Apple and the enterprise: A complicated relationship

It's been one step forward, two steps back over the past 15 years for Apple and enterprise customers

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The second change was configuration profiles. These XML files, which could be created from scratch or by using the iPhone Configuration Utility, were the first method Apple offered for IT departments to pre-configure user iPhones, provision them with security certificates, and impose a range of restrictions on what a user could do with a managed iPhone. The process of deploying configuration profiles was cumbersome because they either needed to be installed by hand, emailed to users, or hosted on an company's intranet -- not an ideal solution to iPhone management. Seen through the lens of a BlackBerry-dominated enterprise, the Apple process looked crude and resource intensive. But it was a beginning and one that foreshadowed the iPhone as an enterprise device.

iOS 4, mobile management and third-party solutions

Three months after releasing the iPad in 2010, Apple shipped iOS 4 -- it was the most significant iOS upgrade yet from an enterprise perspective. iOS 4 answered many of the enterprise IT complaints about the iPhone and iPad. In addition to the basic Exchange policy support introduced two years earlier, Apple unveiled broad security and device management capabilities.

The security advantages alone were a big deal and included APIs that allowed developers to easily create encrypted data stores on a device. That made it possible for enterprise apps (and even some consumer apps) to store content in a secure manner. Even if the device itself wasn't passcode protected, the data within an app could be secured if that the device was lost or stolen.

The bigger news, however, was Apple's mobile device management (MDM) framework. Although based on the existing configuration profiles, Apple's MDM system made it possible to apply policies directly over the air and query devices for a range of information, including what configuration profiles and apps were installed. The release also offered several new management and feature restriction capabilities. While Apple hadn't replicated the classic BlackBerry system with its 500+ management options, it did cover the most important areas, making it possible for enterprise IT to comfortably support iOS devices.

An even more important aspect to iOS 4's MDM model was that Apple opened it up to third-party vendors instead of creating a single and proprietary Apple management console. In fact, it wasn't until a year later that Apple shipped its own MDM solution when it released Lion Server. That's significant because it was the first time Apple adopted a truly a hands-off approach to enterprise IT. The result was an explosion of mobile management vendors offering the ability to manage iOS devices in enterprise environments. While each company provided essentially the same core management capabilities, they differentiated based on a variety of factors, including support for other mobile platforms, IT-focused integration features and additional capabilities based on an agent that could be installed on a device.

Apple pulls out of the data center

A few months after unveiling a device management model that put other enterprise vendors at the heart of Apple's iOS business strategy, the company did something that sent shockwaves through its business and education markets: it canceled its last piece of enterprise hardware, the rack-mounted Xserve server. When a Mac IT professional emailed then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs to complain, he responded with one of his brief and blunt emails saying that no one was buying the Xserve (at least, not in quantities large enough for Apple to continue advancing the line).

The move was further evidence that Apple had decided not to compete with long-time enterprise vendors. Instead, it focused on making its products the best enterprise citizens possible -- through built-in functionality or through support for third-party vendors. It was a shrewd strategy and it allowed Apple to focus on business users directly rather than IT departments that had rarely paid attention to, or even noticed, Apple's enterprise solutions. Unfortunately, it also pulled the rug out from under some long-time customers that had fully invested in Apple's end-to-end enterprise approach.

Although Apple pulled out the data center, it didn't stop developing its server platform. The company marketed the Mac Pro tower and the Mac mini as server options, including a specially configured Mac mini designed as a server. The focus, however, had shifted to the small business market and away from the enterprise. This was painfully clear when Apple released Lion and Lion Server during the summer of 2011.

After installing the low-cost Lion Server, which had become an add-on to Lion itself rather than an independent product, long-time Mac sysadmins were in for another shock. Server Admin, the advanced server administration tool in OS X Server, was effectively gutted; the new Server app that replaced Server Preferences was clearly intended to be the primary management interface of OS X Server.

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