How the iPad fits into IT

A lot of bits have given their life in the last few weeks so that writers can fill your computer screen with lots of words about the iPad‘s role in IT. The iPad will either grind your network to a halt, kill productivity, and drive us all to live in caves poking at the dirt with sticks should someone be foolish enough to let one into the enterprise, or it will usher in a new age of flying cars, zeppelin houses, and pill food as part of our inevitable evolution into pure energy.

I’m exaggerating, but only by a little. So as an IT Director in a company where we support iPhones, iPod touches, a few Windows Mobile phones, and other assorted smartphones, and knowing how similar the iPad is to the iPhone and iPod touch, I’d like to inject a bit of sobriety into the packet war being conducted over Apple Inc.‘s (NASDAQ: AAPL) forthcoming tablet.

Here’s a few questions bouncing around the IT world about the iPad, followed by my best attempt to answer them.

Will the iPad support Exchange?

That was certainly the first thing I asked when I spoke with my sources at Apple: Will the iPad have the same support for Exchange, VPNs, remote wipe, and so forth that the iPhone enjoys. The answer from my man in Cupertino? “Yes, as per the iPhone” was the reply. This should surprise no one, as there was no logical reason whatsoever for Apple to cripple those features in the iPad and the iPad alone when it shares the OS with Apple’s other mobile handhelds.

So, we can expect to find the following in the iPad:

Exchange ActiveSync support, including remote wipe

The same level of VPN support as the iPhone

The “Find my iPhone” feature

The same support for policy configurations as the iPhone

My Apple source wasn’t sure if the iPad has the same encryption support found in the iPhone 3GS, although it seems likely, as the hardware should be able to handle it. Assuming that guess is right, the iPad will be at least as compatible with a corporate network as an iPhone. It will not, as some of the more breathless screeds have intimated, be an unmanageable, uncontrollable blight.

I also e-mailed Microsoft‘s (Nasdaq: MSFT) Mac Business Unit about the iPad, asking about its plans for the iPad. The response: “We haven’t yet seen the iPad and don’t have anything more to share at this time. The MacBU’s mission remains the same, to deliver Microsoft productivity to Mac users.”

That seems clear to me: “We don’t know yet, we haven’t even seen the bloody thing.” I figure it will take Microsoft’s Mac team a few months to come up with something more, and it’s not like they aren’t just a little busy right now.

How will the iPad fit in with my network?

The answer will vary from situation to situation, of course, but I can talk about how I see it fitting into my network. We have a few users who are traveling almost every week, and when they travel, they are always giving presentations, with Keynote. For them, the iPad is an obvious fit. We can add Keynote to the iPad (via the iPad-tailored version of iWork), transfer presentations easily enough, and hook the iPad up to a projector. A presentation can be created, finalized, then moved onto the iPad before the meeting. In some cases, the presentation could even be created on the iPad.

At half the weight of a MacBook Air and smaller in height and width, the iPad’s a great fit for users who travel a lot, and mostly need e-mail and iWork on the road. The 64GB model equipped with 3G networking would seem to be ideal here, as it can handle multiple large, graphics-heavy presentations, and the 3G means better access everywhere.

Thanks to the iPhone configuration tool and some work my company did to set up a Web-based configuration option for our existing iPhones and iPod touches, setting the tablets up should not only be a snap, but if need be, a user could completely wipe one on the road, and within minutes, be able to reconnect to our network and get to their files, e-mails, and so on.

Unsurprisingly, we also have a small number of users who, if the “Sent from my iPhone” signature line on their e-mail is an indicator, rarely use their laptops or desktops. These are users for whom e-mail and the Web is 90 percent of their world. The lack of built-in Flash support for the iPad might be an issue, but again, they live on their iPhone now, so Flash support obviously isn’t a major problem. iWork on the iPad will take care of their non-e-mail needs, and by careful management of things like e-mail setup and online storage/data access, the need to have a “real” computer nearby is minimal.

So the idea that the iPad “can’t” fit into a corporate network is silly. Can it take the place of all your desktops and laptops? Of course not, but no one sane is suggesting this, at least not yet.

Can IT support the iPad?

There’s an argument going around contending that without SSH or Apple Remote Desktop access, IT will be unable to properly support the iPad. Put succinctly, this argument is hogwash.

Using the iPhone and iPod touch as a basis of comparison, do you know what 99 percent of my help desk calls on those devices are? Passwords. The current iPhone OS doesn’t support Kerberos, so when our prescribed password change time hits, users have to change the e-mail password on the device manually. The iPhone interface for this kind of stinks, so it’s a pain. Pretty much every other problem on an iPhone is solved by a reboot.

