Modern Workplace Management

As discussed in the previous blogpost (The Modern Workplace), requirements of today’s end user computing devices have changed significantly. Lets view these developments from a management perspective. In this blogpost we will see why the traditional management approach is not fitting well to modern workplaces and must be reconsidered.

One significant difference to a traditional workplace is, that a modern workplace is highly mobile. Today’s workforce is not limited any more to physical office boundaries or strict working times, but is used to perform their work from any place and at any time. So, it can’t be expected that modern workplace devices are reachable on a well known, secure network. Actually, these devices will be connected to the Internet most of their online time, rather than to an internal network and the time when they will be online is unpredictable. Management concepts which rely on push connections from a management server to a device and require a stable connection for their transmission of messages and software packages do not really fit into this new scenario.

Another aspect is the diversity of devices and operating systems. Traditional management focuses on Windows devices only. However, Windows PCs are only a part of today’s end user computing device landscape. We see more and more MacBooks gain ground in the enterprise space. Beside the diversity on the computer device side, more and more devices with mobile operatring systems (iOS and Android) are used to perform work and require management.

This all leads to the following approach differences of management solutions:

Traditional management

  • Actions originates from the management server and are pushed to the endpoints
  • Strict control over when things happen where
  • Influence of the end user is very limited and actually not welcomed

Modern management

  • Actions are pulled from the device when it is online and can reach the management server
  • Control when things happen is based on the end user device
  • Most tasks are conceptually based on end user self service actions

I will now explain these different approaches on some basic examples:

Operating system patching

In a traditional environment, patches are downloaded from the OS vendor, tested and placed on a management server for push distribution. By starting the distribution it is expected that all online end points will receive the updates immediately, so after a rather short period of time, all end points can be considered patched.

In a modern workplace environment, the end points are configured to look for patches either directly at the vendor or at an internal management server. Whenever new patches are available the end points will start downloading them based on their polling interval and configuration, and install them automatically. However, the polling interval might be several hours and the download of the patches might be interrupted due to the loss of connectivity and resumed at a later point in time. Although the patches are finally downloaded and installed, the exact point in time when this will happen is not predictable. Further more, there is no way to distribute emergency patches immediately. However, to reduce patch delays, the polling interval can be reduced – leading to higher network consumption.

Software distribution

Installing software on an end user device is strictly controlled, too in a traditional environment. Applications are pushed down to the device. If mass rollouts are performed, the push jobs are handled in deployment queues and packages are directly distributed to the end points. Again, after initiating the distribution job, it is expected that the task is performed on all online endpoints immediately without delays.

On modern workplaces, we have two options on how software is deployed. The mandatory option would prepare the software for installation. However, the download and installation will be initiated by the end point rather than the management server. Depending on the end point’s polling interval, the client will check for new jobs available on the server, download and install the software if prepared for it. An exact point in time when this will be happen is not predictable.

The second option is to offer the software in a self service portal. In this case, the user can decide himself when he will install the software. It’s assumed that the end user can judge best when the time is appropriate as he knows about current connectivity and his further plans and working schedules.

Software updates

Traditionally software updates are pushed out to the end points similar to OS patches or new software installations. On a modern workplace, we also use modern software packages technologies. These new technologies include auto update functionality. The software checks itself for updates and keeps itself up to date without any operator intervention. This is very handy as no effort must be taken for packaging updates and send them out to the endpoints. On the other hand, control is lost when exactly the end point is updating a specific software package.

Bottom line is, that in a traditional environment, all devices are expected to have all required changes applied (otherwise a certain distribution is considered failed and requires investigation). In a modern workplace management environment the situation is not so easy. The operator can define a so called “desired state”, but if this state was (already) applied by the end point can’t be guaranteed. To mitigate risks that arise from the fact that not all changes were applied yet, the concept of “compliant state” was introduced. An endpoint is considered compliant when all defined requirements are met. If there is the requirement of a certain software package or secuirty patch to be installed this can be configured as a criteria for compliance. As long as an end point has not installed the patch it is considered uncompliant. Based on this information access to certain sensible resources can be restricted.

Summary

While traditional management is based on strict control, expecting the end points to be reachable at any time, modern concepts must deal with end points online on the Internet only now and then. This is why the decisions when things are performed moved from the management server to the end point. Based on polling intervals, jobs are collected from the server and fulfilled asynchronosly. To make sure only end points meeting the required security criterias may access resources, compliance states can be configured.

The Workplace and Collaboration Multiversum

The core components of a modern office workplace are mainly the device, its operating system including management, a productivity software suite and a collaboration solution. As of today we see three big players on that market with three different solutions and ecosystems:

  • Apple including the iCloud
  • Microsoft and Office 365
  • Google and G-Suite

Although comparable and sometimes possible to combine, these three ecosystems come from totally different backgrounds which explains their feature set and focus.

