Mobile device management: Apple's extra little tricky requirement

Anyone wanting to buy mobile-device management (MDM) software to manage Apple iOS devices will find they need a special digital certificate from Apple to activate it, a requirement that doesn't apply to the same MDM software that would be used to manage Google Android devices, for instance.

MDM software -- such as that from MobileIron, Good Technology, Sybase, AirWatch, McAfee, Symantec and several others -- is loaded onto mobile smartphones and tablets to allow IT managers to keep track of employee equipment, to remotely wipe these devices and to apply security controls. Enterprises buying MDM software to manage Apple iOS devices are sometimes surprised to find out about the Apple digital certificate requirement that they must obtain.

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When design firm Holly Hunt decided to manage its Apple iPads with BoxTone MDM software, IT managers there found out they had to apply to Apple for a signed digital certificate for the MDM software in order to activate it.

"It was a long process, but now we're a licensed Apple software developer," says Neil Goodrich, director of business analytics and technology at Holly Hunt, about last year's application process with Apple that took more than a month and resulted in a signed digital certificate that not only activated the BoxTone MDM software to manage the firm's Apple devices, but also gave the Holly Hunt the right to create its own iOS apps.

However, enough people last year found this particular Apple MDM certificate-issuance process cumbersome, so in September 2011 Apple changed it, explains MDM vendor AirWatch. (Apple itself did not respond to an inquiry asking for clarity on why it demands the signed digital certificate for MDM.)

"In September, Apple changed the process," says Blake Brandon, technical consultant at AirWatch, who says the older certificate-issuance process with Apple used to cost $300 but the simpler process today is free. He says now the Apple MDM digital-certificate issuance process only takes a few days at most. But what you get now does not include the Apple software developer license but only what's called the "Apple Push Notification Service" (APNS) certificate. (To get the Apple software developer license, you now have to apply separately and go through what is a more involved registration process.)

Apple does require the APNS digital certificate to use any vendor MDM software with Apple iOS 4.0 and 5.0 devices and getting that certificate signed properly takes a few steps, says Brandon. AirWatch has instructions on how to do this on its site. (There are also a lot of instructions still lingering here and there across the Web for the older Apple MDM certificate-issuance process, so don't be confused.)

The MDM enterprise customer first has to digitally generate a certificate on its own, and then get it digitally signed by both the MDM vendor and Apple. This digitally signed certificate process, typically done over the Web, results in a signed certificate that is then loaded into the server associated with the MDM software, says Brandon.

Neither Google Android devices nor other maker brands have to go through this certificate-signing process for the same MDM software, acknowledges Brandon. Nevertheless, he argues the Apple certificate requirement, which started in June 2010 with iOS 4.0 when Apple introduced its MDM APIs, is a good idea. He says it gives Apple a way to have control over what works well on Apple iOS devices in terms of battery and other factors. Indeed, this is the exact same argument that Apple makes on its website in describing the digital-certificate issuance process. At any rate, any MDM vendor supporting Apple iOS devices must support these certificates and that means the enterprise customer managing Apple iOS devices has to get an Apple- and MDM-signed certificate.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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