I’m a big fan of technology that makes users happy. As an administrator anything that keeps users satisfied and working productively means more time for me to make the environment even better for them. It’s a great positive feedback loop that builds on itself continually, leading to an environment that’s stable, cutting edge and just plain fun to use and administer. Of course the picture I’ve just painted is something of an IT administrator nirvana, a great dream that is rarely achieved even by those who have unlimited freedom with the budgets to match. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to achieve it however and I’ll be damned if I haven’t tried at every place I’ve ever worked at.
The one thing that always come up is “Why don’t we use Macs in the office? They’re so easy to use!”. Indeed my two month long soiree into the world of OSX and all things Mac showed that it was indeed an easy operating system to pick up and I could easily see why so many people use it as their home operating system. Hell at my current work place I can count several long time IT geeks who’ve switched their entire household over to solely Apple gear because it just works and as anyone who works in IT will tell you the last thing you want to be doing at home is fixing up PCs.
You’d then think that Macs would be quite prevalent in the modern workspace, what with their ease of use and popularity amongst the unwashed masses of users. Whilst their usage in the enterprise is growing considerably they’re still hovering just under 3% market share, or about the same amount of market share that Windows Phone 7 has in the smart phone space. That seems pretty low but it’s in line with world PC figures with Apple being somewhere in the realms of 5% or so. Still there’s a discrepancy there so the question still remains as to why Macs aren’t seen more often in the work place.
The answer is simple, Apple simply doesn’t care about the enterprise space.
I had my first experience with Apple’s enterprise offerings very early on in my career, way back when I used to work for the National Archives of Australia. As part of the Digital Preservation Project we had a small data centre that housed 2 similar yet completely different systems. They were designed in such a way that should a catastrophic virus wipe out the entire data store on one the replica on the other should be unaffected since it was built from completely different software and hardware. One of these systems utilized a few shelves of Apple’s Xserve RAID Array storage. In essence they were just a big lump of direct attached storage and for that purpose they worked quite well. That was until we tried to do anything with it.
Initially I just wanted to provision some of the storage that wasn’t being used. Whilst I was able to do some of the required actions through the web UI the unfortunate problem was that the advanced features required installing the Xserve tools on a Mac computer. Said computer also had to have a fibre channel card installed, something of a rarity to find in a desktop PC. It didn’t stop there either, we also tried to get Xsan installed (so it would be, you know, an actual SAN) only to find out that we’d need to buy yet more Apple hardware in order to be able to use it. I left long before I got too far down that rabbit hole and haven’t really touched Apple enterprise gear since.
You could write that off as a bad experience but Apple has continued to show that the enterprise market is simply not their concern. No less than 2 years after I last touched a Xserve RAID Array did Apple up and cancel production of them, instead offering up a rebadged solution from Promise. 2 years after that Apple then discontinued production of its Xserve servers and lined up their Mac Pros as a replacement. As any administrator will tell you the replacements are anything but and since most of their enterprise software hasn’t recieved a proper update in years (Xsan’s last major release was over 3 years ago) no one can say that Apple has the enterprise in mind.
It’s not just their enterprise level gear that’s failing in corporate environments. Whilst OSX is easy to use it’s an absolute nightmare to administer on anything larger than a dozen or so PCs as all of the management tools available don’t support it. Whilst they do integrate with Active Directory there’s a couple limitations that don’t exist for Windows PCs on the same infrastructure. There’s also the fact that OSX can’t be virtualized unless it runs on Apple hardware which kills it off as a virtualization candidate. You might think that’s a small nuisance but it means that you can’t do a virtual desktop solution using OSX (since you can’t buy the hardware at scale to make it worthwhile) and you can’t utilize any of your current investment in virtual infrastructure to run additional OSX servers.
If you still have any doubts that Apple is primarily a hardware company then I’m not sure what planet you’re on.
For what its worth Apple hasn’t been harmed by ignoring the enterprise as it’s consumer electronics business has more than made up for the losses that they’ve incurred. Still I often find users complaining about how their work computers can’t be more like their Macs at home, ignorant of the fact that Apple’s in the enterprise would be an absolutely atrocious experience. Indeed it’s looking to get worse as Apple looks to iPhoneizing their entire product range including, unfortunately, OSX. I doubt Apple will ever change direction on this which is a real shame as OSX is the only serious competitor to Micrsoft’s Windows.
