Desktop management software begins to go mobile

Mobile device and desktop management software have traditionally been separate, but some vendors have started to combine them.

Organizations have plenty of tools for managing desktops, but those products typically don't address mobile devices.

Traditional desktop management software capabilities include patching and updating software, administering user permissions, creating centralized OS images, and fighting viruses and spyware; mobile device management (MDM) is typically done separately.

Enterprise mobility management vendor AirWatch, however, has combined MDM with traditional desktop management capabilities. Its approach to laptop management is akin to managing mobile devices, offering user enrollment and provisioning profiles, the ability to update settings over-the-air, enforcement of security policies such as remote wipe, and a way to track assets in a central admin console.

Desktop management software with an MDM spin

Apple and Microsoft have both begun adding device management application programming interfaces (APIs) into their respective desktop operating systems for MDM software to use. Apple started this approach with the release of OS X Lion (10.7) and Microsoft followed suit by including support for "Open MDM" with the upcoming release of Windows 8.1. AirWatch's desktop management software supports Mac OS X 10.7 and above, Windows 8.1 and Windows RT. It requires an installed agent on the device.

Further, Apple, Microsoft and Google are all starting to merge their mobile and desktop operating system platforms by adding shared, common components.

The inclusion of common management APIs indicates the underlying management layer is also converging to give IT a common method for managing devices, whether it's mobile, laptop, tablet or some kind of hybrid device, said Chris Hazelton, an analyst at 451 Research, a research firm headquartered in New York.

"How IT defines those management strategies will hopefully become more common across those different devices," Hazelton said.

Soon, it won't be about IT departments managing Windows devices and then everything else, but rather about having a central management console to support as many different endpoint devices, operating systems and ownership scenarios as possible, he added.

For its part, AirWatch believes it could take five years for most organizations to factor MDM into their desktop management approach. As currently construed, having these management capabilities could be a good option for contract employees or those bringing their own laptops, AirWatch CEO John Marshall said.

"There's no desire to rip-and-replace or change how an XP or Win7 is being managed," Marshall said. "But, in a bring-your-own scenario, traditional platforms aren't focused on managing data and applications. We see this more as a device refresh and go-forward strategy."

Enterprise IT shops stick to tradition -- for now

The ability to manage a laptop with MDM via products such as AirWatch will be beneficial to small- and medium-sized businesses, IT departments with limited resources, or organizations without existing investments in desktop management tools, said Curtis Hendrick, manager of emerging technologies and support services at University of California Irvine Medical Center.

"If all they need is an affordable tool that gives them 60% of what [System Center Configuration Manager] does, then I could see this filling a niche," he said. It would be the equivalent of desktop management "lite," where the organization gets some control over a user's desktop without assuming liability or joining the device to the domain.

Hendrick uses and likes AirWatch for MDM, he said, but with 7,500 desktops and laptops in his organization, he needs a higher level product.

"When you have as many desktops as we do, you need a significant amount of automation for your management process, otherwise you'll just be doing that all day," Hendrick said.

But for small organizations such as the St. Andrew's School in Wilmington Island, Ga., AirWatch's software is a good fit.

The school intends to deploy 65 MacBook Airs for juniors and seniors next school year, with the intention that when the students graduate they will have the option to purchase them for college, said Josh Hanke, St. Andrew's director of technology.

The school already uses AirWatch to support its iPad deployment, and having access to some desktop management capabilities from the same console is an added bonus. The school doesn't have the resources for a full-fledged Mac OS X management product -- its Windows PC management is outsourced -- but Hanke still wants to set some limits on the students from accessing certain websites or downloading illegal BitTorrents.

"It's a fine balance between managing the laptops and letting the students be able to use them to their full capabilities," he said.

The laptop management capabilities are included with AirWatch's mobile management offerings. Prices start at $4 per device per month. Other mobile management vendors moving into the laptops management space include Fiberlink Communications Corp., MobileIron and Absolute Software Corp.

AirWatch also recently acquired Motorola Solutions' Mobility Services Platform (MSP). The software allows IT to provision, stage and manage enterprise mobile computers. AirWatch plans to combine MSP’s features and functionality into its products to support additional devices and OS types.

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