The Kingdom Of Corporate IT: Where Macs Fit

Charles Haddad wrote an article recently about his theory on why corporate IT managers seem reluctant to support Macs (see iAn Anti-Mac Corporate Conspiracy?i, BusinessWeek, 3/12/2002). He proposed that some IT (Information Technology) managers may shun Macs because the Macis ease of use and low support overhead may knock dings into the IT manageris kingdom. Fewer support people are needed to support Macs, and that would mean a smaller group over which one can rule, thus the IT shop shrinks in importance in the corporate scheme of things. Thereis some truth to Mr. Haddadis assertion, I have to believe, but it is, by far, not the only reason IT managers shun Macs. As with everything else in life, the choices IT folks make are not that simple.

On a daily basis, IT people must do the nearly impossible job of managing an infrastructure that is as varied as the items considered edible in a Bangkok market, as complicated as any brain surgeonis how-to manual, and as thankless, yet needed, as garbage collecting. Most corporate IT managers must deal with several kinds of UNIX, in several versions, several kinds of mainframe OSes (yes, corporations still use and buy BIG IRON systems), several kinds and versions of Windows, and several kinds and versions of Linux, on all of which they must install and maintain a mountain of COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) and custom built software. Thatis just the computers, now connect them all on a fast network such that all of the stuff people are suppose to get is available while keeping people out of the stuff they arenit suppose to get to, and make sure that all systems and all software is available all the time, except on Thursdays between 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM, when you are allowed to do updates that require reboots. Now, toss in a requirement to back up hundreds of gigabytes of data on a nightly basis and then be able to regurgitate any part of that data on a momentis notice, and, if a catastrophe hits, like, say, a tornado, flood, or act of God, IT managers must be able to completely recreate the entire infrastructure within a day or so of digging out of whatever Hell or Heaven has wrought.

IT people get the least recognition for their efforts because they donit normally contribute directly to the companyis bottom line. IT is often seen as a necessary evil, a drain on corporate profits. IT personnel seldom get awards or bonuses for doing a great job. If the network stays up for 2 years without a glitch it is considered part of the job, though admittedly they do get paid well. Promotions are slower coming in an IT shop. It is not unheard of to see the same guy who serviced your desktop while you were an entry-level programmer, doing the same thing now that you are a lead programmer. If an IT person wants to get promoted, she can either wait until someone leaves or dies, or she finds opportunities elsewhere. Still, IT folks usually like what they do. Thereis a certain amount of respect one must give to anyone who can make a file that wasnit there a minute ago magically appear, or find a way to transfer a GB of data without using diskettes. IT people like being keepers of iThe Knowledgei; the incantations and strange contortions they use to keep systems and networks running.

How does the Mac fit in such a landscape? Before OS X, Macs did not play very well with other systems. To get Macs to share files with other types of computers IT folks had to work minor magic with networks and use COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) applications to get Macs to communicate with other systems. Macs understood Windows files on storage media (CD, Diskettes, and such) but couldnit handle Windows file systems without help. Macs couldnit talk to UNIX print queues, had no built-in terminal or telnet functionality, and had a hard time just communicating using TCP/IP. Tweaking the Mac was even harder because there was no command line, so optimizing a Mac to a network was out of the question unless you found some app that allowed it (like IPNetTuner). From an IT standpoint, Macs, no matter how useful, were the odd man out. To include Macs, IT folks had to insure servers and printers spoke AppleTalk, they also had to make sure all the routers, switches and hubs spoke it too, and it was easy to just not bother with it; with so much on their plate already, it was an easy decision to exclude Macs from the corporate IT mainstream. Macs have enjoyed pockets of success, to be sure. Setting up AppleTalk compatible printers was a snap, and getting Macs to talk to each other was a breeze. Offices that were exclusively Mac shops were classic examples of how parts could fit together to work as a homogeneous unit. Still, for all the goodness Macs offered, one basic fact remained: computers have to talk to other computers, and Macs just did not do that well.

Of course, the story is quite different now, and we have OS X to thank. UNIX was getting smacked around for a long time in the corporate IT world. Microsoft sold IT mangers on the idea that it could bring order to the chaos that was UNIX. Microsoft promised single-system functionality from the desktop to the server, a streamlined environment that is simple to maintain yet complicated enough to preserve the mystique surrounding information technology; such is the IT manageris Holy Grail. Microsoft could not deliver on that promise, of course: Windows servers have to be pampered by the same number, or more, of administrators as any UNIX setup; IT personnel who have gone through Microsoftis OS bootcamp command ever increasing salaries, which have more than offset any cost savings IT managers thought they might realize by dumping highly paid but highly trained UNIX gurus for Windows gurus; and while PC hardware is cheaper initially compared to UNIX workstations, any cost savings are quickly swallowed up by the need to constantly update security software. Instead of simplicity, IT managers now have to deal with an even more complex environment than they had before Microsoft came on the scene. Now, however, IT managers do have a choice, and that choice could change a whole lot of what goes on after you hit the return key.

With OS X and Macs, IT managers can spend $1500 and get a workstation that can talk to UNIX, Linux, Windows, Macs, and mainframes. That workstation can edit Word files natively, cut and paste to EMACS (A popular UNIX based editor), host X-Window sessions, and print to nearly any UNIX or Windows print server almost right out of the box. No OS could do that before without a lot of help, and no Mac could do that before OS X. Any IT manager worth his pocket protector should be able to recognize the benefits of including OS X based Macs in his domain. That is not to say that Macs and OS X is for everyone; itis not. There will always be places where Windows or another flavor of UNIX is just the right choice, and thatis OK. But it is now harder for an IT shop to ignore Macs running OS X, thereis something in it for everyone.

For the end users who donit want or need to know, OS X hides the arcane language of UNIX behind a very useable GUI; office workers and execs never need see a command line while using many of their favorite apps. For the UNIX/Linux developer and scientific user, OS X offers the same power that most high priced workstation offer while including access to apps Sun and IBM may never see on their UNIX workstations, like Microsoft Office. Yet all of the UNIX/Linux tools these power users have always used are now, or will soon be, available on a Mac and OS X. The kicker is that now everyone can easily coexist in relative serenity on the same network. Imagine a corporate office where everyone from the lowest desk clerk, to engineers, to the CEO is able to share, collaborate, and communicate using any type of server, print on any type of printer, and view data generated from any application, all made possible by Apple, Macs, and OS X. The IT manageris job just got a lot less complicated. While in may not be reasonable to put a Mac on every corporate desktop, now, more than ever before, Macs make IT sense.

Vern Seward is a frustrated writer, and IT professional, who currently lives in Orlando, FL. Heis been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.