If there’s one thing that us system administrators loathe more than dealing with users its dealing with users who have a bit of IT smarts around them. On the surface they’re the perfect user, being able to articulate their problems and requirements aptly so we have to spend considerably less time fulfilling their requests. However more often than not they’re also the ones attempting to circumvent safeguards and policies in order to get a system to work the way they want it to. They’re also the ones who will push for much more radical changes to systems since they will have already experimented with such things at home and will again want to replicate that in their work environment.
Collectively such people are known as shadow IT departments.
Such departments are a recent phenomena with a lot of credit (or blame) being levelled at those of my generation, the first to grow up as digital natives. Since the vast majority of us have used computers and the Internet from an early age we’ve come to expect certain things to be available to us when using them and don’t appreciate it when they are taken away. This doesn’t gel too well with the corporate world of IT where lock downs and restrictions are the norm, even if they’re for the user’s benefit, and thus they seek to circumvent such problems causing endless headaches for their system administrators. Still they’re a powerful force for driving change in the work place, enough so that I believe these shadow IT departments are shaping the future of corporate environments and the technologies that support them.
Most recently I’ve seen this occurring with mobility solutions, a fancy way of saying tablets and phones that users want to use on the corporate network. Now it’s hard to argue with a user that doing such a thing isn’t technically feasible but in the corporate IT world bringing in uncontrolled devices onto your network is akin to throwing a cat into a chicken coup (I.E. no one but the cat benefits and you’re left with an awful mess to clean up). Still all it takes is one of the higher ups to request such a thing for it to become a mandate for the IT department to implement. Unfortunately for us IT guys the technology du jour doesn’t lend itself well to being tightly controlled by a central authority so most resort to hacks and work arounds in order to make them work as required.
As the old saying goes the unreasonable person is the one who changes the world to suit themselves and therefore much of the change in the corporate IT world is being made by these shadow IT departments. At the head of these movements are my fellow Gen Y and Zers who are struggling with the idea that what they do at home can’t be replicated at work:
“The big challenge for the enterprise space is that people will expect to bring their own devices and connect in to the office networks and systems,” Henderson said. “That change is probably coming a lot quicker than just five years’ time. I think it will be a lot sooner than that.”
Dr Keiichi Nakata, reader in social informatics at Henley Business School at the University of Reading, who was also at the roundtable, said the university has heard feedback from students who have met companies for interviews and been “very surprised” that technologies they use every day are not being utilised inside those businesses.
It’s true that the corporate IT world is a slow moving beast when compared to the fast paced consumer market and companies aren’t usually willing to wear the risk of adopting new technologies until they’ve proven themselves. Right now any administrator being asked to do something like “bring your own computer” will likely tell you its impossible, lest you open yourselves up to being breached. However technologies like virtualization are making it possible to create a standard work environment that runs practically everywhere and I think this is where a bring your own device world could be possible.
Of course this shifts the problem from the IT department to the virtualization product developer but companies like VMware and CITRIX have both already demonstrated the ability to run full virtual desktop environments on smart phone level hardware. Using such technologies then users would be able to bring in almost any device that would then be loaded with a secure working environment, enabling them to complete the work they are required to do with the device they choose. This would also allow IT departments to become a lot more flexible with their offerings since they wouldn’t have to spend so much time providing support to the underlying infrastructure. Of course there are many other issues to consider (like asset life cycles, platform vetting, etc) but a future where your work environment is independent of the hardware is not so far fetched after all.
The disjunct between what’s possible with IT and what is the norm in computer environments has been one of those frustrating curiosities that has plagued my IT career. Of course I understand that the latest isn’t always the greatest, especially if you’re looking for stability, but the lack of innovation in the corporate space has always been one of pet peeves. With more and more digital natives joining the ranks however the future looks bright for a corporate IT world that’s not too unlike the consumer one that we’re all used to, possibly one that even innovates ahead of it.