What to expect from Macs in the enterprise

For enterprise IT, Apple's Mac OS can pose a few problems, including compatibility, applications, support, networking and other issues. But if you know what could be coming your way, you can get the training and tools to manage Macs.

Whether you embrace Macs with open arms or accept them begrudgingly, the computers bring a number of potential pitfalls. The better you understand those challenges, the more prepared you can be to welcome -- or just deal with -- Macs in your environment.

Mac computers are very different machines from their Windows counterparts, and you can't manage a Mac like a PC. There are similarities between the two, and Apple has made integrating Macs into a Windows-based network easier than ever, but you can't expect to incorporate Macs without making a few allowances.

When trying to integrate Macs into their existing systems, IT teams commonly run into issues related to networking, file sharing and Active Directory (AD) integration. For example, when Apple released Mavericks (OS X 10.9), administrators reported that the operating system could break Windows ACL permissions, so they had to implement workarounds to address that. An update to the OS exacerbated connectivity issues, and many admins had to find even more ways to deal with the problem.

Other issues have surfaced around OS X integration, such as Mac users not being able to authenticate to the AD server, or not being able to communicate with other computers on the network. You can resolve most of these issues eventually, but they point to the fact that Macs are not only different machines, but that issues arise around commonly implemented infrastructures and the tools that support them. If you plan to bring Macs into your organization, you'll need the resources to learn these systems, and you'll have to incorporate new tools and methodologies.

Managing Mac security in the enterprise

Apple has been steadily improving on Mac security, making OS X nearly comparable to Windows and more enterprise-friendly in general. But unexpected security issues can still arise.

One of these security problems might come from the users themselves. For a number of reasons, Mac computers have not been subjected to the onslaught of attacks that have plagued Windows systems, which has led to a complacent attitude among some Mac users; they sometimes perceive their systems as inherently more secure than Windows. As a result, Mac users might not be as malware-savvy as Windows users, leaving them and your organization more susceptible to socially engineered attacks and misdirected clicks across the Internet. Fortunately, you can address these problems with education and awareness training.

What might be bigger concerns are some of the features built into the Mac OS, particularly the Continuity features in Yosemite (OS X 10.10), which aim to give users a continuous experience across iOS and OS X devices. The features make it possible for users to place phone calls from their Macs, send and receive SMS messages, and tether their iPhones. There's even a feature called Handoff that lets users start a task on one device and pick up where they left off on another.

These features delight many people who juggle multiple Apple devices, but they can cause concern for IT. For example, the handoff feature can make it easier for users to transfer sensitive data from a work device to a personal one, and tethered devices can lead to data overage charges (a concern in shops that support a cost-sharing program for users' personal devices).

Although enhancements to Mac's management capabilities promise to help reign in user enthusiasm, you need tools that have incorporated these capabilities, which returns us to the notion that Macs are non-standard systems requiring a special touch.

Negotiating the wonderful world of Windows

When the topic of Macs (or any non-Windows system) in the enterprise comes, up naysayers point to the plethora of Windows applications that won't run or aren't as good on a Mac. Case in point: Microsoft offers a version of Office for Mac, but it lags behind the Windows version in a number of ways, and does not include all products, such as Microsoft Access.

Even when a commercial product comes in Windows and Mac editions and they are fairly comparable, differences remain, and you end up supporting two versions of the same product. If a Mac version of an application is not available, IT must look to other products that offer similar features, turn to virtualization or implement utilities such as Wine or Crossover, which make it possible to run Windows applications on a Mac.

But these solutions come with their own challenges (such as implementation and licensing), and are not suited for all applications. Proprietary software in particular might not fare well outside the traditional Windows environment.

The proliferation of Web and cloud services might eventually make the issue of Windows a moot point, but for now, you must consider the types of applications you run if you're going to bring Mac computers into your environment.

Contending with the Apple ecosystem

Some of the challenges you might run into have do with the way Apple releases information and updates. The company has a reputation for secrecy, and doesn't offer transparency into issues around security, bugs and long-term strategies. This approach can make it difficult for you to plan ahead or know what to expect. It can also result in unwelcomed surprises.

It's difficult to know when an older OS will be updated or if security vulnerabilities will ever be addressed. An easy solution might be to update to the latest OS as soon as it's released. For the last few years, Apple has offered them for free, with a relatively painless update process (compared to a Windows upgrade).

But what if your organization isn't ready to make such a move? The last thing most IT teams want to do is implement an untested OS into their environments. Applications might no longer work as expected and unknown security holes might exist. At the same time, shops usually aren't thrilled about sitting on an older OS for too long -- in case it contains flaws Apple isn't talking about or planning to fix.

That's not to say an organization should refuse to implement Macs. Many companies have been doing so quite successfully. You just need to know what to expect.

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