Windows-centric IBM changes its tune on Mac deployments

IBM is doing something it has never done before: allowing employees to use Macs at work. So far it’s a success. Four months into its new program, IBM finds Mac support requirements are lower than those of a traditional PC environment, customer satisfaction is higher, and the pricier upfront cost of buying a Mac is more than offset over time.

For a longtime Windows-centric organization, it’s a big change.

“There had always been quite a lot of built-up demand by people who wanted to use Macs at IBM, and certainly in IT we wanted to be able to offer Macs to people,” said Fletcher Previn, vice president of Workplace-as-a-Service at IBM. “But outside of a very small group of designers or people who write software for the Mac, we really didn’t allow people to get one from IBM. You could BYO one, but it was kind of at your own risk.”

IBM is now meeting that demand at a rapid clip. It’s deploying Macs at a rate of 1,900 devices per week. So far, the four-month-old Mac@IBM program has put roughly 130,000 Macs and iOS devices in the hands of IBM employees.

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Even more impressive, IBM is managing all those devices with a scant support staff of 24 people – which equates to a ratio of one help desk person for every 5,400 devices. How’s that possible Less demand for assistance.

“Five percent of the Mac users ever call the help desk; 40% of our PC users call the help desk,” Previn said. “Because of the way we’re deploying [Macs], there are just simply fewer problems.”

Previn spoke about IBM’s Mac undertaking at JAMF Software’s user conference, which was held this week in Minneapolis. JAMF is the maker of the Casper suite, an enterprise management platform for Mac OS X computers and iOS mobile devices. IBM is using Casper suite for its internal Mac deployment; Casper is also part of IBM’s managed IT services offering, announced in August, to help large enterprise customers deploy Macs within their IT infrastructure.

Previn’s session was attended by more than 1,000 Apple IT administrators at the JAMF Nation User Conference (JNUC). Here are some key takeaways from his presentation.

IT manages 618,000 laptops and nearly 150,000 mobile devices for IBM’s workforce, which includes roughly 400,000 full-time employees and 130,000 contractors, operating in more than 170 countries.

The company officially launched its employee-choice program on June 1. So far, on a worldwide basis, about 35% of new users are opting for Macs. The percentages vary based on users’ ages, years of service and geography, Previn said. In some places, adoption rates are as high at 88%. If you were to remove all artificial barriers, “somewhere around 7 out of 10 will take a Mac,” he said.

On the mobile device front, preference is also shifting to Apple.

“Over time we see more iOS, we see less Android, and we see BlackBerry really kind of disappearing – now it’s down to an almost statistically irrelevant number, less than 1%,” Previn said. He expects to see continued growth in iOS, which will account for an estimated 75% of mobile devices under management at IBM within the next year.

Previn and his colleagues heard all the usual arguments against moving to Macs: They’re more expensive. They’re going to be difficult to support. IT doesn’t have the skills to manage Macs in a way that makes people feel comfortable about security. The whole application portfolio will need to be refactored. The help desk will need to be retrained.

So IT set out to quantify the expected costs and find ways to make the deployment cost-neutral to the company. Previn and team measured dozens of factors, including: number of calls to the help desk, number of virus infections, number of warranty claims, and number of battery replacements. They also measured the cost avoidance associated with tasks IT doesn’t have to do on the Mac, such as disk encryption and software imaging.

In the end, IT came up with a mix of hard and soft benefits, but Previn said the department has tried to focus the Mac@IBM business case on the hard benefits, simply because the soft benefits are more difficult to justify in a conversation about finances.

For starters, IBM found the workstation cost per user isn’t as lopsided as one might think. While the upfront investment in a Mac is more than a Windows PC, the Mac has a higher residual value. In IBM’s environment, moving from buying a PC every four years to leasing a Mac “worked out to be cost-neutral for us,” Previn said.

Not needing an image, thanks to provisioning automation, “is a huge part of the business case for us,” Previn said. IBM can avoid many of the tasks required of a typical Windows imaging environment. “On the traditional PC side, [imaging involves] a lot of people, it creates complexity in the supply chain -- you have to buy the laptops, bring them somewhere and image them, then store them until somebody needs them. All of that is stuff that we don’t have to do because of the thin-imaging technology with Casper.”

Additional benefits include a reduction in hard-drive encryption costs (IBM can rely on Apple’s native FileVault full-disk encryption) and lower antivirus expenses.

On the staffing front, the ratio of support staff to supported employees is dramatically improved. “We need a lot fewer people to support those machines.”

At the same time, customer satisfaction is improved. The help desk is achieving 85% customer satisfaction – and 95% of employees say they are satisfied or very satisfied with the skill level of the person they spoke to, Previn said. “That’s a much higher CSAT than I see on the PC help desk.”

Why is that “When you do get through to this help desk, you actually talk to someone who can resolve your problem. You don’t get sent to tier two, or tier three, or assigned to a special help desk. You get your problem fixed.”

And it’s still early days. Measuring the benefits is a work in progress, but “the longer this program runs, the more compelling the business case becomes,” Previn said. “The incremental purchase price of the Mac definitely is paying for itself – and then some – in reduced support burden” over the life of the device.

