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Macs in business

Apple's Mac sales have been growing over recent years. It's tempting for the Windows market to say things like "Sure, home users like them, but they're useless for real work", but that's simply not true. Macs are now common in workplaces across many different market sectors.  

Delivering in the cloud

Cloud software provider Zendesk delivers cloud-based customer support software to thousands of customers around the world. We spoke to their local CEO, Michael Hansen, about how they use Macs in their office.

The whole company has over 400 employees, with most based at the Silicon Valley head office. The local office has over 20 staff with another 15 in the region that Hansen is in charge of.

"Everybody, except me, has a MacBook," Hansen told us. "I have an iMac." This is because, as a frequent traveller, he can work effectively with an iPad.

One of the benefits of using Macs is that when new staff come on board, they can be productive in a very short time. "We have a lot of people that we hire that have never used Macs before and we don't have an IT department. When a new starter gets their Mac, they figure out how to use it themselves in a short time".

Although one of the criticisms often levelled at Apple is the cost of its hardware, Hansen sees the opposite. "Cost-wise, it's fantastic. Someone comes in off the street and starts work. We give them a Mac and say, 'Figure it out.' That is fantastic."

Although it would be easy to say all of this is possible because of the applications Zendesk has chosen, Hansen says that it's not the case. "Software updates and security updates get automatically rolled out by Apple to the machines. We don't need to set up internal systems and have people employed to ensure these things are done."

Zendesk doesn't have a local IT department -- there's one at Head Office but they mainly look after back office systems as there's very little desktop support required with the Macs. Most of those key systems are delivered to end users via a web browser, further simplifying management of devices. As well as using Zendesk internally, the company also relies heavily on SalesForce (www.salesforce.com/au) for customer relationship management, Zuora (www.zuora.com) for billing, GoodData (www.gooddata.com) for reporting, Box.net for online storage and "lots of Google" according to Hansen."

While many staff use Microsoft Word and Excel, there's a preference to use Apple's applications. "We prefer to use the Apple products, particularly Keynote. But I don't think Numbers and Pages are particularly good," Hansen adds.

The focus on using browser-based software most of the time means that users can be up and running very quickly as the learning curve isn't very steep. Even if they've never used a Mac before, as long as they can get into the web browser they can be productive.

Unlike many companies that mandate which email and calendaring applications personnel must use, Zendesk takes a less dictatorial approach. As all email and calendaring is done through Google, staff can choose their preferred client software. In addition to using the browser, some choose to use Mail and Calendar with others using Thunderbird or whatever other apps they prefer. As long as everyone can communicate, there's no compulsion to use a specific program.

Internal communications are also facilitated using Yammer(www.yammer.com) -- an enterprise social networking tool that mimics many of the functions of popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, but focuses on internal, rather than global, collaboration.

As far as security goes, Hansen says that they don't install security software to their Macs. "As everything is cloud-based, including systems and information transfer, the services provide adequate protection."

Perhaps the most telling comments are the intangible benefits of using the Mac. "I think one of the main things for us as a company is that Apple is cool. Apple looks good. Apple is a big inspiration to us as a company," Hansen says.

The Architects

 Di Mase Architects has an office with about six people in Melbourne's inner city.  It runs one Mac mini server that's connected to a Pegasus R4 RAID array via Thunderbolt. All of the business' data is stored to the Pegasus R4. The current desktop fleet has five iMacs and a MacBook Air. The oldest computer in the office is about four years old with most less than two.

All the systems are set up with two screens. In our view, every business should look into this. Although Apple's Cinema Display is quite pricey, third-party screens will suffice. A second screen is a relatively cheap way to guarantee a productivity boost. The studies we've looked at suggest that the minimum benefit is a 10 percent boost with even more possible depending on the type of work you do.

As all of the company's key data is stored to the Pegasus R4, there's a need to ensure that it is backed up. Di Mase uses the cloud-based CrashPlan that sends the data to two offsite locations on the internet each night. This is a key consideration for businesses. It's not enough to rely on RAID for data protection. Backups need to be taken regularly, tested and stored off-site.

As an architectural firm, one of the core applications is obviously a technical drawing program. Di Mase Architects uses Vectorworks (www.vectorworks.net), putting it in the minority of firms. Most favour using AutoCAD (www.autodesk.com.au), although Vectorworks has been around since the late 1980s and covers all of their 2D and 3D drawing needs. According to one of the architects at Di Mase, Jim Stewart, "It's a very appropriate package for the size of office we've got."

