NOAA: From BlackBerry to iPhones, Androids and (maybe) BYOD

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began migrating from BlackBerry devices to the more open world of Androids and iPhones, it found it needed a replacement for the BlackBerry Enterprise Server to manage the new devices.

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The agency was using a suite of applications available from Google Apps for Government, said Daniel McCrae, director of IT service delivery. “There were some basic mobile device management features with that,” he said. “But there were limitations.”

One of the greatest limitations is that, at least in the early stages of its mobile device transition, NOAA is primarily an Apple shop, with about 2,200 iPhones and only about 50 Android devices. “It became apparent that we needed a more robust enterprise class solution” to enforce policies and configuration on the devices, McCrae said.

NOAA last year procured the MaaS360 cloud-based enterprise mobility management service from Fiberlink to handle the job. It is being tested now in limited deployment as the agency works out how best to mesh mission needs with policy, and policy with technology for enforcement. It is beginning the process with agency-issued phones, but the goal is that lessons learned in the process will help allow personally owned devices in the enterprise, as well.

“We don’t have an official BYOD program yet,” McCrae said. “This could help us develop a business case that would support both user-owned and NOAA devices” in the workplace.

NOAA selected the Fiberlink platform after a full competition because of its support of a full range of devices and its large presence in the federal market. Fiberlink has more than 40 agencies among its customers, “every one of them trying to figure out their mobility strategy,” said marketing director Jonathan Dale.

“We cut our teeth managing mobile laptops” 20 years ago, said Jeff Ward., vice president of VP of federal business. 

The company moved to a cloud-based service in 2007 and today manages about 2 million devices, about 1 million of them laptops and the rest tablets and smartphones. The number of laptops under management continues to grow, Dale said, but the fastest growth is among tablets and phones.

There is a significant difference in how the two classes of devices are managed. The focus with laptops is on managing the device itself, its configuration, the software installed on it, the connections it is allowed to make. With tablets and smartphones, the focus is on managing the data and apps.

Why the difference? “A lot of the devices are no longer provided by the enterprise,” Dale said. “In many cases, IT no longer has complete control of the device.” There also tends to be less separation of work and personal activity on a phone or tablet. Although laptops also are used in both arenas, “you flip between personal and business more quickly” with the smaller devices, he said.

There also are limitations on how easily an enterprise can lock down and manage devices under mobile operating systems, which are intended to be user friendly for a consumer market.

Fiberlink’s approach to mobile management is containment. The device is not partitioned with separate operating systems, but MaaS360 maintains separate applications and workplaces for business use in encrypted containers and blocks data transfers between these and personal applications. “It’s an easier and more effective way to manage,” Dale said. “If you just look at the data, it doesn’t matter who owns the device.”

The user enrolls his device online and downloads an agent, and administrators then push policies to the device that can be enforced remotely.

BlackBerry has long had a strong presence in the federal market, but like many other agencies NOAA moved from that platform because of the lower cost and expanded features in competing smartphones. Initially, new phones are being issued on the basis of need, to personnel who must be available 24 hours a day or who need constant access to email. The vast majority are iPhones, but some Androids are being issued to see how security and application provisioning work across the two brands with MaaS360.

“Right now, it’s meeting all of our expectations,” NOAA’s McCrae said of the Fiberlink service. But the agency still is in the process of developing appropriate policies for mobility management, and the final word on enforcement technology will have to wait until all policies are in place.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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