Company uses iPads instead of laptops in loaner program

Simpler devices mean simpler configuration, management

A fast-growing media company has hit upon an iPad loaner program, which replaces laptops for occasional travelers. The Apple tablet's simplicity compared to the laptop makes it much easier to administer and use.

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The loaner iPads are only a handful of the 30 or so tablets accessing the Active Interest Media's corporate network. But it's proving to be an additional mobile option for companies, steering between company-owned and personally owned devices. And it's further evidence of how enterprises have embraced iOS for mobility. [See "How the iPad is changing work, and working together"]

IOS device management is a key topic at this week's MacIT conference in San Francisco, part of the Macworld|iWorld event.

AIM, headquartered in El Segundo, Calif., offers a range of "enthusiast" magazines such as Black Belt, Yoga Journal, Backpacker, as well as range of trade shows, events and digital media. Founded in 2003, AIM has about 500 employees in 11 offices. Among them, there are about 120 iPhones and 30 iPads.

From the beginning, there's also been a sizeable Mac presence, that's been growing, says Nelson Saenz, AIM's vice president of IT. Today, client PCs are about evenly split between Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X. And nearly all of the growth in mobile clients is based on Apple's iOS platform. The backend systems embrace Microsoft's familiar server products: Exchange for email and contacts, ActiveDirectory, and SharePoint for collaboration.

Even before the iPhone was released in 2007, and long before "Bring Your Own Device" became a mobile byword, AIM's original two-man IT department was supporting a mix of whatever employees brought to work: RIM BlackBerries, Windows Phones and the like. "We didn't find it practical to launch a full-blown company-wide standardized phone project," Saenz recalls. "It would have been just one more thing to manage. We told people 'if you've got a phone and it can do email and work with Exchange, we'll set it up for you.'"

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"Then iPhone came along and changed everything," he says. The Mac users, and others, quickly added iPhones. And "when iPhone started supporting Exchange, the floodgates opened," Saenz recalls.

But as the number of smartphones, really mobile computers, increased, so did security and management concerns. "Users were getting what they wanted, but we in IT were getting the short end," Saenz says. "What if they lose the phone or it's stolen? What do we do?"

The IT group began researching applications for managing and securing enterprise mobile devices. Eventually, AIM deployed Good for Enterprise, from Good Technology, a group of mobile device management tools that support iOS among other mobile platforms.

The software can manage iOS and Android devices, offers an easy-to-use dashboard-style user interface for IT administrators and "all the IT data that IT people like to look at," Saenz says with a laugh.

Good for Enterprise gave AIM a ready-to-use framework to accommodate the advent of the iPad. The tablet caught the interest of AIM executives, who saw the possibility of new digital publishing opportunities. They authorized the purchase of a batch of the tablets, which were spread around in different departments, including IT.

That's when Saenz began thinking of loaning them out to employees who traveled occasionally.

"In the past, we had a stack of laptops, and loaned them to employees heading to trade shows and so on," Saenz says. But doing so was labor intensive. It called for manual setup, configuration profiles, and sometimes re-imaging the OS.

"With iPad, and Good for Enterprise, all that was eliminated," according to Saenz. A help desk tech loads the Good iOS client, and uses the dashboard to automatically apply a range of security and management policies, including configuring the email client. If the iPad is lost or stolen, the Good software lets AIM wipe it clean remotely.

With laptops, users got all the [traditional PC] bells and whistles, but IT got all the traditional overhead," Saenz says. "And 99% of the time, they just wanted to check email and surf the web."

To check out an iPad, employees start by filling in an online form, which generates a helpdesk ticket. A technician is assigned to the request, and does a software image refresh of the tablet, and installs the Good client to set up the user's email account ahead of time and to install the security policies. If the user works in that office, they can pick it up, or the IT group ships it overnight to a remote office. So far, none of the loaner iPads have been lost or stolen.

"So much of the [iPad's] provisioning, activation, and setup, end to end, is automated and streamlined, via the Good software," Saenz explains. "Using iPads [instead of laptops] is saving us in IT a lot of time."

That simplicity and flexibility shows in unexpected ways. A few nights ago, at home, Saenz was cradling his second child, a 3-week old boy in one hand, while using the other on an iPad linked via a VPN to the corporate network, updating a network diagram for his IT technicians.

"I had it propped up, saving, emailing, with my son in my other hand," he recalls. "You can't do that with a laptop."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

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