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The Hardest Part of BYOD Management? Policy

Defining effective policies can be challenging when it comes to IT. When it comes to dealing with the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend, policy gets that much more important--and difficult--to pull off effectively.

Here's a newsflash that runs counter to current vendor hype: You can actually say no to BYOD. You can draw a line in the sand and post a sign next to it that says, "I don't give a rip about your Kindle Fire or Android smartphone. They are not welcomed and not allowed on my network." Or, you can stand close to the flames of hype and bask in the warmth of a silly mantra like, "Any and all things that anyone brings to this environment from anywhere, for any reason, are my problem to accommodate and support simply because they managed to cross the workplace threshold." Chances are, you see your own BYOD support destiny as somewhere between these two extremes, and the most difficult challenges of occupying this middle ground spring from just how hard it can be to come up with a policy that meaningfully addresses the "yes and no" of BYOD management.

As I preach in my network classes, there are many impressive IT products that either achieve success or crash in failure, largely based on whether the policies they were purchased to enforce were well-thought-out. This, of course, implies that there actually was a policy developed before purchase, which certainly isn't always the case. One classic IT blunder is to feel a vague need to do something--this can lead to purchasing an expensive appliance after being sparkly-eyed by a demo, and then feeling buyer's remorse when your new wonder box doesn't meet the needs that you defined after purchasing it. The BYOD paradigm brings the same risk for those who don't really put the required up-front analysis into what they actually need a mobile device management (MDM) product to accomplish.

My own environment at is among the thorniest of all when it comes to deciding how to approach BYOD. As a large university with a robust wireless network, our clients tend to be younger, increasingly tech-savvy and equipped with mobile devices. We have our share of faculty and staff members who are riding the same mobile device wave as the rest of the world, and an increasing number of users who say "no thank you" to a desk phone and Ethernet jack in favor of mobile devices that serve as workstations. We have a complex matrix of business and education use cases, a significant percentage of users who fit multiple profiles (student/employee, staff/faculty, etc.) and little control over what device types come to campus. And we have no "standard issue" loyalty to any one carrier over another for mobile devices that we provide employees. Though we may be atypically complex, businesses that are less than draconian in their mobile device stances face a fair subset of our challenges in even classifying users to apply policy.

Here's where I give away the ending to my story: We have not completely figured out how to do the BYOD management thing just yet. We're familiar with most leading MDM products and have a solid history of authoring and enforcing good IT policy. Yet we've also realized that just because we have tens of thousands of users who would love Central IT to never get in their way, we have to reconcile the challenges of MDM with the fact that we certainly don't want to be headline fodder should some terrible incident happen as a result of sloppy mobile device handling. Like many of our peers, we're working on it with urgency, but not a haste that we'll come to regret. And as we sift through our various use cases, we examine and re-examine our policies on things like remote wipes, allowed device and app types, and controls that might vary depending on whether the device is owned by us or the person carrying it.

Without going into specifics, we have arrived at a starting policy for the who, what and how of a first attempt at managing BYOD. We have a product in mind to try that enforces this policy, and know full well that our maiden voyage into BYOD will have to be done with eyes wide open and a willingness to adapt both policy and solution if we missed the mark on the first shot. It took a fair amount of time and many meetings of some pretty impressive security-minded folks who also understand the nuance of our particular situation just to get to a beginning point. The alternative would be to buy a product and then painfully adapt our business practices to it, which is another classic IT blunder.

We'll likely end up with a mix of MDM policies that range from as locked-down-tight for apps, usage and security as anyone else to no device management whatsoever but restrictions on where these wild devices can go on the network. But for each class, there will be well-thought-out policy behind it, which should make implementation straightforward (if we've picked the right solution). It's so easy, yet so insanely complicated. I'll keep you posted on how we're making out in future blogs. Meanwhile, if you've yet to dip toes in the BYOD management water, you might want to start thinking about what kind of shape your policies are in.