How to choose the right enterprise mobility management tool

Consider what's 'good enough' for what you need right now -- but don't neglect the future.

The rapid pace of innovation in mobile devices and software has made managing it all a moving target, but the proliferation of user-owned devices at work means businesses cannot wait to beef up their support infrastructure.

So how do you choose the right tool set, given all the activity? It's not easy: Mobile device management (MDM) software vendors are adding new features every three to six months, on average. Also, as vendors have consolidated -- most recently with this week's announcement that VMware will acquire AirWatch -- MDM tools have evolved into enterprise mobile management (EMM) suites, all-purpose Swiss Army knives that cover the gamut from device policy controls to application, content, network and service management.

See our updated chart, "MDM tools: Features and functions compared."

"2014 will be the battle of the big vendors. It is the year they will make a run at enterprises that want stability and scale," says Maribel Lopez, principal at Lopez Research. As a result, it's the year to review your EMM strategy -- or to develop one if you haven't already.

If you have not done so yet, you're not alone. According to a May 2013 Aberdeen Group survey of 320 IT organizations, 75% had a bring your own device (BYOD) program in place, but half of those were taking an "anything goes" approach to managing the mobile ecosystem -- which is to say, little or no management at all. "That's a big concern," says Andrew Borg, who was research director at Aberdeen when the survey was completed. (Borg is now founder and principal of eC3 Consulting, his own practice.)

As mobility morphs from a peripheral concern to a core IT service, it's inevitable that more organizations will move toward the adoption of EMM software. Here are a few things to think about before making that purchase.

Put your current needs front and center

Finding the right EMM tool set depends not only on which one has the most features, but which has the feature sets that best meet your organization's requirements. (See Mobility management tools: Features and functions compared.)

"There's no single list of what's important and what's not. It's all about your use case," says Philippe Winthrop, global mobility evangelist at Computer Sciences Corp. "If you have zero interest in supporting one mobile platform then it doesn't matter if the EMM has insane capabilities on that platform," he says. So start with the business tasks you're trying to support, figure out what tools and feature sets are required and drill down from there.

For example, MDM policy controls are a baseline. But do you also need application or content management? Do you need to support BYOD as well as company-owned phones?

Are you using corporate owned, personally enabled (COPE) phones? They are owned by the company and can be configured and managed just like a BYOD device, offering containerization or other technologies to segment personal apps and data away from the corporate apps and content.

Do your employees travel to offices abroad? If so, a seemingly esoteric feature like geo-fencing -- a feature that enables device management policy changes based on a phone's GPS location -- could be all-important to stay in compliance with each country's privacy regulations. "Having an MDM that can change the policy of a device as it crosses from one country to another is one of those great features that organizations don't know they need yet," says Daniel Eckert, managing director in the advisory practice at PwC.

It's also important to understand whose devices you need to manage. Is it just employees, or do you need to include contractors, temporary workers, business partners or even customers?

Then there are the types of devices you need to manage -- either now or in the next few years. Yes, most vendors support iOS and Android, but what about Windows Phone and the new Firefox OS? If you think those aren't a factor, consider that back in 2009 no one would have anticipated the decline of BlackBerry, Symbian and WebOS -- or that Nokia would adopt Windows Phone as its core strategy because of an acquisition, says Winthrop.

Another concern: Is the EMM suite extensible enough to support other wireless endpoint devices, such as mobile printers and scanners? "We even had a request for Google Glass," says Eckert. "And I would expect, with wearable smart watches coming down the pipe, that we'll see more of those in the enterprise in the next two years."

In other words, "think beyond the smartphone," says Aberdeen's Borg. As the Internet of Things evolves, will you be able to manage endpoints of any type, whether they're temperature or seismic sensors? In a fast-moving market it's hard to know what devices will be popular a year from now, so make sure you hitch your wagon to a vendor that will keep up with new endpoints as they become popular, Borg suggests.

The number of companies we work with who say the CEO doesn't like the MDM they deployed is in the high 300s out of over 500 clients. Michael DiSabato, research vice president, Gartner for Technical Professionals

Winthrop concurs. "Buy the tools that allow you to have the flexibility you need to go with the flow," he says.

Versatility in EMM software is key in a world where the mobile OSes and endpoint devices change every year, says Michael DiSabato, research vice president at Gartner for Technical Professionals. The fluidity of the environment makes the choice of a tool more of a tactical decision than a strategic one, he adds.

Suites rule

IT should look for best of suite, rather than best of breed, says Lopez. Administrators don't want eight different tools to manage, she says, which is why the market will continue to consolidate. "You're looking for something that's not amazing at everything but that is great at some things and good enough for the others."

The way some features are delivered -- and the level of integration within a suite -- can vary. Vendors may have developed most capabilities natively, but many have acquired features through acquisition, or have added them through partnerships. For example, BoxTone relies on Mocana for application containerization, while SAP uses NitroDesk Touchdown as its secure email client. If a suite doesn't offer a desirable feature set natively, make sure the vendor you choose has a good partnering strategy for the capabilities you need, says Lopez.

"A single solution is better for security, providing that the user experience doesn't get trashed in the process," says Gartner's DiSabato.