Given the processor intensive loads that some drawing tasks require -- particularly when rendering photo-realistic 3D drawings, Di Mase tends to buy the most powerful Macs it can get, with the fastest processors and best graphics cards, whenever it updates a system.

Adobe's Creative Suite (www.adobe.com/au) is another key set of applications. InDesign is a key program as it's used for laying out schedule documents and other important papers for projects that Di Mase undertakes, as well as marketing materials. Although Microsoft Office is used, it's not used as much as it is in other organisations, according to Stewart.

iCloud is used extensively with the whole company accessing a shared address book and a calendar. "All ouriPhones are plugged into that," said Stewart. Everyone logs into one iCloud account so that the information is easily shared.

The team also uses two iPads. These are shared and taken on-site by staff as needed, rather than everyone having one of their own. Evernote is used, so that notes taken in the field can be easily synced back to a computer in the office.  Staff members access shared folders across their Evernote accounts to make that process easy.

Di Mase uses a third-party provider for its email. Using the IMAP protocol, all users connect to service delivered by Australian company Ilisys. Some consideration was given to hosting email internally on the Mac mini server, but it seemed more prudent to outsource this rather than requiring internal expertise. This highlights another critical element of what Di Mase does.

Like many small businesses, Di Mase can't afford to have a full-time IT person on staff. The solutions it has chosen allow the business to function and grow without needing to divert resources to look after computers. Although Stewart keeps things ticking over, it's not his primary responsibility. He's an architect that knows a bit of IT -- a common situation in many businesses.

"The benefits of running Macs in this environment is that I can handle just about everything, but I'm not a network administrator. We haven't had to have anyone come in and set any of this up. We've been able to do it all in-house," says Stewart.

Like Zendesk, Di Mase chooses to allow Apple's Software Update look after patching and maintaining software on each workstation. While it is possible to centrally manage that using theMac mini server, there's little benefit other than a bandwidth saving. Stewart said that if he had "some spare time and did the research" he could set it up but there's little benefit to the business.

Although Di Mase likes Pages, the company generally falls back to using Word as it makes sharing documents with other companies easier. However, iPhoto is used for storing images. Before MobileMe was closed down Di Mase used MobileMe Gallery for sharing images.

The Modern Mac Office

One of the great things about Apple's approach to the Mac is that, within a relatively tight number of different products it produces, the needs of almost every business are covered.

Small servers are covered with the Mac mini. Like DiMase Architects, all you need to add is a storage system. That storage can be used for centralised storage for your business, as well as a centralised Time Machine backup for all your Macs.

With the server sorted out, workstations are easily covered with iMacs andMacBooks. We're big fans of setting up computers with second displays. Adding a second screen to your Mac delivers a productivity boost as you can have more of your work visible at the same time.

When you're looking for a second screen to match up with your Mac, there are a couple of things to look out for. If you're planning to match a second screen with an iMac, it's important to not only buy on screen size and price. Make sure you pay attention to the resolution of the second screen. While there's nothing stopping you from connecting a lower resolution display, you'll find that when you drag an object across screens that it will change size depending on the size of the pixels.

As far as other hardware for the desktop goes -- it really depends on what you do. One thing we'd suggest most people could get value from is a desktop scanner. A compact, high-speed scanner can be a great tool for reducing the volume of paper you have to store. With the right software, that performs OCR you can easily search for any scanned document.

Still need Windows?

Once Apple abandoned the PowerPC platform and embraced the Intel processor, life became a lot easier for Mac users who needed access to Windows applications.

The main players in this space are VMware's Fusion, Parallels and VirtualBox. The first two are commercial programs with VirtualBox being an open source application.

The advantage of these over Apple's Boot Camp, that allows you to choose between running Windows or OS X when you boot your Mac, is that let you to keep running OS X and just have Windows running as a separate application.

Aside from allowing you to run Windows applications -- we use it to run Microsoft Project and Visio as there aren't Macequivalents that we like -- these tools are almost essential for software and web developers. If you're putting together a new website for your business, being able to test it on multiple platforms easily, without needing to buy more computers, is a great boon.

The one thing that you need to remember to factor in is the cost of the Windows licence. Microsoft has several different versions of Windows on the market and the least expensive versions should not be run in virtual machines according to the license conditions.

We also run OS X in a virtual machine -- using Parallels -- so that we can test new applications without installing them on our main computer.

Cloud or traditional applications

Business applications are in a transitional phase. On one hand, there are traditional applications that you buy and install on your office Macs; on the other, are online or cloud services that deliver business functions. These are often termed Software as a Service, or SaaS.

