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11/28/2012
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IonGrid's iPhone Security Tools Stress Flexibility

Strong Microsoft Office document rendering features may help ionGrid stand out in the crowded enterprise mobile application management market.

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Mobile devices are often credited with increasing workplace productivity -- but that benefit relies on a delicate balance. Because mobility makes sensitive data harder to control, IT administrators need to install new layers of security. But if these new layers infringe on the user experience, productivity and compliance suffer, nullifying the effort.

IonGrid wants users and IT staff using Apple iOS devices to have it both ways. The company's not alone in this goal, of course; thanks to BYOD, the market is rife with mobile device management (MDM) and mobile application management (MAM) vendors promising both security and a compelling UI. Even so, ionGrid could attract businesses with a distinctive approach to data protection that is not only flexible but also simple to deploy because it relies on existing infrastructure. The product also includes a number of features designed to boost productivity and facilitate collaboration, not the least of which is pixel-perfect rendering of Microsoft Office files.

Founded in 2010, ionGrid first gained industry traction with its Nexus Enterprise product for the iPad. The company's newest offering extends the original product's capabilities to the iPhone.

Those capabilities start with the Nexus server, hardware that sits behind the corporate firewall and creates secure tunnels between business data and employee devices. Rather than relying on a cloud or establishing a VPN, businesses route content from their servers through Nexus to a network operations center and then to users' iPhones and iPads. Data is in transit gets end-to-end 256-bit encryption. The configuration permits integration with Active Directory and other authentication platforms, meaning that IT can easily provision access permissions for new devices. This link to existing infrastructure also increases user convenience by enabling single sign-on to all business apps deployed through ionGrid. If a business wants tighter control over its content, data paths can also be configured entirely around on-premises tools instead of the Nexus operations center.

[ Apple is back on top of the mobile OS game. See iOS Squeaks Past Android In U.S. ]

Once data reaches the device, it stays within the ionGrid app container, keeping it separate from the user's personal apps and information. Users can browse repositories for SharePoint files and other documents. The container includes a secure browser that runs independently of iOS's native Safari app but retains the familiar UI. The browser provides access to the corporate intranet, making it easy for administrators to deploy existing HTML5-based apps and, thanks to the familiar programming language, develop custom apps as well. The browser can also be configured to allow standard Internet access within the ionGrid container.

File load times are a particular selling point; thanks to the way ionGrid streams data through Nexus, files -- even large ones, such as lengthy and graphics-heavy PowerPoint presentations -- open almost immediately.

As mentioned, these files load with perfect visual fidelity. In other words, mobile document review no longer involves strange formatting errors or paragraphs marred by baffling symbols. Gartner analyst Michael Silver argued in October that proper rendering of Office documents is one the most ubiquitous challenges in the mobile enterprise. Microsoft, meanwhile, has tried to position Windows Phone 8's native Office integration as a differentiator (though it's unclear whether the effort is paying off).

In an email, Silver said a true breakthrough isn't "just rendering, it's retaining fidelity after the document is saved and reopened in Office." IonGrid CEO Nick Triantos explained in an email that his company's product supports document annotations but does "not propagate the annotations back" to Office. He noted that "most of our banking customers require us to never modify existing files without running them through a workflow for approvals" but offered that ionGrid has the technology to write data back to the native application. "We haven't yet finished it to make it shippable," he stated, noting that additional document editing functions could be in the queue for future releases, depending on whether Microsoft decides to simply offer an iOS-friendly Office application.

In other words, ionGrid doesn't yet recreate full document editing on the iPhone -- but given that small screens are more conducive to consumption and review than to creation and revision, visual fidelity alone could sway many users. What's more, ionGrid's product automatically pushes annotated documents back to the server and is adept at streaming high-quality video files -- capabilities that further enhance its profile as a tool for sharing corporate data throughout a dispersed workforce.

Users could also find the security flexibility appealing. In addition to facilitating secure data transfer paths and separating personal content from business content, ionGrid offers a number of granular IT controls. These features include the ability to remotely wipe corporate data from a device, to set permissions based on not just user identity, but also the user's location, and to define document expiration dates. Administrators can also allow or disallow employees from storing content locally on the device. If this option is enabled, ionGrid will encrypt the at-rest data. It also stores the key outside the device, mitigating the chance that a lost phone or tablet will lead to data loss. Most mobile data management tools provide encryption of in-transit data, but the same level of protection is not always applied to stored content. Security-minded users could find ionGrid's extra layers of security appealing.

In an interview, Triantos pointed out that the built-in policy controls are a starting point, not a limitation. The standard ionGrid dashboard allows many definitions to be established simply by checking a box-- but if custom rules need to be created, doing so only takes a few lines of JavaScript code.

Though ionGrid offers secure file access and many protective features, it doesn't currently support emailing within the wrapper -- a feature offered by some competitors. For this reason, the current iteration of the products won't necessarily serve all needs for all users. Nevertheless, for those who frequently consume documents while on the go, the product may fit their security and productivity needs.

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