Managing Mobile Devices: Solution Providers' Next Frontier

By Jessica Davis  |  Print this article Print

Data security, malware, and insane data usage charges are just the beginning of the troubles today in the current Wild West state of mobility in business. As users bring their own devices into work, here's a look at the problems and how IT solution providers are helping to solve them.

Workers may have been bringing their own phone and tablets onto the corporate network for some time now, but IT organizations are just beginning to address the issues and problems caused by this BYOD (bring your own device) trend. And VARs and MSPs, like the customers they serve, are looking to get their arms around how to help customers, too, while at the same time creating a revenue stream to support the devices.

Among the questions: how do you secure the devices when the end user owns them? If the worker owns the phone, what happens to the phone number if an employee quits or is fired? How do you make configuration of smartphones into a scalable operation? There are just as many business questions as there are technology questions.  These and more were raised and addressed at a town hall meeting on mobility during the Connectwise IT Nation event in Orlando in early November.

"From a mobility perspective we are looking to help clients to access information securely from any location, including the local Starbucks," said Brian Miller, president and COO of United Technology Group in Suwanee, Ga.  "We also want to help clients from a unified communications perspective. For us that means integrating the devices."

But the whole consumerization of IT and BYOD trend offers the threat of plenty of disruption.

"We sell a lot of product," said Brad Schow, vice president of services at Heartland Technology Solutions (HTS). "All the sudden it’s Verizon, Apple and AT&T selling devices like we used to sell PCs. We need to insert ourselves into that conversation. Customers had better understand that we are strategically looking after their business or someone is going to come in and move our cheese."

Miller and Schow were part of a panel that also included Brett Cheloff, director of development at RMM software vendor Lab Tech; Malcolm Diack of The Final Step, a U.K., based solution provider; and  Lyf Wildenberg, of MyTech Partners in Roseville, Minn.

Indeed, phones, sold by other entities, have taken VARs out of the mix when it comes to the natural way IT solution providers have sold PCs to businesses and then supported them. But because phones are distributed by carriers and individual workers are often purchasing these devices on their own and then bringing them into work, IT has lost control.

But there’s another opportunity to be pursued by VARs and MSPs here, according to Diack.

"The device isn’t sold –it’s given away for free with a contract and a data plan that is sold," he said.  "That whole piece around advising on the contract will be an area that we need to get very good at." Other opportunities will be around break/fix and expertise in hardware refreshes.

"All these things are probably not too difficult to show clients that you can add value," he added. "People are accustomed to paying large amounts of money to the carrier over a period of time, and they hate dealing with the telco."

Just how are these MSPs rolling these services into their managed services plans? So far, no one has mastered this aspect.

"My guess is that most MSPs are doing it for free now, manually" said Wildenbert.  "The customer says 'well it’s just my phone or my iPad.’ If you let it be an ad hoc thing you will not be able to build a value statement around it."

Worse is when the customer or the customers end-users don’t tell you about the devices they are adding to the network.

"IT managers are amazed of the number of devices on their network that they didn’t know about," said one audience member in the packed room.  "Blackberry is top down approach. Corporate has an iron fist to control over it. Apple’s approach is bottom up."

Another audience member recounted a customer who had purchased 450 iPads (from some other organization), and found that employees were consistently going over the data limit, incurring mountains of overage fees. This organization was looking for someone to help manage employee data use.

LabTech’s Cheloff noted that setting up Microsoft Exchange on iPhones and iPads will likely be the biggest request.  "If you are fully managing the devices, you will need to limit access. And if they lose the device you will need to be able to remote wipe the device."

When you are setting up devices, today you do it in one of three ways, he added.

"You either have to go on site to set up after they buy it; you buy and set up and ship to them; or they bring it to you to configure," he said. "None of those are scalable."

And yet, the wave of mobility in businesses large and small is unstoppable. So how do you get started as an IT solution provider in offering services that can make a meaningful difference to customers?

"We took our core business and looked at one piece that would touch mobility. For us it was high performance wireless," said Wildenberg.  "Take something that you are really good at today, or could be really good at today, and then start there. If you have a security practice that would be a huge thing to take one step forward."

LabTech’s Cheloff recommends combining security and Wi-Fi by creating two separate Wi-Fi networks at customer sites – one for mobile devices and the other one for everything else.

"It’s almost advisable to have a separate Wi-Fi network for mobile devices that is not even on your domain for security reasons," he said. "If they are BYOD, the hackers can just come into your environment. Security is huge for mobility."








Jessica Davis covers the channel for eWeek and Channel Insider. Her technology journalism career began well before anyone heard of the World Wide Web and has included stints at Infoworld, Electronic News/EDN, and the Philadelphia Business Journal. Her work has also appeared on CNN and Forbes.com. She has covered hardware, software and networking, as well as the business side of technology. She has won several journalism awards, including a national ASBPE award for best staff-written column, and was named Marketing Computers hardest working tech journalist on their inaugural list of top tech journalists. Jessica can be reached at jessica.davis@ziffdavisenterprise.com