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Gartner: How to get a handle on mobile device management

It was only a few years ago that mobile device management was as simple as using Research in Motion's BlackBerry Enterprise Server as the hub for all your devices.

But that was before the iPhone. And Android. And Windows Phone. And webOS. And ... well, you get the picture. IT departments today not only have to deal with multiple operating systems, but they have to deal with multiple variations of multiple operating systems as OS developers never push out new versions of their software to all devices at the same time. So what can IT managers do to keep themselves sane in this environment?

RELATED: Gartner releases first MDM magic quadrant

During a webinar presentation today, Gartner analyst Phillip Redman suggested that the answer may be to invest in mobile device management (MDM) software. At the start of his presentation, Redman said that many enterprises he'd talked with recently had started allowing multiple device types onto their networks without coming up with a comprehensive plan for managing them all.

"The complexity of these devices and platforms is driving the need to get a better handle on mobile devices," he said. "The BlackBerry Enterprise Service worked well with one type of device and operating system and a limited number of applications ... but very few enterprises haven't started supporting devices outside BlackBerry."

Redman said that MDM had grown into a $200 million industry in 2010 and noted that several companies have strong offerings in the MDM market, including Sybase, Good Technology, MobileIron, AirWatch, Zenprise, Symantec and RIM. Redman also compared the burgeoning MDM industry to the telecom expense management (TEM) industry in that both enable IT departments to get a handle on their workers' telecom use by customizing their own policies. Many MDM clients can be downloaded directly off of smartphone application stores such as the Android Market and Apple's App Store. From there they'll need to connect with a central MDM platform that the IT department has installed on its back-end system.

Redman said that strong MDM software will give IT departments a host of policy options for helping to secure mobile devices on multiple platforms, including remote wipe, remote lock, password-enabled policy enforcement, encryption, authentication, firewall, antivirus and mobile VPN. Good MDM software should also give IT departments the ability to monitor authorized software, to implement backup and restore policies and to push out patches for existing device software.

Redman also said that good MDM software will help IT departments build segmentation plans that can dictate what groups of users get access to different types of data, networks and applications based on their roles and responsibilities within the company. At one extreme, the IT department could take near-total responsibility for device management and could severely restrict what users would be able to do with their device. At the other extreme, the department could let some users have an "anything goes" policy with their devices while shifting total responsibility for taking care of the device to the users.

Between these two extremes, Redman said that IT departments could share responsibility for managing devices, with the department agreeing to support email, PIM, Web browsing and telephony but not allowing any third-party applications to be loaded onto the device without permission. This would allow users to adopt a wider variety of platforms and devices without opening up the corporate IT network to the risks associated with an "anything goes" approach.

Finally, Redman said that enterprises shouldn't think of MDM software as a big-time money saver but rather something that could be crucial to preventing multiple device platforms from hampering overall network performance.

"We don't see a lot of return-on-investment potential on MDM right now, as it's more like an insurance policy," Redman said. "You won't have to use it very often but when you do use it, it's really important."

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