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Does BYOD Make Sense For SMBs?

IT pros at small and midsize businesses are bracing for a wave of new devices when the iPhone 5 and would-be competitors start showing up in offices. Some aren't happy about that.
Among IT pros who support BYOD, there is some overlapping advice on how to increase the chances of success while keeping risks in check. First and foremost is policy--there has to be one, no matter how straightforward, that tells employees what the rules are and what IT is and is not responsible for. Another is virtualization: Although not the only path to secure BYOD, it can relieve a lot of headaches.

Both ring true for Scott Pattee, a systems administrator at the law firm Whitfield & Eddy, which allows its 100-plus employees to use personal devices for work. Like a lot of SMBs, IT runs lean at the firm: Pattee and his boss, the IT manager, handle all things technology. Pattee expressed polite surprise on the Spiceworks thread that so many of his peers were anti-BYOD. In an interview with InformationWeek, he elaborated on his firm's strategy and execution.

"You've got to have a well-thought-out policy before you start allowing people to bring their own," Pattee said. In other words, BYOD should not equate with anarchy. Whitfield & Eddy's policy is refreshingly straightforward: "If you have a problem with what we support, we'll help you; if you have a problem with something else, you've got to go back to Apple or Verizon or whoever it is that supports your hardware," Pattee said.

In Whitfield & Eddy's case, that means IT will install and support Citrix and Microsoft Exchange (the company maintains in an-house server rather than hosted email) on employee-owned smartphones, tablets, and other hardware. "Other than that, you're pretty much on your own," Pattee said. He'll do his best to help staff with other issues if he has time, but nothing is promised.

The Citrix piece is key, Pattee said, because it limits some of the data-loss risks inherent in BYOD--every employee must log in with a username and password to access corporate information from their device. If an employee loses a phone or tablet, none of the firm's data is on the device. Pattee said IT has toyed with adding a screen-lock app to the mix, too, but has run into resistance from the firm's lawyers.

The most visible BYOD benefit at Whitfield & Eddy has been the whenever, wherever access to work--especially for the firm's lawyers, who bill by the hour. Once upon a time, a help-desk ticket logged at 8 p.m. on Friday would sit until 8 a.m. on Monday. Now, lawyers can work from their couch on a Saturday morning--creating more billable hours--and IT issues can be resolved remotely if they arise. Weekend work is increasingly done on employee-owned devices, especially iPads and other tablets. "A lot of the lawyers love the tablets," Pattee said. He usually advises them to get a Bluetooth keyboard, too. So equipped, the iPad has become a favorite for work involving intensive document review, such as mergers and acquisitions.

A sidebar from the Spiceworks discussion: BYOD makes a nice side business for some IT pros. Several folks, including those who opposed the bring-your-own paradigm, said they earned beer money (or, in some cases, beer and money) helping non-technical employees troubleshoot their personal smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Pattee, the sys admin, said he doesn't charge employees for working on personal devices provided they bring them to him at the office and understand that he can only work on them if he has some downtime. "Since many people use their computers as BYOD devices, it's like their phones and tablets--we'll do what we can with the time available, but won't get involved if it's too convoluted or they won't bring it in to work," he said via email.

Housecalls, on the other hand, fetch the going rate in Des Moines, Iowa, where the firm is based: $150 an hour.

Even small IT shops can now afford thin provisioning, performance acceleration, replication, and other features to boost utilization and improve disaster recovery. Also in the new, all-digital Store More special issue of InformationWeek SMB: Don't be fooled by the Oracle's recent Xsigo buy. (Free registration required.)