Mobile device management (MDM) is one of the hottest topics in IT today. There are a number of questions that relate to balancing security, cost, and flexibility for users. Third-party solutions are rampant, but sorting through them can be a doozy.

I just recently wrote an article that compared several different philosophies (and products) of MDM. However, since writing that article, I've heard from several vendors with other interesting approaches.

Tangoe - Telecom Expense Management Meets Mobile Device Management

One such vendor is Tangoe, a telecom expense management (TEM) company that entered the MDM space in January 2009 after completing the acquisition of Internoded. Tangoe offers something fairly unique with these two offerings, letting a company integrate the benefits of TEM with MDM. Examples of how this can be used include:

  1. Tangoe offers a portal for users to sign up for a mobile device. This portal can be set to offer the user a device that is most logical (in terms of cost and features) to that person's position in the company, geographical location, and needs. (So, users with more in-depth security needs could be offered BlackBerry devices, users that use their phones far more often or will be making international calls would have another plan offered, etc.)
  2. The system can also make adjustments in real time, which is something a telecom expense management solution can't do alone. For instance, due to carrier billing delays normally the TEM would show you (2 months after the fact) which users were roaming and racked up major fees, went over minutes, etc. But with TEM and MDM, you can see these issues the day they happen, and Tangoe can make the appropriate calls to your carriers to get plans adjusted or disable features on a user's device to resolve the issue.

"So we're determining how the device is being provisioned, how it's going to connect to the environment, what policies are going to be on the device, and what applications if any are going to be on the device," said Julie Palen, senior vice president of MDM with Tangoe. "Then we manage the life cycle of that device both from a physical asset as well as a soft asset. So we do things in a very dynamic way where we can, based on who you are in the organization and if your role should change, the policies on your device could dynamically change. Or if your device goes from a home state to a roaming state, we could change the configuration or send alerts."

Tangoe also offers TEM and MDM as a managed service or Software as a Service (SaaS) solution, meaning Tangoe can handle these offerings as a service provider. One advantage to this is that MDM can be written off a variable expense, rather than having fixed resources assigned to it.

"We have over 500 customers, more than 80% of which are Software as a Service with the rest either on-premises TEM or MDM deployments," Palen said. "On the MDM side, it's IT organizations saying 'I can't manage another thing', and the thought of all the different devices. With everything else about mobility, the organization pays a per user/per month fee, with nothing really sitting on their infrastructure. Why not this?"

Tangoe's MDM solution integrates with Active Directory and works with all of today's major mobile platforms. Identities can be managed by individual (so an employee's iPad and Android phone are tied together), or by department. The solution is largely intended for large-scale enterprises, but Tangoe also works with medium-sized businesses. The TEM and MDM solutions can also be purchased individually.

Virtela: Cloud-Based Mobile Device Management

Another vendor offering a unique MDM solution is Virtela. Virtela is a managed cloud service provider in a variety of markets, and the company is now expanding to MDM. The company's offering promises three things: faster time to service, less administrative/IT resources required, and a comparable or lower cost than comparative MDM solutions.

In a nutshell, the promise is all the same benefits of a traditional MDM solution, without the complexity and manual work.

"You simply don't have to manage the deployment, the maintenance. You get consulting help with setting up those policies and things you want to do, given our expertise, but you can customize it. You get full access to all that—you can administer, touch, and do every bit of it," Mark Weiner, senior vice president, marketing and product and management. "Basically we're taking the headache away without losing any control. We take away the downside and you get all the upside."

After the jump, learn more about what makes Virtela's MDM solution unique.

According to Weiner, as part of being a cloud-based managed service, tasks such as the following are covered by Virtela:

  • Finding a vendor—Virtela has already done the evaluation
  • Deploying the server and finding rackspace
  • Getting the solution set up, provisioned, scaled
  • Consultative work to set up policies you want to set up, with templates so you don't have to start from scratch
  • Policy administration can be done by your IT team or Virtela
  • Regular updates and maintenance

In terms of MDM features, Virtela offers the types of features you'd expect: remote wipe (by full device, email, or applications), Contact sync, policy management, etc. The company also offers SMS archiving, a feature Virtela claims is fairly unique to their offering (I haven't heard of this feature being offered thus far).

But what about security? Isn't that the crux of the cloud conversation? Do organizations really want to put their secure mobile data in the hands of a third party?

Weiner offered this comfort: "Virtela provides cloud-based security itself. Not only do we secure this data, but we actually provide cloud security infrastructure, things like firewalls, for thousands of users in Fortune 500 size companies. We literally provide security as a service to very large companies, including SaaS companies."

Mark Hansard, vice president, security and systems for Virtela, elaborates: "With an application like this, just like Exchange or any other sensitive application, there's a trust level that they must have in the service provider, and what Virtela brings to the table is the WAN/LAN management, and we enable services that belong in the cloud to live in Virtela's LCC (Local Cloud Centers) or as part of Virtela’s ESC (Enterprise Services Cloud) around the globe. For that application to work best, we can place it on VMs around network, so we're extending that trust that the customer already has with us around various things. When they ask us to deploy Cisco Call Manager in the cloud, IPS, firewalls, we're already doing that for most of our customers, and this is an extension of that trust!"

It's All About Your Needs

Ultimately, the conversation of what MDM solution is best comes down to your needs. Are your organization's users strongly requesting a variety of mobile devices? If so, using a third-party vendor likely makes sense. But whether to go with a cloud-based, or SaaS-based managed service, vs. a traditional software system? That depends on cost, security, what IT resources are available to manage corporate devices, and a number of other factors.

Let me know how your company is walking through the MDM debate and what features are most critical to your company.

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