Apple in the enterprise: Inevitable, still not easy

Eighteen months ago, Serena Software Inc. began exploring the feasibility of supporting Apple MacBooks as an option for its users, most of whom are developers. It was interested in lowering its support costs and increasing satisfaction among employees who used Macs at home, including the CEO.

Today, half of Serena's workers opt for MacBooks over Lenovo laptop PCs when they're hired or due for a hardware refresh, bringing the number of Apple users to about 100 out of 800 globally, according to Ron Brister, senior manager of worldwide IT operations at the Redwood City, Calif.-based maker of application development tools. Users like having a choice, and the number of support calls has declined.

"Gone are the days when IT dictates how people get their jobs done," says Brister. There have been no problems when it comes to interoperability with Serena's Windows-based data center. And thanks to a discount from Apple Inc., the MacBooks cost roughly the same as Lenovo ThinkPad T61 machines, according to Brister.

Anthony DeCanti, vice president for technology at Werner Enterprises Inc., a freight transportation company in Omaha, has a different story to tell. Five years ago, he brought Macs into the company to give users an alternative to Windows. But over the past two years, DeCanti has seen a steady decline in Apple's enterprise efforts.

"Two years ago, I would have been fired up and telling you this thing has wheels," he says. "But I really feel like Apple has taken its eye off the ball for acceptance into the enterprise and put its efforts into the iPhone. From a shareholder's perspective, maybe that's a great idea, but from an enterprise standpoint, I really feel let down."

Thanks to the enthusiasm it has generated in the consumer market and the enterprise-friendly features it has added to the Mac and the iPhone, Apple will likely make inroads into more corporate environments, but gaining acceptance may not be easy. Even Mac veterans say that Apple doesn't always act like other technology partners and that mixing Macs into the enterprise requires time and research.

DeCanti lauds the Mac's "incredible elegance, great operating system and incredible graphics." However, his frustrations include poor Active Directory integration, Apple's exit from the storage hardware market and a lack of improvements in Apple's Safari browser.

Worse, whereas he used to get access to Apple engineers and insights into product road maps through annual meetings and executive briefings, that has ended, he says. As a result, DeCanti has decided to freeze Mac purchases while continuing to support the Apple machines Werner already has, including 250 desktops and 14 servers used for route optimization.

Is It, or Isn't It?

For years, religious wars have been waged over whether Apple is a full-fledged enterprise citizen. Recently, the pro-Apple argument has grown more compelling.

"There are fewer and fewer reasons not to choose Apple for the enterprise, as prices are competitive, the technology integrates well with most enterprise infrastructures, and there are very few things you can't do on the Mac, including running Windows," says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at research firm Jupitermedia Corp. in Darien, Conn., and a Computerworld columnist. "It's harder to argue against keeping technology out when it does what people need it to do."

And the company's iPhone now offers business-friendly features such as increased security, e-mail synchronization with Microsoft Exchange and a software developer's kit. On top of that, Apple's Intel hardware can now use virtualization software from VMware Inc. and Parallels Inc. to run Windows on the Mac.

But the most influential factor may be what analysts call the "halo effect" of the iPod and iPhone: the idea that people who use those devices outside of work will gravitate toward Macintosh computers and pressure their IT departments to support them.

The integration woes that companies like Werner are experiencing are an exception, Gartenberg says. "There's always a degree of 'your mileage may vary,' depending on how you set the technology up -- whether you're integrating Mac OS or Vista into the XP environment," he says.

But if you looked inside the companies that have been treating Apple as a first-class enterprise citizen for a while now, you'd see a mixed bag of satisfaction. Some users give Apple high marks for its performance as an enterprise player, while others, such as DeCanti, don't. And there are those like Brister, who are in the middle.

Though happy with Apple's technology, Brister is critical of the company's support, global delivery capability and opaque approach to sharing product plans. "I think Apple in the enterprise is something they've not put a lot of focus on," he says.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at research firm Gartner Inc., agrees that -- business-friendly iPhone efforts aside -- Apple is not fundamentally an enterprise-oriented organization. But he has witnessed the halo effect and says that the Mac can work in a mixed environment, particularly for companies using browser-based applications.

However, "an enterprise-friendly organization would provide staff to go into the enterprise to support them, they'd give customers visibility into future products, they'd provide detailed lists of changes every time they released a device," Dulaney says. "That's not something Apple does today. They want to do just enough to get past the enterprise barriers involved."

While Apple will support the kinds of customers it wants to have, like Disney or Nike, Dulaney says, "if you're talking Ford Motor Co., I'm not sure that's in the cards. The enterprise market takes time and effort."

Gartenberg acknowledges that Apple hasn't made a major push into the enterprise, but he thinks it's in the cards. He points to the next major OS X release, currently called Snow Leopard, which promises integration with Microsoft Exchange. "It's just a series of slow steps that allow Apple to become a credible player in the market," he says. "As we move into 2009 and 2010, we'll see a strong, concerted effort to go after this market in a big way."

When contacted for this story, Apple declined to comment on its enterprise strategy, but Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research Inc. in Hampton, N.H., says the company's strategy is to focus on the end user.

"They're happy to support the enterprise," Gottheil says. But "Apple doesn't want any disturbance to their strategic center of balance, which is oriented toward the end user." That means the company will be reluctant to make any compromises to design or product decisions based solely on the needs of the enterprise, he says.