But don't be afraid to go best of class for important capabilities if the suite you're using isn't up to snuff in one key area, says Winthrop. "We have one major customer with an MDM solution, but when it comes to mobile application management (MAM) they're looking for best of breed. Even though the MDM offering includes MAM capabilities it's not sufficient for their needs."

You can't spend all of your time integrating five or six products, but having one or two is fine, says Lopez, so if you're happy with an existing tool, think about augmenting it. Take security, for instance. "Many regulated industries have Good Technologies for secure mobile messaging, but they might want, for example, Mobile Iron for everything else." Or, she says, if you really need a secure browser you may want a suite that works with Mocana.

There is one worry with suites over best-of-breed tools, says Lopez, and that's the potential for some features to fall behind those offered by smaller, more nimble competitors. "Startups are very good at thinking out of the box. That's a huge handicap for any big company," she says.

But large vendors such as SAP and IBM are plowing enormous resources into their EMM suites. And the biggest vendors have another advantage: They can provide enterprise-scale support, integration and even development services.

User experience is paramount

BYOD has put the end user in the driver's seat, so it's vital to get hands-on time with the tools before a full deployment. "The user and the employee are the key arbiters of adoption," Aberdeen's Borg says. "Polling your employees about their experiences is increasingly important."

"The only thing that matters is the user experience," says Gartner's DiSabato.

Unfortunately, the MDM policy controls that many businesses have put into place haven't fared well with users. "The number of companies we work with who say the CEO doesn't like the MDM they deployed is in the high three hundreds out of over 500 clients," he says. Things like user self-provisioning and mobile application delivery should be transparent and scalable, he says.

Users should be able to bring their own devices to work and have them comply with policy in a way that's not onerous to them, says Borg. And if your organization doesn't have the expertise to build a mobile support team that can rise to the challenge of supporting a full-featured EMM service, there are cloud-based services and managed service providers that can do the job.

Having an MDM that can change the policy of a device as it crosses from one country to another is one of those great features that organizations don't know they need yet. Daniel Eckert, managing director, PwC

In fact, says Eckert, cloud-based EMM is one of the most important considerations for his enterprise clients. The others are flexible pricing structures, integration capabilities and mobile application management features.

User interface design is the next arms race, Borg says. "Users expect solutions to be easy to use, intuitive and to have basic capabilities supplied through self-service, with help just a push button or call away. It should be as easy to use as Angry Birds."

Converging endpoint management

Having a multiplatform strategy means more than making sure an EMM suite supports all flavors of mobile devices and mobile operating systems. While mobile is currently handled as a separate ecosystem from desktops and laptops, as it becomes a core IT function the worlds are starting to converge. Some products already let you manage all mobile and desktop device types from a single management console.

"There never should have been a separate mobile management suite," says Lopez. The traditional management suites missed the boat early on. Now, she says, they're extending those capabilities and pulling mobile back in.

"Eventually, mobile management will cease to be a separate thing in the enterprise IT world," Winthrop says, much in the same way that wireless LANs became just another piece of the network management infrastructure. "You'll see the same with mobility as time progresses."

See our updated chart, "MDM tools: Features and functions compared."

For larger enterprises, says Borg, "The top-level consideration should be integration across the tools." A single pane of glass, or unified management layer, is a distinct advantage for administrators, but it's also easier for the end user if they have one self-service place to go for all of their endpoint devices. Vendors with that capability include AirWatch, BoxTone, IBM and SAP.

Future proofing

While mobile device management is mature, other elements of EMM are still evolving. "Now people are all crazy about mobile application management, but the next thing will be context, and content and data management," Lopez says.

Most enterprises start by controlling the device, and then add secure access to business contacts, calendar and email -- along with file sync capabilities -- to solve what DiSabato calls "the Dropbox problem."

The next step, he says, will be integrating mobile into business process improvement and collaboration. "How do you make a decision without having to go back to the office and fire up an application? That's all rolled into EMM services, and we think over the next year you'll see a huge upsurge in this activity," he says.

Mobility management is gradually moving toward workspace aggregation, where the user has access to the same resources from any endpoint device. For example, Citrix is attempting to provide virtual access with its ShareFile, XenApp, XenMobile and XenDesktop software, and VMware is taking a similar approach.

The goal, DiSabato says, is to integrate virtualization and the user experience "so that when I write an app in Windows and access it on a server with an iPad it goes from keyboard- and mouse-centric to looking like an iOS app. Somewhere between the app and the iPad, a miracle will occur."

But the technology behind workplace aggregation is still evolving, something that companies need to think about before they act. "Implement this now and you'd better have a lot of Maalox handy," DeSabato says.

Given how rapidly mobile technology is moving, Winthrop tells clients to look for a vendor that has the resources and flexibility to adapt quickly to change. The key to choosing the right tool suite, he says is to standardize on an EMM, but "standardize flexibly."

Next: MDM: Features and functions compared.

This article, How to choose the right enterprise mobility management tool , was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch, or email him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

Read more about mobile device management in Computerworld's Mobile Device Management Topic Center.

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