple’s intrusion into the enterprise and that of other consumer-based technologies such as social networks, hosted e-mail and blogs, which — like it or not — IT organizations are simply being forced to support, albeit this time with some enterprise-friendly hooks.

Mixed bag

That’s the trend Brister wanted to get ahead of when he began looking at MacBooks one and a half years ago. “By being an open IT environment, where people can choose different ways of getting their job done, they’re more productive and happier,” he says. Not to mention that he was a fan of Mac technology and wasn’t happy with the performance of other laptops the company had tried, including those from Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard and Dell. “They were all equally bad in different ways,” he says.

With the MacBook, Brister sees lower failure rates and fewer support calls, both among people already familiar with the Mac and among PC veterans once they’ve become accustomed to the platform. Most users are now running applications directly on Mac OS rather than using VMware’s Fusion virtual machine software to run Windows on a Mac, or they’re using cloud-based applications such as Google Docs.

Those who are using Fusion tell Brister that applications run better in an image on the Mac than on Lenovo hardware. Although he wishes the Mac had a docking station, a cost comparison with the PC shows that the Mac is competitively priced, he says.

However, Brister says Apple falls down in its support offerings. For instance, because the company offers no on-site service, he’s forced to take units to the Apple retail store for repair or ship them to Apple. Meanwhile, employees are without a computer. “I don’t want to keep spare inventory machines around that I’m paying depreciation on,” he says.

Another problem is acquiring Macs for Serena’s offices in Germany and France, where Apple requires the machines to be purchased in quantities of more than seven and five, respectively, which is more than those offices need. Apple is working on this problem, Brister says, but he’s seen no progress in the past six months. He doesn’t want those employees purchasing units at the retail store because they won’t get the discounts he has negotiated, and “it would be an accounting nightmare,” he says.

Brister also finds it troublesome that Apple provides no product road map, although he says that there was a time that he was warned to hold off on making a purchase because a new product was to be released the following week. “Anything we have to go on is rumors,” he says, pointing to the recent release of the MacBook, which he said did not live up to some of the hearsay of quad-cores and default 4GB RAM.

At Werner, DeCanti says he believes Apple is no longer focusing energy on advancing Macintosh integration into the Windows world. For instance, while Apple has promised better integration with Active Directory, it hasn’t reached a level that makes it easy to use in that environment, he says. “There are hacks that have gotten us so far, but the connectivity is fragile and hard to maintain,” he says.

Gartner’s Dulaney says the best way to support Apple in a mixed enterprise is to use browser-based applications. “There’s very little capability to do client/server integration where there’s code on both sides,” he says. However, DeCanti also runs into trouble using Apple’s Safari browser, because it’s not supported on a lot of Web sites. At one time, Apple was proactive about garnering more support for its browser, but that too has dropped off, he says.

DeCanti says it’s disheartening to no longer see enterprise-level products like the Xserve featured on Apple’s home page and to hear that Apple discontinued the Xserve RAID product. And while Apple engineers used to call on Werner for ideas, “it seems they’ve really pulled back,” he says. “It’s disappointing for those of us who’ve been working to get the product to work well in the enterprise and not see any improvement.”

In terms of support, it’s difficult to find third-party consultants, DeCanti says; in fact, the last one he found has since been hired by Apple. He feels fortunate to have found a local Macintosh-certified repair person to perform on-site service. “Apple would probably be quite pleased for [the third-party support] ecosystem to be stronger, but at the same time, they’re probably impinging on resellers’ business by expanding the retail network,” Gottheil says.

DeCanti agrees with Brister about the difficulty of supplying global offices with Mac equipment; for Werner’s Shanghai office, the closest Apple facility is in Hong Kong.

A parallel universe

Meanwhile, some users contend that the perception that Macintoshes don’t play well in the enterprise is largely exaggerated. Ben Hanes, senior systems analyst at Children’s Hospital of Oakland Research Institute (CHORI), in Oakland, Calif., has been supporting Macintoshes for more than five years. Half of the research organization’s 600 computers are Macs, with about two dozen running Parallels virtualization software.

Hanes’ data center is a mix of Apple and Windows servers, with Windows running on the database and file servers, and Apple Xserves running applications that touch the Web, including a mail server, a Web server and an iChat server. “I definitely stick to the philosophy that whatever is on the perimeter is Apple technology because it’s proven to be secure,” Hanes says.

According to Hanes, the Macintosh desktops plug into the network “just like a PC,” thanks to products like ExtremeZ-IP from Group Logic, which enable file and printer sharing between Mac desktops and the Windows server. Hanes says he has successfully integrated Macintosh desktops with Active Directory, using the “golden triangle” strategy, in which Mac clients authenticate with Active Directory while getting managed group settings from a Mac OS X server.

Hanes believes his team has been successful deploying Apple technology in part because they conduct a lot of research, apply a lot of scrutiny before making final decisions, and keep an open mind about what they use, including open-source technology. For instance, he says it took a year to establish that the team would use Communigate Pro from Communigate Systems for its e-mail server. And for its antivirus platform, CHORI selected Sophos because it enables both Macs and PCs to be viewed on one console.

Hanes does use Apple’s Xserve RAID technology but says the company’s move away from storage doesn’t concern him. “They’ve certified EMC software to work with Apple,” he says, “so switching will be a trivial thing.”

As for service, Hanes says he has certified CHORI as a self-service shop, which means it gets the same rights as a Macintosh repair consultant, such as next-day parts delivery. You need to have 150 Macintoshes to qualify, he says. Hanes also participates in Apple beta programs and NDAs.

Whatever the future holds, what’s clear is that Apple’s on a roll right now and its popularity will undoubtedly propel more Macintoshes into more enterprise settings. The question is how Apple will respond, Dulaney says — and how fast.

“The challenge for Apple is they have this opportunity, and opportunities in IT don’t last too long,” he says. While Apple undoubtedly will be dragged deeper into the enterprise over time, it has a chance now to make a big enterprise splash, he says, “but it seems like they don’t want to do that.”

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