Software vendor MicroStrategy has realized that 2,300 corporate iPads create a time machine. Employees now have instant access, via Wi-Fi or 3G, to the company’s real-time business data and processes.
“It’s a very powerful device for business productivity, because of the way in which they now can ‘capture time’ during the day to do work,” says Dan Kerzner, senior vice president for mobile at the $454 million Tysons Corner, Va., company. MicroStrategy traditionally has sold a range of business intelligence applications linked to backend databases. Now the company is repositioning itself with tools that let customers create mobile BI apps, especially for touch devices running Apple’s iOS firmware.
“The iPad is the ultimate information consumption device,” Kerzner says. “It’s got a giant screen compared to a smartphone, and a form factor that lets you deliver software to it, and take it with you anywhere. There are specific things you can accomplish with the iPad that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”
The iPad’s introduction in April 2010 caught the eye of MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor, who saw it as an opportunity to make mobility far more productive for employees. By July of that year, MicroStrategy had released its first native iOS apps for internal use. Soon, the Windows laptops for the entire sales force were replaced with iPads, and more and more employees at all levels were finding uses for the tablet. Employees also use MicroStrategy’s new commercial iOS apps for business intelligence.
The IT group was on board early, according to Kerzner. “You accept this is a new form of device, and just get on with it,” he says. “The tools are all there.”
At MicroStrategy, iPad deployment, security and management was very similar to that used for laptops. “Our core tenants are: secure on-site network access, secure VPN access off-site, and an inventory of devices that we could plug into our existing device-management process,” Kerzner says.
The company secures the iPads—both corporate and personal—and network access via a corporate security profile, which is installed on all iPads (and iPhones). The profile enables secure network access and, via Microsoft’s Exchange ActiveSync protocol, secure, password-based access to and synchronization with Exchange email, contacts and calendar. The profile dictates policies such as requiring a passcode, and automatically locking when three to five minutes have passed without activity. Users are unable to remove the profile.
Employees use the passcode for access in the office, and the Cisco VPN implementation in iOS when outside the office.
“If you accept that profile, we can guarantee the security policies and certificates,” Kerzner says. “We have an authentication process to ensure that you are a verified user to get the profile in the first place.”
The approach lets the company classify mobile devices by type and treat them differently. “If you connect via an iPhone, you won’t get the full access to all our systems,” Kerzner says.
“You have to understand how data on a mobile device is transmitted, and how it can be encrypted in transit and at rest,” he says. “We have 256K AES encryption and a secure certificate infrastructure. We can validate who you are, and which device you are using to access our network.”
None of this required working around limitations in the iOS firmware. “iOS is very adequate,” Kerzner says firmly. “Apple has taken a very diligent approach to IT deployments. They’ve been very focused on getting out the right tools to deploy these devices in the enterprise.”
The security framework is the key to enabling user access. At this point, the strengths of the iPad become more visible. Users push a button to have the tablet instantly useable; they have secure network connectivity wherever Wi-Fi is available; and they never have to worry about battery life.
These characteristics marry perfectly with the bite-size functions and tasks that constitute an iOS app. MicroStrategy created an internal, native iOS app called Corporate Request Center, or CRC. It’s a collection of eight management processes such as expense reports, time-off requests and employee reviews. These can be filed and reviewed anytime, anywhere: the “time machine effect.”
“In the past, all these would have to wait until I got back to my desk,” says Hugh Owen, director of mobile marketing at the company, who spends about half his time away from this desk. “Now all these specific requests are in my app and I can see them and act on them any time of the day. By acting at those times, I stop being a bottleneck to the organization. The [business] process, whatever it is, is no longer waiting on my decision.”
BI data that was once the exclusive preserve of a separate caste of “analysts” is now much more accessible, understandable and usable to a much larger group of employees, says Glen Goldstein, MicroStrategy’s vice president of industry marketing. “Today, we deliver charts and graphs of BI data directly to end users,” he says. “The iPad is so easy to use and understand, and now so is the BI data displayed on it.”
Owen says he now often views the company’s daily internal reports on his iPad before he gets out of bed. He runs a range of BI reports and checks the list of daily field activities while he’s preparing breakfast.
“We don’t see ‘mobility’ as an incremental change,” says mobile SVP Kerzner. “In 2013-14, everyone will be living and working in a fundamentally different way. Software and business processes need to change to keep up with that.”
[John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.]