Go with the flow of user-installed apps: analysts

Managing the likes of iTunes is preferable to prohibition

It's a classic case of mine versus yours: Users are downloading a crop of new and often unsanctioned programs onto their PCs, bypassing IT's careful management discipline. Although user-downloaded apps are nothing new, they're now streaming onto business PCs at a fever pitch -- bolstered by the automatic updating common to many apps and by the trend of apps self-installing when needed by a browser. These have joined the familiar parade of personal apps users just can't seem to live without at work, such as instant messaging and iTunes.

IT has struggled to deal with user-installed apps for years, but the new, constant flood of these programs may simply be too much to handle. Perhaps IT has to admit defeat and abandon efforts to control what users install on their PCs, accepting the IT heresy that users' PCs are in fact their PCs, not IT's machines.

Consider what IT is up against. When Mozilla released Firefox 3.0 earlier this year, it simultaneously set out to land in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most software downloads in a single day. And it accomplished that record download goal.

Apple iTunes, various media players such as RealPlayer and Adobe Flash, and virtual reality environment Second Life are rampant on corporate PCs. Take Flash, a player that web pages download for users automatically when Flash content is on a page. Thanks to that automatic downloading, Adobe has found that new versions get widely adopted, even behind corporate firewalls, in a matter of months.

More and more companies are approving Firefox and instant messaging, says Fred Broussard, a research director for enterprise systems infrastructure software at analyst firm IDC. But he notes that few are standardising on other lifestyle apps, such as iTunes.

IDC rival Gartner is seeing the same trend, particularly for web applications. "Internet client software, such as iTunes, Twhirl, Second Life, and others seem to be adopted by individuals rather than organisations," says Ray Valdes, a research director at the firm.

If users are driving the adoption of internet applications, what does that mean for IT?

"Certain organisations look the other way ... [with] a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," Gartner's Valdes says. "A few — a very few — embrace this new world."

The city of Brampton, Ontario, is one of those very few. Chris Moore, an IT consultant who was CIO of Brampton until last month, says IT must provide users the tools users need. "Firefox, iTunes, and others are in use where there is a clear business need. Unless you are in a paramilitary environment where people follow the orders of the authorities, it's best to make allowances in the interest of productivity," he recommends. "If you don't, then you are more of a cop and less of an enabler."

In Brampton's case, if unsanctioned applications are not causing problems operationally, IT leaves them alone. "But if we encountered one that caused problems, then we would run it through the integration lab to try and resolve it," Moore says. "If it is unresolvable, then we look for a friendly functional equivalent."

Erich Umar, vice president of service delivery management at the American Stock Exchange, says "As an IT manager, you don't want to paralyse your users".

He adds: "There's a huge benefit for IT managers to be able to handle those applications."

As an IT staffer, you have "to bring those rogue applications into account in your troubleshooting process," Umar says. If IT stays on top of tracking and managing those assets, it is better prepared to handle problems that arise, such as when a helpdesk call comes in. Otherwise, "you can wind up sitting there trying to troubleshoot the wrong problem."

One possible approach to securing the business environment while allowing user-downloaded apps is to tap into virtualisation. "I'd look toward using virtualisation on the desktop to 'sandbox' consumer IT," says Michael Cote, an analyst at research firm RedMonk. "The IT department can spend less time on each app but hopefully benefit from the faster innovation that consumer apps usually have," Cote says.

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