Apple

What you must keep in mind when discussing the Apple solution is, that Apple is a hardware company. Everything on top is only to sell (more) hardware. This explains why Apple’s approach is still hardware centric instead of web centric. The Apple ecosystem contains three types of devices, the Mac on macOS as well as the iPad and iPhone on iOS. The main application of the iCloud is to provide a seamless user experience over all Apple devices. Even for collaboration the Apple approach is still very device centric, providing client software for most of their services – sometimes only for the Apple operating systems (for instance: Facetime).

Although Apple limits the use of its services to their own operating system and devices, the Apple platform is open to use other productivity and collaboration suites. Remember, Apple is a hardware company, it is not Apple’s aim to sell services. This is especially true for enterprise clients, Apple actually does not want large corporations to use iCloud services, as they are considered consumer oriented. There is no iCloud for Business option available. It seems that Apple is not willing to invest in their services to reach an enterprise grade service level. Apple even removed the option to login to macOS with iCloud credentials in fear to be responsible if millions of users cannot log in to their devices should their iCloud service fail.

Microsoft

As we all know, Microsoft is originally a software company. They expanded to services only recently. And their hardware efforts are more to provide a reference model what can be done with their software and services. Their new CEO recognized that the future of software sales is in the cloud on a subscription base rather than on premise installations based on perpetual licenses. Although their efforts to position Office 365 as the center of their ecosystem looks promising, their legacy of clients with on premise instances of Microsoft software is still evident. The Microsoft solutions works best with Windows 10 and locally installed Microsoft Office as complementary components to the Office 365 cloud services.

Microsoft understood that the general ecosystem is more important than the platform. This is reflected in the recent reorganizations of the Microsoft divisions, where Windows is now part of the Cloud organization and not a business unit on its own any more. Microsoft’s cloud services can now be consumed on any platform, be it Windows 10, iOS, macOS or Linux. Not with complete feature parity, tough.

In contrast to Apple, Microsoft’s most important target client group are enterprises. Due to Microsoft’s strong background in the enterprise business, Office 365 and its underlying Azure infrastructure are designed with enterprise requirements in mind.

Google

Google on the other hand is a natural service company, born on the Internet.  The only function of Google’s hard- and software is to bring more users on their services. Therefore it is not very surprising that all Google services are web based and can be consumed by any device. To guarantee a certain consistent user experience over all platforms, Google provides its Chrome Browser as the interface for their services. Google is strong in the consumer and education business, but still weak in the enterprise area. Especially in Europe data protection is an important topic and seems not to be addressed properly by Google.

Summary

Three ecosystems that come from three totally different roots but have the same goal. Apple, a hardware company, providing software and services as additional value for its hardware. Microsoft, a software company that requires the service business for further growth and Google, a service company that provides hardware just to enable the consumers to use its services. Keeping the business models of these providers in mind explains their focus and strategy.

Why Directory as a Service is important for the modern workplace

In a majority of today’s enterprise environments Microsoft Active Directory is used as the primary directory service. This worked very well in the past 17 years, due to its ability to centralize user and device management and provide a clear hierarchical structure of enterprise resources.

However, today’s modern workplace introduces new requirements, which are hard to be met with traditional concepts. To understand these challenges a little bit better, lets first discuss the main tasks of a directory service:

  • Authenticate users
  • Authorize users to applications

A traditional on premise directory service like Microsoft AD can fulfill these tasks well as long as we are mainly dealing with non-mobile desktop computers and internal applications based on a corporate network.

But today’s world is different.

The mobile workforce is not only using mobile computers like laptops or MacBooks, it more and more does not use any computers at all, but mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. Although mobile accounts (in Active Directory)  is a workaround to solve the fact that more and more computers are not connected to the internal network when users log on, admins know the pain of cached credentials and the consequence of hanging machines waiting for timeouts while trying to reach a domain controller. The problem even increased since laptops are just put into sleep mode rather than shut down.

Beside the user behavior, also the application landscape has changed dramatically. Client / server applications are exchanged by web based apps, which tend to be more often off premise (cloud Software as a Service). While internal client/server software was mainly based on Kerberos authentication, web based SaaS offerings use different, more Internet compatible authentication protocols like SAML or OAuth.

In a nutshell, the modern workplace requires a different set on functionality:

  • Support for the mobile workforce on devices connected to the Internet
  • Support for Internet based SaaS applications using SAML/OAuth authentication protocols

Internet based directory services try to meet these requirements. As their name implies, these directory services are accessible from the Internet and therefore provide authentication services regardless if the user is in the internal corporate network or on the Internet. Furthermore they are designed to federate with SaaS applications and provide single sign on to internal and external web applications.

