App Management and Sync

This post is to explain in detail how we manage application deployment to our iPads. Our system is not perfect, but it does work to a certain level of reliability and it's about as good as we can manage given current tools.

We purchase and deploy all the applications centrally. Pupils do not have scope to install their own applications.

Each classroom has one iMac for syncing the iPads. There are 10 classrooms, 4 in primary and 6 in secondary.

We use three iTunes accounts. Account 1 is the Primary account and all four Primary computers are authorised for that account. Accounts 2 and 3 cover the six Secondary computers.

In addition, I have a Mac mini which is the "master" iTunes computer. It runs three separate Mac OS X user accounts each authorised for one of those three iTunes accounts.

When, I want to deploy a new app, I buy it on my master Mac mini. Each library is configured to pull new purchases from the mini using iTunes Home Sharing. This works but is imperfect, as Home Sharing only pulls new purchases and not updates.

Primary Syncing

In the Primary classes, each computer has one OS X user account which is the special "sync" account. The teacher logs into this user account and the pupils each sync their iPad to that library.

We are starting to experiment with multi-port USB hubs to sync more iPads at once. I have successfully synced 8 iPads concurrently using a Belkin 7-port hub and an additional USB port on the computer. However, I have heard reports that consumer-grade hubs are not up to this kind of load long-term so we will see how that goes.

One of the benefits of this single-library approach is that the teacher can download app updates to their computer once and then deploy those updates to the iPads as they sync.

Secondary Syncing

In Secondary, each pupil has their own iTunes library in their own OS X user account and they sync their iPad to that library. Their iTunes library is authorised for one of our iTunes accounts - so there may be, say, 13 user libraries all authorised for one iTunes account on the one computer.

I set up this system with the assumption that this would allow more customisation of content on the iPads (for example, iTunes U). Until now, we haven't seen too many teachers make use of that facility.

The major drawback to this approach is that updates need to be downloaded to each pupil's iTunes library separately. This means that we have multiple instances of the same app, DRM'ed for the same iTunes account, in many different iTunes libraries. That's not a problem when the apps are small but if you have 65 copies of, say, The Elements at 1.3GB each, that starts to eat up disk. It's also a ton of bandwidth.

I'm not happy with the way we're doing Secondary syncing and I'm starting to think that adopting the Primary sync model (every device on one library) would be of more benefit.

Problems

The biggest problem we are running into at the moment is that sync takes too long for Secondary pupils. They only have a 15-minute registration class in the morning to sync their devices. If a new update to a large-ish app comes down, that can take an age to complete.

iOS apps churn a lot, and we use a lot of apps. There are updates all the time and keeping up with all the updates is hard. Of course, you don't necessarily need to keep up with the updates but it's generally good practice to do so. Around major OS releases, like the latest iOS 4.2 update, there are usually compatibility updates that are quite critical.

Missing Tools

There are some parts of the iOS syncing ecosystem that I think are missing and I hope to see in the future.

Firstly, some kind of App Store cache server that can sit on-site is starting to become important for us. I would love to have an App Store license management server but I recognise that there are a lot of issues to work through before that's possible. In the meantime, though, some way to stop these devices sucking so much bandwith with app updates would be very welcome.

More broadly, I would like to see Mac OS X Server be able to offer over-the-air backup to iOS devices. We sync our devices mostly so that we have reasonably current backups. Our working set of apps doesn't change that often but I do care about having a backup of the user data on the device.

Now that iPad has a version of iOS 4, we can start to think about some of the Mobile Device Management features that the iPhone has had for some time. There's a lot of power in these features but, at the moment, you need to buy some third-party MDM server software. I've looked into some of these but they are, for the most part, locked into an enterprise-grade pricing structure that's simply far too expensive for schools.

I continue to hope that Apple will incorporate MDM features into a future version of Apple Remote Desktop. There's definitely room for a product between iPhone Configuration Utility and these enterprise MDM solutions costing multiple thousands of pounds on top of not-insignificant charges per-device.

Licensing

As I mentioned, we deploy apps out of three App Store accounts. Three purchases for over 100 devices is neither fair nor right.

At the time of writing, the App Store Volume Purchase Program is not available in the UK. What we are doing instead is "gifting" the appropriate number of copies of the apps we use to dummy users in our email system. This gives us sufficient proofs of purchase, even if we don't then deploy those copies.

The State of Play

I have no problem paying for software. I have no problem living within the rules of licensing. What does annoy, though, is that there are no tools to make this easy and that the tools we have are quite opaque in their operation.

I wrote back in August, on day three of this project, that:

There is no way I can look at this that doesn't suggest to me that [app management] is going to be the most agonising part of the entire project.

Boy, was I ever right.

These are but the earliest days of the iPad, however. If there's one thing Apple does right it's constant, relentless iteration of their platforms over time.

I have no regrets whatsoever about adopting iPad at Cedars. We made a good decision and executed it promptly. Any short-term sysadmin pain I'm feeling is insignificant alongside the long-term organisational transformation that we are seeing with 1:1 iPad.