Help — under Mac attack!

Help — under Mac attack!:

The following is Chad Dickerson’s article – reproduced here. Click on the above link to get to the original post.

Boy, my last column about Macs in the enterprise really touched a nerve. My editor probably ratcheted up the intensity of the response with a headline and deck (what we call the subheadline in the biz) that went beyond the point that I was making. The headline was “Want a Mac? You’re on your own” and the subheadline was “I love Macs and I use one myself, but I can’t afford to spend time supporting them.” Those are not the headlines I would have written for my column and I’ll definitely take a more active role in watching the headlines for my more controversial columns (and, frankly, I could write the most glowing tribute to Apple imaginable and someone would find a reason to say I was shilling for Microsoft between the lines. Believe me.)

I go into the reasons I didn’t like the headline in my current column, “Under Mac Attack“:

Despite the overzealous headline my editor placed above my column, which suggested that Macs were not supported at all at InfoWorld, I want to assure you that Macs are embraced and supported at InfoWorld in key areas. I suspect that InfoWorld is reasonably typical in that approximately 20 percent of our environment consists of Macs. In the past year, we have upgraded our entire Mac environment to dual-processor G5s running Panther — with Remote Desktop, Retrospect, and so on — and everyone in our IT department is a Mac user and fan. That said, I think it’s generally a waste of time to try to evangelize Macs to departments like sales where everyone prefers PCs or (gasp!) doesn’t care. When IT pros with the crazed eyes of street preachers accost passersby in the hallways to push a new platform, people generally wish they would just shut up and stop blocking the route to the coffee machine.

Now before I get any further into this post, I want to emphasize that my motivation in bringing up any issues about Macs in the enterprise is to demonstrate that in enterprise IT, making platform choices can be somewhat complex due to the particular needs of your business, legacy systems, budgets, staffing issues, etc. I’ve been a Mac user for 17 years now and Apple definitely makes great products that continue to be worthy of enterprise consideration, but I’ve never quite made it to the “blind devotion” stage. A Mac environment is not perfect because Apple products exist in an interdependent IT ecosystem in which Apple can’t exercise full control over third-party products that might introduce complications into the platform. Our job in IT is to make everything work within whatever unique constraints we face, not to blindly commit to vendors. I also think it’s unfair to take any criticism of Macs in the enterprise as a tacit endorsement for Microsoft. (Don’t forget Linux, or Solaris, folks). Finally, there are really smart and very technical people out there who have run into issues with running only OS X for various legitimate reasons.

Aside from the mound of e-mail (about 50% “you’re an idiot,” 25% “I disagree, and here’s why”, 25% “Hey, good points”), there’s been a lot of commentary around the web and I wanted to be sure to link to it, acknowledge it, and comment on it more fully than I can in a 600-word column. Aside from the usual predictable Mac-can-do-no-wrong zealotry (and if that’s tiresome to someone who uses and loves his Mac, imagine how tiresome it is to the true “opposition”), there were plenty of thoughtful comments worthy of consideration by IT managers. Below are links to a couple of the major Mac sites who covered my column — follow these and read the forums for a variety of opinion (I decided to list the names I was called and adjectives used on each site for your amusement — you really have to have a sense of humor to write about your job in public):

Names called/adjectives used: idiot, incompetent, dolt, lazily arrogant, “techie” (quotes used to cast doubt on my competence), “not that smart”, smirky (referring to my photo — I’m terrible in front of a camera, folks), (last but not least, an inexplicable pun on my last name) DickArson (note: first pun on my last name since, I don’t know, 5th grade).

MacNN — Names called/adjectives used: very dumb, TOTAL IDIOT

My e-mail — Names called/adjectives used/insulting phrases: “callous ineptitude”, “really lame”, “lazy whiner”

First, a few suggestions from my inbox:

  • I should make all applications web-based and use a truly cross-platform standards-based solution like Firefox (which is why I listed “Developing web apps for IE only” in my “Top 20 IT Mistakes” story a few months ago). More on the standards issue below.
  • For companies who like Visual Basic, REALbasic is an option (supports Mac, Windows, and Linux). More info here (claims to have a conversion tool for VB6 code).
  • There are companies (like OnDeckTech) who offer remote and on-site Mac support on a subscription basis.
  • Some folks suggested iBackup and .Mac Backup for subscription-based Mac backups (see more details on this below).

