Cisco and the Zen art of BYOD

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Last year, the number of smartphone and devices managed by Cisco's IT department increased by almost 100 percent. That's already a staggering number, but it gets to be mind-blowing when you realize that Cisco's 65,000 employees have activated 50,000 smartphones (mostly Apple iPhones) and 13,000 tablets (mostly Apple iPads) between them.

And yet, Cisco's mobile device management costs are down 33 percent over the same period, and headaches are down about the same amount, Cisco's Sheila Jordan, senior VP of communication and collaboration IT, tells CITEworld. In fact, Cisco brought 2,500 user-purchased Apple iPhone 5s on board over a three-week span just recently with no muss, no fuss, and no pain. The secret, Jordan says, is in employee outreach, social-driven empowerment, and taking a holistic, architectural approach to device management. 

Cisco policy holds that employees need to purchase smartphones and tablets for themselves, with the sometimes controversial caveat that when they bring your new gadget on to the mobile device management system, they also grant IT the ability to remotely wipe it. In return, Cisco often pays at least a portion of the employee's phone bill (more on that later). 

Employees are encouraged to add their own devices to Cisco central management, with the company's internal deployment of the Cisco WebEx Social collaboration tool playing home to a variety of simple, highly visual eight-step walkthroughs for how to add just about any phone or tablet out there, and a knowledge base that's growing all the time. If need be, the help desk can walk a user through any problems, although this happens only to an extremely small number of users, according to Cisco senior manager of IT mobility Services Brett Belding

But this is where the importance of outreach makes itself apparent, Jordan says. Take, for example, that Apple iPhone 5 onboarding. Part of the reason it went so smoothly, she says, is that Cisco took an educated guess about the Apple release schedule and was able to prep and disseminate information to every employee on how to use it for work -- before the device hit stores. It heads off any confusion at the pass, and employees took the shrink wrap off the package confident in their ability to activate it on Cisco's system themselves.

This philosophy is crucial to how Jordan and her team tackle BYOD at Cisco: Proactively educate your users on how to make ready for enterprise use the devices that they're very likely to buy, and add that knowledge to a cumulative knowledge base. What's more, it's called WebEx Social for a reason, and Cisco has actually completely socialized the support system for BYOD, with users helping each other solve problems in an internally-accessible forum that gets added to the overall storehouse of available IT wisdom. As a result, support cases are way down, and Cisco employees are talking to each other across demographics and geographies. 

Behind the scenes, Cisco's BYOD platform hinges on its own AnyConnect secure VPN connection for mobile devices, which grants the IT department visibility into the devices it manages even as it securely connects users to the network. Scalability and flexibility is absolutely critical to Cisco's approach here, Belding says. It's easy to get a single device onto the network. It's really, really hard to build a framework that lets every user add any device at any time all on their own. And for some organizations, the cultural shift away from trusting only a select few devices to trusting anything with a network connection may just be too large a leap of faith. 

But when it comes to helping employees help themselves, the payoffs for Cisco have included better employee engagement, a significant cost reduction, and an excellent proof-of-concept of how social can add value to business processes. It's not just BYOD, Belding says. It's a new approach to risk mitigation.

But just because taking the Zen approach to BYOD has cut down on IT headaches, there's still plenty on Cisco's plate. Cisco is prepping an app store for employees that centralizes all the tools a user may need in one interface, no matter what device they're using, whether tablets, smartphones, or a traditional laptop. This app store is going to contain a menagerie of web-native lightweight browser-based HTML5 apps, smartphone-specific native apps, and a few desktop-only apps, depending on how much compute power and what kind of hardware is needed. After all, Belding says, HTML5 and its device agnosticism is great, but maybe not when you have an app that needs to use a device's camera. But no matter how the app is used, Cisco will extend identity and security policy management via the app store itself. 

Another interesting problem facing Cisco increasing data consumption. Cisco research indicates that when users go from a 2G phone to a 3G phone, they consume ten times as much data as they used to. The switch from 3G to 4G LTE brings another fourfold increase. Projections place average smartphone data usage as going to 2.6 gigabytes per month sooner rather than later, which is 12 times Cisco's current average. With Cisco footing 50,000 smartphone bills, it's imperative that the company make users aware of just how much data it takes to, say, watch Netflix. 

In short, a person's phone and their identity are becoming increasingly intertwined, and Cisco doesn't want to get in the way of that. But it's IT's job to make it simple to use it for business. 

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