Even Microsoft understood the importance of Directory as a Service for the future workplace. Azure AD is Microsoft’s DaaS implementation, highly integrated in the Windows 10 platform. A Windows 10 device can be bound easily to Azure AD. The built in mechanism enables a user to logon to the device with his/her Azure AD credentials. The basic concept is similar to Active Directory mobile accounts. When the device is not online (or cannot reach Azure AD), cached credentials are used to authenticate the user. But, this new implementation of the mobile accounts can handle network switches while on standby far better than AD did in the past.

Independent DaaS providers are introducing more OS agnostic concepts. Jumpcloud for example, works with pure local accounts. It controls those accounts through an agent installed on the device. Local accounts work best in an offline / Internet based scenario as they don’t require any network connectivity or reachable infrastructure. The combination of local accounts and central management of them is an interesting best of both worlds approach. Furthermore, as local accounts exists on macOS and Linux, too, this solution is not limited to Windows devices only.

Summary

On premise directory solutions will have more and more problems to fulfill future requirements the modern workplace and application landscape will demand. The introduction of an Internet Directory or Directory as a Service offering will help getting the best out of the modern workplace and enables the seamless integration with Internet based SaaS applications.

How important is the client OS any more?

As I mentioned in one of my older posts, the client operating system becomes less and less important in today’s IT world. However, how important is a standardized client OS still for enterprises?

Up to today, enterprises’ workstation rollout strategy is based on a corporate OS built which includes all relevant policies and settings. Any application package can rely on this standardized OS and its unique features. This was best practice for years – even decades, but is it the answer for the challenges the new way of working introduces to the corporate world?

I am not so sure about that and I think this paradigm needs to be reviewed!

With Bring your own device, mobility and social collaboration new end user devices are used for corporate applications. Most of these devices come with its own operating system and might or might not be manageable. Some CIOs still believe they can cope with this challange by just prohibiting these new devices, which is more ostrich-like politics than a a future proof concept.

While I don’t say that a standardized OS platform is something bad, I think today’s applications must not rely on it any more. They must be robust enough to cope with any underlying OS configuration to be ready for the future.

Infrastructure is commodity and therefore getting more and more diverse. This means, specific OS vendors, versions or settings must become less and less important to higher level of applications!

Let’s talk about clouds – seriously!

A cloud is a visible mass of liquid droplets or frozen crystals made of water, various chemicals (or water and chemicals) suspended in the atmosphere above the surface of a planetary body.” – Wikipedia

Today, I would like to discuss this topic from a slightly different angle. As you might know, clouds are organized in layers. Let’s discuss these layers and how they affect us.

Moderate vertical

This is the lowest cloud layer and the layer that affects us most. The most important clouds on this layer are called cumulus clouds. The cumulus clouds are the type of cloud everyone thinks of when we talk about clouds. They come with a rather plain base and a fluffy looking top, which can animate our imagination about their shapes.

Single cumulus cloud

Single cumulus cloud

Cumulus cloudsor cumulimainly form from the spring to fall season. They are usually caused by thermal up-winds which arise when a spot on the ground is warmer than its surroundings. The air above this hot spot is warmed and because of the nature of physics, starts climbing until it reaches a so-called “inversion,” which is a level that has even warmer air. At that level, the air can’t climb any further and the contained water is condensing, causing the cloud to form. This is why all cumulus clouds in an area all exist on the very same altitude.

Set of cumulus clouds, all on the same altitude

Set of cumulus clouds, all on the same altitude

But, what are they good for? What are their use cases?

There are two user groups that are interested in cumulus clouds: farmers and glider pilots.

Farmers, because cumuli might mean rain (depends on proper sizing) and glider pilots, because the thermal up-wind, which caused the cumulus cloud, is a perfect up lift.

Let me say a few words about sizing…

When cumulus clouds become oversizedthere is more and more warmer air climbing from the ground, bringing more condensed water to the cloud—the clouds start towering. They can tower up to very high altitudesso, they are then referred to as towering cumulus clouds. If they reach a certain size, the internal forces basically break through and a thunderstorm is the final result. Those clouds are then called cumulonimbus.

Low layer

The clouds on the low layer are mainly stratus clouds. Although cumulus clouds are objects with more or less well-defined borders, status clouds are more like a sea of clouds without an end. Stratus clouds arise when wet air cools and can no longer hold water, which then condenses to that “cloudy layer”. When stratus clouds hit the ground, they are called fog!

Stratus cloud layer from above

Stratus cloud layer from above

Middle layer

Middle layered clouds have the prefix “alto” to indicate that they reside on a higher layer than the clouds discussed before. Depending on its origin, they are called altocumulus, altostatus, and so on.

High layer

The cloud family that forms on the high layer are called cirrus clouds. Cirrus clouds include ice crystals, which give the clouds their beautiful shapes.

I hope you enjoyed reading about some other aspects of cloud. And, by the way, its April Fools’ Day today!