Aside from the name calling, most of the criticism was more or less thematically consistent:

So, let me get this straight. You’re claiming that it takes less time to support a PC vs. supporting a Mac?
In this particular case, yes. Adding a solitary Mac into a mix of salespeople all using PCs would add more incremental support overhead than supporting the standardized PC image we currently use. One reader put it well: “I’m a 20-year Mac user and agree that it’s a pipedream, contrary to the hype, to throw a Mac at someone and expect them to know how to use it.” Granted, this sales user was using a Mac at home, but I think this reader makes a reasonable point. Part of the intended point in my first column was that a home user who primarily uses iTunes and iMovie at home might not be ready to jump in head first in a corporate setting, especially when his comrades are all PC users.

The salesperson wanted to use a Mac — why not let him? Wouldn’t he be more productive?

Based on my conversation with him, probably not, and that was my point. Macs are computers, not magical devices with self-teaching powers that transfer computing omniscience to all who touch them. They are not automatically the “best tool for the job” for every person in every department. Every person has different capabilities and we have to evaluate the need for support in each case. Sure, Mac users in general might be easier to support, but a single Mac user in the sales department will have unique support issues compared to the rest of the Mac population at InfoWorld. We need some level of standardization across particular job functions, and this salesperson understood that. Sometimes being like everyone else is a good thing. I agree with one reader who wrote this: “People take a bit to shift gears going from PC to Mac. I’m with you in many regards on this. In fact, I tell people not even to bother getting a Mac if they aren’t willing to spend time and learn the basic ins and outs of their new machine. I tell them it’s a very straightforward platform to use, but like ANY piece of machinery… you have to learn it by spending the time… something that most people are not willing to do.” (And again, yes, the user in question was already using a Mac at home, but was accustomed to using a PC at work in the past.)

You’re just trying to protect your job by only supporting an all-Windows environment that has lots of problems to chase to keep you busy.

Nice try. 🙂 I outsourced that function already, so I’m obviously not holding on to that function to keep my job. During the absolutely wrenching downturn in 2001, I outsourced Windows support out of business necessity. I was not a fan of outsourcing in the least, but it made sense and still makes sense. You can read more on that here and here. One important note: I didn’t outsource this function because I didn’t understand it. I outsourced because I understood it all too well, and the Centerbeam solution I chose dealt with the difficulties of Windows management in a smart way (especially patching). I would rather have a team on-site to deal with this, but budgets just won’t allow it and the technology has made it possible to outsource the function relatively painlessly. See Everdream for a similar model. I think this model is clearly the future of IT support and IT support staff who ignore this cost-effective method of providing remote support are doing so at their own peril. In any case, had I wanted to go all-Mac during the downturn instead of figuring out a cost-effective way to manage our Windows machines. . . well, I couldn’t. No hardware budget and not much appetite for turmoil and high short-term expenses when the company was focused on our revenue situation.

OK, you don’t support Windows. What does your IT support staff actually do?

Our support staff is SMALL — two people. They mostly focus on our web operation (which is directly attached to revenue), meaning Linux, Apache, MySQL, Oracle, load balancers (Foundry ServerIron), etc. is part of the Keynote Business 40 index, so we’re one of the sites that is monitored to set the standard for web site performance. We keep pretty busy with all of that, but we also use Macs ourselves and do the Mac support (just not for random salespeople, remember). I would go so far as to say our IT manager (Kevin Railsback) is an absolute Mac freak, and I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t think he would view it as a compliment!

If you embraced open standards, you wouldn’t have this problem.

Who doesn’t love open standards? Here’s what I wrote in this week’s column about open standards:

Others said that if I more fully embraced open standards — the IT version of world peace, and who doesn’t want that? — I wouldn’t have to deal with the platform problem at all. Unfortunately, the reality of corporate IT intrudes. InfoWorld is more than 25 years old, and we are part of a larger global company that is nearly 40 years old. I am constantly pushing toward open standards with all our key systems; but we are still working with a few aggravating proprietary systems, and there is no magic wand to wipe them away immediately. Such is life in a company that has been around for a while. While admonishing me for not having a fully open standards-based environment that could support Macs in all functions, one developer noted that he used Virtual PC at his company for a few “horrible applications that only work with IE.” It sounds like I’m not the only one with some work to do.

Legacy systems can be really stubborn, and the battle is inch-by-inch at times. We have an eight-year-old web-based financial system here at InfoWorld (but run by the IT staff at our parent company) that I use every month for budgeting and it doesn’t work in Safari, so I use IE on Windows to view it. Maybe they’ll make it more standards-based, maybe not — it’s good enough for almost everyone in the company as it is. When the system is rebuilt, I will ask that they certify it in a variety of browsers, but until then, I’ll just fire up IE for Windows and deal with it.