He does find it interesting, however, that Apple recently hired Yale School of Management Dean Joel Podolny to serve as vice president of a new program called Apple University. It's not yet clear what the program's goals are, but Gottheil says the move could signal a forthcoming increase in responsiveness to enterprise needs.

There seem to be strong parallels between Apple's infiltration into the enterprise and those of other consumer-based technologies such as social networking tools, hosted e-mail and blogs.

That's the trend Brister wanted to get ahead of when he began looking at MacBooks a year and a half ago. "When people can choose different ways of getting their job done, they're more productive and happier," he says.

Brister was a fan of Mac technology anyway, and he wasn't happy with the performance of other laptops that Serena had tried. "They were all equally bad in different ways," he says.

With the MacBook, Brister sees lower failure rates and gets fewer support calls. Most users are now running applications directly on Mac OS rather than using VMware's Fusion virtual machine software to run Windows on their Macs, or they're using cloud-based software such as Google Docs.

Fusion users tell Brister that applications run better in an image on the Mac than they do on Lenovo hardware. And costs are competitive, he says.

Brister does say that he wishes Macs had docking stations, and he says Apple falls down in its support offerings. For instance, because the vendor offers no on-site service, when machines need repairs, he must take them to Apple stores or ship them to Apple. Meanwhile, employees must do without their computers. "I don't want to keep spare machines around that I'm paying depreciation on," he says.

Another problem is acquiring Macs for Serena's offices in Europe, where Apple requires purchases in quantities greater than the offices need. Apple is addressing this problem, Brister says, but he notes that he hasn't seen any progress in six months. Meanwhile, if he purchased units at retail stores, he wouldn't get the discounts he has negotiated, and "it would be an accounting nightmare," he says.

DeCanti agrees that it's difficult to supply global offices with Mac equipment; for Werner's Shanghai office, the closest Apple facility is in Hong Kong.

Brister also finds it troublesome that Apple provides no product road maps, although he says that he was once warned to hold off on making a purchase because a new product was to be released the following week. "Anything we have to go on is rumors," he says, pointing to new MacBooks that didn't feature the quad-core technology and default 4GB of RAM that some had expected.

DeCanti says he thinks Apple is no longer focusing on advancing Mac integration into the Windows world. For instance, he says, while Apple has promised better integration with Active Directory, it hasn't reached a level that makes Macs easy to use in that environment. "There are hacks that have gotten us so far, but the connectivity is fragile and hard to maintain," he says.

Gartner's Dulaney says the best way to support Macs in a mixed enterprise is to use browser-based applications. "There's little capability to do client/server integration where there's code on both sides," he says. But DeCanti also runs into trouble using Apple's Safari browser, because it's not supported on a lot of Web sites. Earlier, Apple had been proactive about garnering more support for its browser, but those efforts, too, have dropped off, he says.

DeCanti says it's disheartening to no longer see enterprise-level products like the Xserve server featured on Apple's home page and to hear that Apple discontinued its Xserve RAID product. And while Apple engineers used to seek input from Werner users, "it seems they've really pulled back," he says. "It's disappointing for those of us who've been working to get the product to work well in the enterprise."

In terms of support, it's difficult to find third-party consultants, DeCanti says. The last one he used has since been hired by Apple. He feels fortunate to have found a local Macintosh-certified repair person to provide on-site service.

"Apple would probably be quite pleased for [the third-party support] ecosystem to be stronger, but at the same time, they're probably impinging on resellers' business by expanding the retail network," Gottheil says.

A Parallel Universe

But some users contend that the perception that Macs don't play well in the enterprise is exaggerated. Ben Hanes, senior systems analyst at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) in Oakland, Calif., has supported Macs for more than five years. Half of the organization's 600 computers are Macs, with about two dozen running Parallels virtualization software.

CHORI's data center is a mix of Apple and Windows servers, with Windows running on the database and file servers, and Apple Xserve units running applications that touch the Web, including a mail server, a Web server and an iChat server. "I stick to the philosophy that whatever is on the perimeter is Apple technology, because it's proven to be secure," Hanes says.

According to Hanes, the Macintosh desktops plug into the network "just like a PC," thanks to products such as Group Logic's ExtremeZ-IP, which enables file- and printer-sharing between Mac desktops and Windows servers. Hanes says he has successfully integrated Macintosh desktops with Active Directory, using the "golden triangle" strategy, in which Mac clients authenticate with Active Directory while getting managed group settings from a Mac OS X server.

Hanes says his team has been successful at deploying Apple technology in part because it conducts a lot of research before making decisions, and staffers keep an open mind about what they use, including open-source technology. For instance, he says it took a year to establish that they would use Communigate Pro from Communigate Systems for CHORI's e-mail server. And they selected Sophos PLC's antivirus system because it enables Macs and PCs to be viewed on one console.

Hanes uses Apple's Xserve RAID technology but says the company's move away from storage doesn't concern him. "They've certified EMC software to work with Apple," he says, "so switching will be trivial."

As for support, CHORI has been certified as a self-service shop, which means it gets the same rights as Mac repair consultants, such as next-day parts delivery. A company needs 150 Macs to qualify, he says. Hanes also participates in Apple beta programs.

Whatever the future holds, it's clear that Apple is on a roll and that its popularity will undoubtedly propel more Macs into more enterprise settings. The question, Dulaney says, is how Apple will respond -- and how fast.

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