Private app stores and tablets: Notes from an early adopter

The steady influx and slow acceptance of mobile devices and apps in the workplace has liberated users once locked into Blackberrys and Windows laptops. But with this new freedom comes a burden on IT to manage and secure devices and apps.

To help ease the load on IT departments and provide them with more control, private app stores are making their way into the enterprise. An IT group can either build or outsource the development of native apps and place them in a private app store where they can be managed by the IT group.

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CDW, an electronics reseller and tech consultant services company, is in the early days of deploying a private app store using Cisco's new AppHQ feature and Cius tablets to clamp down on mobile app sprawl within the organization.

AppHQ running on a Cisco Cius tablet.

Previously, to dole out access to applications, CDW had been using a Web server through which users could access a folder after they were granted permissions to download apps-a cumbersome process, says Ken Snyder, a technology solutions manager at CDW.

"With AppHQ, an IT manager can create a custom app, secure it and click an upload box, and it's up and live," says Snyder. "We can then give access to whichever users need the app."

AppHQ, though very functional, is not exactly flexible as it is available only on Cisco's Android-based Cius, a tablet designed for business use that combines voice, video, collaboration and virtualization capabilities. The Cius has been available since July 2011. CDW currently has 30 Cius tablets in use by its field consultants across the country.

AppHQ comes in two flavors:

The default AppHQ store comes preinstalled on the Cius and contains almost of the apps from the regular Android market. However, every app in AppHQ must first be validated by Cisco for app functionality and security risks such as malware, hidden binaries, malicious URLs and permissions. IT managers decide if users can get access to the Android Market on the Cius or just Cisco's AppHQ - and that can be done on device-by-device basis. For example, the CEO would get different permissions than a sales associate.

If a company, like CDW, wants to control its app environment even further it can choose AppHQ Manager. This feature lets IT managers cherry-pick apps -- custom-made or public -- that are of specific interest to the business. This is, essentially, a "private store." Unlike AppHQ, AppHQ Manager is fee-based ($10,000 for the first 200 users, and $5,000 for every 100 users thereafter) and provides the capability to restrict users to just using the private store.

AppHQ Manager also allows IT groups to buy apps in bulk so users don't have to purchase and/or expense each app. AppHQ Manager also allows IT to deploy apps to the whole enterprise or by user, role, or device. The private app store also allows IT to "sandbox" new versions of apps for compatibility testing before going live.

CDW has been able to use these features since launching AppHQ Manager late last summer. Because it's a hosted cloud service, AppHQ can be deployed in about 20 minutes, says Snyder.

"It's a rapid deployment," he says, "and it offers a central location for IT to administer and secure apps and also choose which users can have access to which apps, which has been good for pilot testing custom apps before they go live in the store."

CDW currently has 20 apps in the AppHQ, but only two are custom apps. One is a video-sharing app that CDW uses for collaboration and internal training; the other is an app that provides real-time workflow statistics pulled from back-end servers in CDW's customer service centers.

The non-custom apps in the CDW AppHQ store include the Cisco Quad social networking tool, a free Android barcode app called Barcode Scanner, and Seesmic, a popular consumer social media organizer.

The use of games and leisure apps on the Cius is discouraged, says Snyder. He prefers to keep the Cius what it was designed to be: a secure and purpose-driven device for enterprise use. Snyder says he understands that AppHQ is new, but said he hopes to see the app store run on more Android devices and on Apple iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad.

"AppHQ is really first to market in the private app store movement, so it's a new world, but I would love to see it expand beyond the Cius at some point," Snyder says.

"But, for now, the value of AppHQ is that it is getting businesses to think differently about how they will manage mobile devices and apps in the post-PC world."

Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at soneill@cio.com

Read more about applications in CIO's Applications Drilldown.

This story, "Private app stores and tablets: Notes from an early adopter" was originally published by CIO.

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