Smartphone support challenges enterprise IT teams

A main concern is establishing management controls over smartphones

Smartphones are among employees' favorite playthings, but keeping workplace toys like the iPhone in good order is a real job in the enterprise, and those that do it say it's tough to find suitable security and management software.

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"We've been getting a lot of requests over the past year, [from people] such as the top-level manager and vice presidents that go out and buy an iPhone and say, 'make it work,'" says Alex Yanez, telecommunications engineer at clothing retailer Patagonia. About 150 people at Patagonia now use smartphones of varying makes, and most of the wireless accounts (typically Verizon Wireless and AT&T) are paid for by the corporation.

Yanez has primary responsibility for Patagonia's smartphone support, and he says there are some challenges. "I've become the repair guy for broken iPhones," he notes, adding that the company has decided not to support "jailbroken" iPhones with disabled controls, since this represents additional risk.

But Yanez says the main concern is establishing management controls over smartphones, especially since it's now accepted that smartphones used by corporate employees will be subject to Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance reviews. Patagonia has been using Good Technology's mobile-device management software to exert some controls, such as remote wiping. But Yanez says he needs more in the area of inventory management and billing and is taking a look at Visage Mobile for that.

Supporting Android is especially problematic because there's not much management and security software out in the market yet, he notes.

"The biggest issue is what people are downloading," Yanez says. At this point, Yanez says it's difficult to exert the level of granular controls that would be preferred on smartphones.

Architecture firm Perkins+Will is also working to bring order to the smartphones that employees want.

"The demand forced us to accept them," says Sherri Houmadi, mobile device manager at Perkins+Will. The firm supports the iPhone and Android smartphones, along with the Palm Treo and BlackBerries of older vintage. The firm is also hearing demands for "jailbroken" iPhones in which Apple’s native controls have been disabled, but hasn't made a decision on that.

Architects work long hours and of course are often on the go, so supporting the smartphones they want is not an unusual request, Houmadi says. The company would prefer that employees use smartphones owned and issued by the company, but the employee can make the decision to use their own. The IT department has also taken on responsibility for fixing broken smartphones.

One issue involves downloading firmware patches from the carriers. "It can be a pain. You have to notify the user if they don't already know, and a wireless upgrade can take hours," says Houmadi. Perkins+Will also uses Good Technology on the BlackBerry for remote wiping and other features, but Houmadi says she's still looking around to find suitable candidates for more comprehensive enterprise log-management actions. Overall, the new wave of smartphones can make you feel it's all being made up as everyone goes along, she adds.

More smartphone management and security software is coming into view, but it's only just beginning to meet the more exacting needs of enterprise customers.

"For the Android or iPhone, the application lockdown doesn't exist yet," acknowledges Ojas Rege, vice president of products at start-up MobileIron, which supports multi-operating system mobile-device management for iPhones, Android and Windows Mobile. He says the ability to set restrictive black lists or white lists remains something for vendors to tackle.

Patch management largely takes place outside the control of the IT department personnel in comparison to traditional PC-based management, Rege says, noting the various smartphone operating systems are quite different. "There's this chaotic endpoint," acknowledges Rege, and it's impacting the IT department responsible for these devices. "They have so much anxiety, but they can't do anything about it. They'll think, 'I have all the accountability, but way less control.'"

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