As someone who has done IT and support for two decades now, let me tell you, that kind of thing is cake. Can’t get e-mail? Reboot. Can’t get on the Internet? Reboot. Apps crashing a lot? Reboot. Reboot doesn’t work? Wipe and restore. Since you don’t have a lot of room for local data, there’s not a lot of local data to worry about. You can redownload your applications if you have to, (Apple’s been quite good about that.) In fact, if you’re reasonably thoughtful about your setup, you may have almost no local data that isn’t replicated somewhere else.

Now, obviously, the iPad can do more than an iPhone, so it’s going to have more interesting problems than an iPhone. But I don’t think using the iPhone’s example as a basic guide is too farfetched. As far as application support goes, it’s not been a problem to date with the iPhone, and I have to say, my iWork tech support requests are few and far between. By and large, the people who spend all day in Keynote know that application really well. Most of my calls for iWork tend to be dealing with projector or screen oddities, and I can’t really do a lot about those over a phone anyway.

If I’m in the building and on the company network with the device, even without SSH and Apple Remote Desktop, I have a decent toolset to help folks out. If they’re in a random conference room on a random network in a random company, the chances of me getting an SSH or Apple Remote Desktop connection to their device are minimal, regardless of what it is. There is a difference between having remote support tools and being able to use them.

How should IT approach the iPad?

I think the big problem with the iPad, if you can call it that, is that IT has been able to kind of ignore the iPhone. Smartphone users are decent at self-support, and again, there’s not a lot to support on an iPhone. IT won’t be able to ignore the iPad as much, and IT professionals are worried that their current procedures won’t work. Well, that’s true–the kinds of things you can do for the Mac OS, Windows, and Linux aren’t going to work on the iPad. However, rather than wringing one’s hands about it, approach it as a series of solvable problems.

First, you’re going to have to deal with e-mail and e-mail storage. The old idea of locking quotas to a minimum won’t work with the iPad. It’s got little local storage, so you’re going to have to expect people to have more stuff on the e-mail server. That means you’re going to have to start thinking about increasing quota size, and perhaps being more generous with attachment sizes, at least for e-mail between local users.

Obviously, POP is a loser here. If your e-mail server doesn’t support server-side rules or doesn’t have a nice UI for it, you may want to think about fixing that deficiency. Even if the iPad e-mail client supports client-side rules, you’ll have to start assuming your users will view their e-mail from multiple clients and devices. Server rules are your very good friend.

If you’ve been relying on the client to handle most of a user’s spam filtering, you’ll also want to look at changing that. While I have users who could use an iPad as their primary computer, they’re edge cases. You’re going to have to assume that your iPad users will be using multiple devices. Centralizing anti-spam is a good idea. (Actually, letting spam through your router and your e-mail server is a bad idea to begin with. This could be a great excuse to revamp your anti-spam setup into something better.)

File storage will be another issue. As of yet, we don’t know if the iPad will allow for local AFP or WebDAV access, or, if it does, what authentication mechanisms will be supported. (Kerberos would obviously be the preferred option, and the iPad has the horsepower to support it.) Options include iDisk, for iWork files, and a Dropbox client, but those aren’t great choices for all users, and some guidance from Apple would be extremely useful here.

Of course, if you have a good FTP server with a Web interface, such as Rumpus from Maxum Development, that could be an option as well. If using a Web interface allows the iPad to talk to many different kinds of file services, I predict a rapid increase in the number of file servers and services with rich Web interfaces.

Finally, you’re going to have to take device security more seriously with an iPad. Unlike the iPhone, which really was a data consumption device, the iPad is perfectly able to create and edit data, data that you’ll need to watch out for. Since third party on-device file-encryption probably won’t fly–by nature, these kinds of applications have to play outside of their sandbox, something Apple has been reluctant to allow–if you need above-average data protection for the iPad, it’s going to have to happen at the server. You may want to think about device policies. To be fair, this kind of thing is an issue for laptops and other “real” computers as well. If the iPad gets people to be smarter about such security, I’m entirely in favor of it.

Final thoughts

In the end, the iPad is neither the Destroyer nor the Messiah. It’s a computing device, based on an OS and platform we should at least be casually familiar with. If you already support iPhones and iPod touches, then you’re ahead of the game, and any surprises from the iPad shouldn’t be completely out of left field. With some proactive planning and attention to Apple’s information (joining the iPhone developer program would not be a bad idea if you really want details), you can ensure that when the iPad shows up on your network, you’re as ready as can be for it.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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