How do you choose between the two options? There are several things to consider:

On-site support. Do you have an IT expert that you can easily access who can install software, carry out maintenance upgrades and troubleshoot problems? If the answer is 'yes', then running applications locally on your own computers rather than from the cloud is a viable option.

Multi-platform support. Does everyone in your business only run one computer for work and is everyone using the same operating system? In many cases, business users have several devices such as a desktop computer or notebook and an iPad or iPhone. If they need to access the same applications and data across multiple devices, then you need to look at multi-platform solutions. In general, these will be most easily delivered through a web browser. That means cloud applications may be the way to go.

It's not all or none. If you look at Zendesk and Di Mase Architects, neither has all its eggs in one basket. They have chosen the best applications for their business needs. In Zendesk's case, there are lots of cloud-based applications. As its business is spread between multiple locations in the US and Australia, using online systems works well. It also means that travelling executives can use their preferred equipment. DiMase uses iCloud and Evernote for sharing important information.

It's not for everything. Not every application is a good candidate for running from the cloud. It may make sense to run a CRM (customer relationship management) system from the cloud, but you may find that running your accounting system from a SaaS provider doesn't make sense for your business. Although there are several online office suites, such as Google Docs and Microsoft Office Web Apps, it's possible that locally installed applications will be a better fit for you. However, storing documents using a cloud service might be a good idea. 

How does your business run? It's not only about what you like when it comes to choosing applications. Think about your business workflow and look for tools that either support or improve your existing workflow. For example, if you have a process in the business with an approval process and some of the people in the process are frequent travellers, then a cloud-based system may make it easier and faster to process approvals, as people can access the relevant information whenever they can from wherever they are. Once you make a decision on what sorts of applications will suit the way your business operates, you can choose between the different SaaS and traditional software options in the market.

Managing your Macs

If you have more than a handful of Macsin your business, the issue of distributing applications, keeping OS X up-to-date and ensuring that everyone has access to the right resources can be tricky.

There are several applications, both commercial and open source, to assist with these tasks. Casper Suite (www.jamfsoftware.com) is very popular and can help with managing iOS devices as well as iMacs andMacBooks. Alternatively, there's also Absolute Manage (www.absolute.com) if you're looking for a commercial software solution.

On the open source side of things there's Munki (code.google.com/p/munki). Using a web server-based software repository, administrators can use Munki to manage software installations and in many cases removals, on OS X desktops and laptops. It supports software packaged in the Apple package format and Adobe CS3/CS4/CS5/CS6 Enterprise Deployment packages as well as drag-and-drop disk images as installer sources.

The real question for businesses is whether they need such a rigorous approach. For small businesses, with fewer than 20 Macs, we'd suggest that teaching users how to use Software Update and the App Store, and how to install applications themselves from a shared location on your network is more practical.

Given that Apple and software developers look after the updating of applications, the only reason you might consider centralising things is if your internet connection is somehow constrained.

Security

No discussion on Macs in business is complete without a look at security. Interestingly, neither Di Mase Architects nor Zendesk installs security software on client machines. When we chat with members of various Mac user groups, opinions are divided on whether security software is an essential or not.

If you're planning to use cloud services, make sure you investigate whether and how data is scanned for malware. Although the malware might not affect your Macs, it may create problems for people you share data with who use Windows.

As far as securing your Macs goes, there are a few things you can do:

Software updates. Either allow Software Update to run automatically or manually run it regularly. Apple releases security fixes regularly in addition to separate application and operating system updates.

Update your applications regularly.Software vendors make changes to applications that not only add new features but fix known issues. If you buy apps via the App Store, Apple distributes updates when developers release them. Most other applications have a 'Check for Updates' option under the File menu and options to check whenever the application starts.

Remove unneeded software. We all have applications on our systems that we've stopped using or only played with as a trial. In some cases, those applications might have a component that automatically launches at start-up. Removing those applications will help your Mac run better, free up some space and reduce your Mac's potential vulnerability as there will be fewer potential threat targets.

Do you really need Flash?  Although Steve Jobs famously panned Adobe Flash in an open letter a few years ago, it's still a part of the internet. Flash isn't just a way of embedding video on websites. It's also an application platform that can deliver multi-platform programs. If you don't need it, don't install it or remove it.

Consider security software.  Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mac security software had a well-deserved reputation for poor performance and unreliability. A lot has changed since then with modern apps consuming very little memory and few CPU cycles. In our view, there's no real performance reason for not running security software on a modern Mac. Although the number of viruses that target Macs are few, there are other issues such as phishing scams, Java and Flash-based exploits. Security software that is kept up-to-date will protect you from many of those threats. 


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