While Previn said he can’t share a dollar figure yet, “I can confidently say every Mac that we buy is making and saving IBM money.”

While the business case focuses primarily on hard cost gains, IBM recognizes soft benefits, as well. One example is the company’s ability to attract and retain technical talent.

Using Macs at work "is something people want. It makes them happier, it makes them more productive. And increasingly, we see it as a competitive disadvantage not to allow employees to have a choice in this space,” Previn said. “We see a lot of people who see it as a condition of employment.”

That’s the most common question Previn gets asked. His answer: “My own experience is that it’s much less of a real issue than people make it out to be before you start.”

There will be applications that don’t work, but it’s a lot fewer than what is often asserted.

IBM has an application portfolio of about 3,000 apps, and Previn knows there's never going to be a business case to go in and overhaul 3,000 applications. "But what we can do is bring that data forward into new interfaces, either by way of native apps, or web experiences, preferably by way of APIs,” he said.

One example is IBM’s newly created ManagerHub, which pulls the data that managers need from multiple legacy systems – for tasks such as performance management and compensation – into a single app.

For companies that are considering a move to Macs, Previn doesn’t recommend spending too much time on app readiness assessments, which he sees as a great way to justify doing nothing. Instead, let the device rollout drive the app rationalization work, not the other way around.

“Rather than focus on the people who are telling you the reasons that they can’t use a Mac, what we tried to do was focus on the people who want to go on that journey and get velocity with them as opposed to getting completely drained by the people who don’t want to do it in the first place.”

“By dealing with these things as they come up, we’ve been able to get much better traction than spending 18 months coming up with reasons not to move forward.”

Investing in new talent is key to making the support model work, Previn said.

“Rather than take people who were already supporting PCs and dub them Mac support, it was really important to hire people who loved the Mac as much as the people who were going to be using them,” Previn said. IBM has hired (and continues to hire) a mix of ex-Apple Genius Bar people, new college graduates, and IT people who have professional experience with Macs.

The approach IBM wanted for its help desk is: “I don’t care if it’s IBM-owned or personally owned, a supported app or a not-supported app – the problems come to our door. We will take as long as is necessary to get you productive,” Previn said. “So it’s a very different model, I think, from a traditional helpdesk. And that’s what we tried to bring back to IBM.”

An opportunity to visit Apple – in what Previn described as a friendly, one-IT-department-to-another offering – helped IBM’s IT team members visualize what they wanted for their own deployment.

“Apple is a lot more similar to IBM than you might think. They have 100,000 employees, they’re a tier-one credit card processor, they handle a lot of customer data and transactional data, they have retail stores all over the world with people wandering off the street and connecting to Wi-Fi. So they have normal enterprise problems,” Previn said. “But, they were managing a large number of people and devices with a significantly smaller set of resources than you would expect to see in a traditional PC environment. That was really interesting to us – how were they doing that”

IBM came away from that visit with three best practices for its own deployment:

1. Get people the right devices. “In this case Macs and iOS devices,” Previn said.

2. Manage those assets in a modern way. “Not the 1999, Windows XP, Altiris agent, locked-down model, but manage your laptop in a way that’s a lot more familiar or consistent with the way that a mobile device is managed today.” That meant features such as cloud-based provisioning, zero-touch enrollment, app stores, and easy backup and restoration of data.

3. Drive self-sufficiency and simplification in the environment. Simplifying the support portal, creating productivity apps for people, and allowing people to self-solve problems were priorities.

“If you did those things correctly, you could then afford to staff a different kind of helpdesk with people who are qualified and actually know how to solve the problem,” Previn said.

IBM’s IT staff uses Apple’s Device Enrollment Program and Casper Suite to be able to ship employees a shrink-wrapped Mac that’s ready to go. “We’re buying the same Mac that you’d wander into any Apple store and buy yourself,” Previn said.

A sticky note on the box directing users to a URL “would be the sum total of the instructions that you would need to get your Mac up and running,” Previn said. “That’s very different than the process that has existed in the past.”

The enrollment process handles the installation of Lotus Notes, adds the VPN client and Wi-Fi certificates, sets the password policy, turns on disk encryption, and installs Java, for example.

All applications are delivered via self-service. Special requests, which used to require a convoluted approval process for users and managers, now happens via the same self-service pane. “If you need Microsoft Office, for example, you just click install. We still handle the license tracking and all those things on the back end, but [we don’t] expose user to that.”

There were some rough edges, and IBM continues to refine the program with regular enhancements. For example, one iteration improved the enrollment process to include a progress bar as well as screens that dynamically re-size to the proportions of the equipment the employee is using.

The help desk continues to inform the engineering team of areas that could be improved, Previn said. “The help desk is sort of the early listening radar for problems coming into the environment that then move their way back over into the engineering team for problem resolutions. That’s really been a very effective cycle as opposed to just getting the same help desk tickets over and over again.”

Looking ahead, IBM plans move from a traditional help desk setup to more of a Genius Bar-like setting at key IBM offices where users will be able to schedule appointments or take advantage of walk-up services.

IBM also plans to reinvest some of its savings into some advanced help desk technologies, such as holding a user’s place in line using call back, and Watson for voice recognition.


Ann Bednarz

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