You can use Remote Desktop / Citrix / Cisco VPN / Lotus Notes on the Mac
Without a doubt, that is basically true — but no one who wrote to me mentioned any problems, just that “it works.” I can’t make any arguments about the Cisco VPN not working well (it does), but I think using Terminal Services with Remote Desktop Client for a highly-mobile sales user who needs regular access to PC-only apps would invalidate any support advantage the Mac might have, as I wrote in this week’s follow-up column:

When I got several e-mails telling me that the obvious way (you dolt!) to support Mac-toting InfoWorld salespeople is to use the OS X RDC (Remote Desktop Client) to access key Windows apps via Terminal or Remote Desktop Services, I knew we were really getting into Mac-wagging-the-dog territory. To be fair, I know that the RDC approach can work because we’ve done it at InfoWorld — on our local LAN. Still, I can only imagine the frantic support calls from a stranded salesperson in an airport with no way to connect back to that critical Windows app via RDC. Network connectivity is not yet ubiquitous, and, until it is, a solution that depends on a high-speed network is going to be unpredictable at best. When a PC-only app is absolutely critical, give that person a PC.

A little research also suggests that the current Citrix client for OS X has some aggravating problems. Yes, there are workarounds, but if this printing issue affects your daily work, using the Mac is more painful than using a PC. Any platform has its annoyances when using third-party software, even the Mac. This isn’t Apple’s fault, of course — just an annoying fact of real-world IT. Again, Macs are not magical. (I won’t get into Lotus Notes because I have beaten up on it enough, though I will say that the OS X version of Notes is inferior to the Windows version, at least in my opinion.)

I also don’t understand why you would choose, however excellent it might be, a subscription backup service that was not platform agnostic.
I wish someone would point me to a simple subscription backup service that *is* platform agnostic, because there isn’t one that I can find. Connected (the Windows-only service we use) provides a cost-effective way to seamlessly backup all of our Windows desktops in a way that they can be easily restored. “Seamlessly” means secure backup of an ENTIRE system over the Internet with only a client on the desktop, so I don’t have to run any infrastructure (tape libraries, backup servers, etc.) to make this happen reliably. Connected has been working for over three years. Some people wrote to suggest using .Mac’s Backup, but the standard membership only offers 250MB of storage, though you can upgrade to 1GB. Nice functionality, but not enough space for full enterprise backups. Another reader sent me a big “tsk-tsk” for not finding the Mac-supported service from iBackup. Only trouble with that service is that the backup portion is only supported on Windows and Linux, though there is a suggested workaround that leverages Retrospect Express and FTP — this seems like a lame “make-this-work-on-a-Mac-at-all-costs” approach to me. There is an iDrive option that works with Macs, but it functions as a big remote drive, not a backup application with incremental backups (and I’ve seen the “manually move the stuff you want backed up to the server” approach fail enough to know to avoid it). So, I chose Windows-only Connected because it limits my backup problem to my Mac environment, and regardless of what we do there (Retrospect), I end up with a smaller backup problem overall. Having two working backup solutions (Connected and Retrospect) is not a problem when the overall effort to keep them both going is less than standardizing on one. I just wished there was a viable solution for the Mac that would work like Connected. Why won’t Apple turn .Mac Backup into an enterprise offering? Here’s hoping they will. Late-breaking update: As I was finishing this blog entry, I got an e-mail from fellow Connected user Coty Rosenblath who checked with Connected regarding Mac support — they say they will be supporting it in “late 2005.” Very, very cool.

I did ask three people who sent me categorical statements about Macs (of the “they are ALWAYS easier to use” variety) to send me some backup information, and here are some suggested links (didn’t have time to check out all the claims, so I’m using the nofollow attribute for the sites I don’t already know well — trying to be responsible with my and InfoWorld’s Google juice):

I have to say, the oddest thing about Mac justifications is that the advocacy seems to sound roughly the same through the years despite serious improvements in the platform that would seemingly provide more compelling justifications. To me, OS X was the watershed that really made the Mac platform interesting again, and prior versions of Mac OS were just not even close. I would be really interested in seeing more recent studies that factor OS X into the equation in any case.

I could go on and on about Macs in the enterprise, but I have probably said enough for now. Again, I love Macs, but the sooner Mac zealots stop the scorched earth strategy of insisting that their solution is the perfect solution to everything in a world that reasonable people know is imperfect (and everyone else is an idiot), the sooner more people might see the true benefits of the platform through the screaming. Thanks to those who sent me thoughtful responses!

Final note: if you search for “negative impact zealotry” on Google, for the first result you get this really well-written plea against Apple zealotry — by a Mac fan. Well worth reading.

(Via Chad Dickerson.)