Endpoint explosion poses problems, opportunities

As more iPads, smartphones and tablets gain access to corporate networks, planning and vigilance is key.

Endpoints, endpoints everywhere. And they’re not typical PC endpoints either. They are tablets and smartphones and all manner of handheld devices. That “multiplicity” of end points is causing both problems and opportunities for IT VARs.

IPhones, iPads and smartphones of all brands are infiltrating customers’ corporate networks and they won’t be going away any time soon. In fact, some 418 million smartphone/tablet devices sold in the first quarter worldwide, led by Apple, Samsung and HTC—according to recent Gartner research. That’s a 19% jump from the year-ago figure. And there’s no sign that sales are abating.

While they pack a lot of compute power, these endpoints did not start out in the confines of most corporate standards. But as C-level execs insist that their gadget du jour integrates with their email, their IT departments and VARs scrambled to make it so.

Jonathan Dambrot, managing partner of Prevalent Networks in Warren, N.J., said this is a common scenario. One of his customers has 100,000 employees and a global policy prohibiting the use of noncorporate-owned assets on the network. But, all the executives at that company want network access for their personal iPads and iPhones. “How do you advise that corporation?” he asked.

These non-PC devices typically act as appliances to access application or Web portals and they bring a lot of challenges, said Tom Nolle, CEO of CIMI Corp., a Voorhees, N.J.-based IT consultancy.

Many companies are at least considering the new bring-your-own-device model (BYOD) for their end users. In that model, employees get an allowance with which to buy their laptop or other device of choice. Still others are literally buying iPads for their employees. “How do you deal with all of that?” asked Dambrot.

Making tablets/smartphones IT worthy ain’t easy

It may not be mission impossible, but integrating smartphones and tablets into the corporate network is no walk in the park either.

When it comes to smartphones or tablet problems in a company of any size, the corporate help desk gets involved, said George Brown, president of Database Solutions Inc., a VAR based in King of Prussia, Pa.

“One customer just lost his BlackBerry for the fourth time. Each time we had to go there because there’s no easy way to walk him through how to configure the new one,” Brown said.  Some other devices are more friendly and with them, generally a phone call with the user will do the trick, he said.

A big factor is that none of today’s PC applications were developed to display well on small devices. That raises havoc when a corporate user—especially the boss—expects to have the same access/experience on his itty-bitty screen that he has on his desktop or laptop.

Custom and off-the-shelf applications alike usually have to be tweaked to bring anything near their full display or functional capabilities to these devices. “Pushing alerts and new versions out to these devices is a big deal,” Brown said.

Nolle agreed that application portability is a major hurdle. “If I give a worker an appliance, I have to make sure that the apps the worker needs will run on it. That might not seem complicated—people say tablets and smartphones are essentially browser windows—but it’s harder than that. There are issues around manageability and compliance when you deal with an appliance. Many applications aren’t designed to run on small form factor or odd form factor devices,” Nolle said.

In addition, many websites don’t display well on nonstandard browsers or rely on plug-ins that may not be installed on those devices, VARs said. Case in point: Even the most ardent iPod fans still gnash their teeth when they hit a website that requires Adobe Flash. Apple famously (or infamously) does not support Flash on its iPhones or iPads.

Managing the multiplicity affect

Most VARs know Windows and PCs pretty well. There may be many hardware brands, but they are all pretty plain vanilla; they have to be able to run Windows in a supportable manner. That is not true in the world of tablets and smartphones, and that has big ramifications on software development and support.

The proliferation of phones and tablets relying on several OSes made by multiple handset makers, any of which puts its own special imprint on the Android OS, for example, thus requires what Nolle calls “management of multiplicity.”

Most companies used to design their websites without thinking too much about the end-user browser. If the sites worked with Internet Explorer and/or Firefox, that was fine. But now, Apple Safari, Google Chrome and other browsers are definitely in the mix.

“We have to test pages now on all sorts of browsers,” Nolle said. That has a big impact on a company’s internal app development and testing.

And, that development complexity, in turn, brings with it additional maintenance and support complications. 

User freedom causes IT headaches

Another problem is keeping track of who has which app. With all the consumer app stores full of free or 99-cent applications, it’s very hard to know what a corporate user runs on his or her phone.

Some stores actually offer some basic app management tools, but they are pretty simple. One problem is there are very few enterprise-grade IT management tools that bring all those phone apps under the umbrella of overall systems or network management.

“If you as an IT provider want to do serious management of all this stuff, you really have to wait for someone like Juniper Networks, which is starting to do some management tools that are more comprehensive. But most of those tools come out of that vendor’s app store or as part of the vendor OS, and then you’re [back to] dealing with platform-specific stuff,” Nolle said.

Private data scare complicates things further

Given the recent disclosures that Apple iPhones and Android phones collected and stored location data of unwitting users, there is even more concern about potential corporate liability around the use of these devices by business users.

“If Apple can track and show where people are, if they’re not where they say they are, can I fire them? If the company owns the device, there could be an argument made for that. They’ll need a policy around that,” said Prevalent Networks’ Dambrot.

Another issue: If that location data is hackable, there are all sorts of opportunities for industrial espionage. “What if a [company’s] competitor is tracking that employee? If I can track, for example, [RSA CEO] Art Coviello and want to know who RSA is acquiring, I could get some good clues” from that data, Dambrot said.

And then there are issues around “jailbroken” devices. These are tablets or phones that have been modified to do things that neither the corporate network nor the device maker allow.

“If someone is using a jailbroken device on your network, are you liable? It’s not necessarily clear cut. If the license is used in support of your business but your business doesn’t own it, are you on the hook? I think the answer is yes, but it’s untested.” Dambrot said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Barbara Darrow, Senior News Director at bdarrow@techtarget.com, or follow us on twitter.

 

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