Better Mac management tools bring benefits

Users are finding Apple Macs in corporate settings easier to manage, thanks to new features

As a senior technical support analyst at educational publisher Harcourt, Randy Rowles is happy that he gets to manage the company's 1,000 or so Macintosh systems — perhaps he's even a little smug, as Mac afficionados can be, about how the stability and ease of use of the systems makes his job so easy.

And with fewer Mac technicians needed than on the Windows side of the house, "our TCO from a support standpoint has always been lower", Rowles says.

However, he confesses to long feeling "a bit of envy" towards his Windows counterparts for one thing: they alwauys had a plethora of powerful but easy-to-use tools for administering systems, which the Mac administrators didn't.

"It's always been an area of contention — like, 'How come THEY get this nifty tool?'" says Rowles.

He notes that going back several years, the company's Windows systems administrators were able to centrally manage its 4,000 PCs, automating tasks such as tracking software licences, enforcing group policies, and remotely deploying new software and patches. Meanwhile, Rowles and the other Mac administrators were denied that luxury.

Rowles says that to track software licences and updates on Macs, "we mainly relied on good record keeping — spreadsheets". Actually deploying software or a patch "was a big pain in the butt. We would have to physically go from Mac to Mac to install software."

At the time, using Apple's own Apple Remote Desktop tool to manage Macs was "possible, though not efficient", he added.

But fast forward to today, and the picture is different.

Switching to Intel chips has made the Mac more competitive with PCs on price/performance measurements, while virtualisation and the shift towards web-based applications are rendering software incompatibility issues largely moot.

And in response to increased Mac sales overall as well as among some business users, management tool vendors are boosting their cross-platform capabilities and bringing their Mac administration features closer to par with their Windows capabilities.

For instance, LANDesk Software has rolled out Version 8.8 of its namesake suite of management tools. The company says its software now lets IT administrators remotely control Macs from a PC running Windows Vista, and take more detailed inventories of their Macintosh systems and the software residing on them.

According to LANDesk, its Management Suite is used to manage more than a half-million Macs, in addition to a far greater number of PCs.

Terrence Cosgrove, a Gartner analyst, says that among management tools vendors, LANDesk is furthest along in supporting Macs. He added that LANDesk Management Suite "can do OS deployment, data [and] settings migration, software distribution, inventory and remote control for Mac machines".

LANDesk says that one customer it declined to identify plans to increase the number of Macs used internally from about 400 now to 4,000 by year's end because of the new management capabilities. Version 8.8 can already administer and patch virtual machines, and late this year it will be able to manage Apple's iPhone devices, according to Coby Gurr, a business line manager at LANDesk.

The LANDesk Management Suite's next-closest competitor is Symantec's Altiris Client Management Suite, a cross-platform software offering that a Symantec spokesman says is used by about 22,000 customers. The spokesman says Symantec doesn't have exact statistics on how many Macs are being managed with its software, but he added that "customer interest and sales of Altiris management solutions for the Mac skyrocketed in 2007".

Altiris has supported Macs since 2002, several years before it was acquired by Symantec. It introduced disk imaging and deployment features for the Apple systems last year, and the spokesman says that "more significant enhancements" are expected late in the year.

Even Apple has responded over the past several years, making many needed improvements to Apple Remote Desktop. That has pleased the growing number of Mac corporate systems administrators, many of whom haunt websites such as MacEnterprise.org and search desperately for tips on how to better manage their Apple machines.

But although Apple Remote Desktop can remotely control Windows and Linux systems in addition to Macs, it relies on the Virtual Network Computing protocol, which some consider too insecure to use in corporate settings. As a result, Apple's software remains in practice a Mac-only tool.

So companies such as Harcourt have turned to cross-platform tools from third-party vendors such as LANDesk to manage both Windows PCs and Macs from a single console.

Rowles says that LANDesk's cross-platform capabilities are its biggest selling point for him. "I'd say that 90% of the Windows features I need are available for the Mac," he adds.

Michael Gonzalez, a senior IT analyst at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, agrees with Rowles' assessment. "For what I use it for, LANDesk is dead-on equal for Windows and Mac," he says.

About 800 of the 6,300 systems used by Baylor employees or within its labs are Macs, Gonzalez says. He notes that LANDesk's cross-platform capability enables the university's IT department to have a liberal attitude towards different hardware platforms. And that is resulting in an uptick in Mac usage, Gonzalez says.

Meanwhile, Rowles says that LANDesk's software has helped Harcourt reduce its TCO for Macs even further. That should result in the company boosting the overall percentage of Macs among its end-user systems in the coming years. Currently, that figures stands at about 20%.

Not everything that Rowles wants to see in LANDesk's Management Suite is there now. He says the software has weaknesses when it comes to letting users directly set group policies into Microsoft Active Directory or the Mac's equivalent technology, Open Directory.

He also says he's cautious about giving too much credit at this point to LANDesk's new Mac remote-software deployment feature, which he has played around with. "It shows a lot of promise," he says politely.

Gartner's Cosgrove says another feature that cross-platform management vendors have largely failed to port over to the Mac is a so-called targeted software distribution capability, which lets administrators deploy software to users and not simply to PCs.

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