IBM CIO Jeanette Horan has plenty of IT projects and systems to worry about, but perhaps one of the most pressing and timely is Big Blue's ongoing BYOD (bring your own device) rollout, which is aimed at including all of the company's 440,000 employees over time.
The IBM workforce is "hugely mobile," with many working at client sites, home offices and other locations outside corporate buildings, Horan said in a recent interview at IBM's office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. IBM has long had a corporate managed mobile-phone plan that historically has focused on BlackBerrys, she said.
But over time, more iPhones and other devices began cropping up in the workforce, and IBM decided it was time to get in front of the issue, Horan said. "If we didn't support them, we figured they would figure out how to support [the devices] themselves," a no-no given the amount and nature of corporate information potentially at risk.
IBM's BYOD program "really is about supporting employees in the way they want to work," Horan said. "They will find the most appropriate tool to get their job done. I want to make sure I can enable them to do that, but in a way that safeguards the integrity of our business."
To that end, the company has issued a series of "secure computing guidelines" to employees in an effort to raise awareness of online security and the sensitive nature of corporate data, Horan said.
So far, about 120,000 users are accessing IBM's network through mobile devices, and of that total, 80,000 are supplying the device and paying the monthly service fees, according to IBM spokesman Tim O'Malley. The remaining 40,000 are using smartphones issued by IBM. The company has an "aggressive" projection for growth for this year, although a specific figure wasn't available, O'Malley said.
One component of the BYOD program is Lotus Traveler, which provides a native client application through which mobile users can tap Lotus email and calendar functionality. IBM is also evaluating VPN (virtual private network) technology in order to provide greater security and support for more mobile applications.
IBM is also building "fit-for-business" takes on consumer-friendly applications like the popular cloud file-hosting service Dropbox, Horan said. An IBM application with Dropbox-like functions is already up and running with some users. "We're encouraging people to try it," she said.
Horan's staff is managing mobile devices with IBM's Tivoli Endpoint Manager platform. This also allows IBM to wipe devices in the event they are lost or stolen, or if the employee leaves the company.
Employees who want to use their own devices have to agree to Horan's policies, which include that their device be wiped once they leave the company, she said.
While IBM could use secure containers to deploy applications to users' devices, enabling it to wipe just the container and not the entire device, that option hasn't been used so far, Horan said. She is looking forward to the broad availability of mobile hypervisors that would allow devices to run separate OSes and related applications for corporate and personal use.
Another dilemma facing enterprises, including IBM, regards whether to develop and maintain separate native applications for each mobile platform, or focus on browser-based applications that can be written once and deployed cross-platform. The emerging HTML5 standard, with its richer capabilities, is helping spur interest in the latter option.
HTML5 is "definitely a direction we've been focused on," Horan said. "I don't want to have to maintain all these devices." However, she said, "I'm not sure whether my users are going to find that acceptable."
IBM's recent acquisition of Worklight, which has an array of mobile application development technologies, should also help Horan's teams, she said. "It was a gap in our portfolio."
Not every challenge for Horan in managing IBM's mobility strategy is so technical. Its presence in 170 countries makes offering a managed corporate carrier plan complicated. "Sadly, we have to have a contract in every country, pretty much," she said.
That said, a broader move to mobile phones could result in some cost savings for IBM: "How do I make the mobile phone the only phone for the [employee] and then get rid of my office phones?" she said.
However, a full-blown global push toward mobile-only phone service at IBM is ultimately dependent on when cellular service reaches a satisfactory level in all locations, Horan said.
BYOD in general is still a fairly new concept, but some major debates have already cropped up over how to manage and govern such projects, said Dion Hinchcliffe, executive vice president of strategy at "social business" consulting firm Dachis Group. The prominence and scale of IBM's ongoing deployment is thus worth paying attention to, especially its approaches to management and policy.
There's also the subject of how BYOD programs should handle device procurement, Hinchcliffe said.
Hinchcliffe cited the example of one CIO at a large global corporation, which he declined to name, who gives each employee a "BYOD budget," a fixed sum of money that they can use to purchase the devices they want.
"That's a very enlightened perspective," he said.
Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com