Swabbing the Desks

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2004-02-05 Print this article Print

"Software that automates the management of personal computers can make a tech-support staff considerably more efficient."

Software that automates the management of personal computers can make a tech-support staff considerably more efficient and, ideally, reduce the likelihood that a machine will end up dead in the water.

Desktop-management software covers three functional areas: Software distribution, which refers to delivering applications to a PC over a network and installing them; information-technology asset management, the cataloguing of corporate software and hardware; and configuration management, allowing administrators to modify settings and set policies to dictate what employees may—and may not—do with their computers.

The rationale for buying these products usually centers on avoiding costs: Relieve technology personnel of time spent on routine maintenance, and increase the amount of time computers are able to be used—presumably improving employee productivity. Research firm Gartner Inc. has found desktop-management software can help cut the costs of operating PCs by 37% per year over a three-year period.

Many customers believe putting precise numbers on such savings is difficult. "You're not going to see a lot of hard-dollar benefits from desktop-management software, other than staff reduction, which is not something I.T. people want to talk about," says Christopher Nelson, director of global technical services at H.B. Fuller, an adhesives maker that uses Novell's ZENworks software.

In certain cases, letting administrators do more with less does translate into fewer warm bodies in the desktop-support department. Mirant, an energy supplier based in Atlanta, rolled out Microsoft's Systems Management Server (SMS) 2.0 in 2001 but had not used it extensively until last year. That was partly because the company's information-systems executives were not sold on a completely remote, hands-off style of managing desktops. "There was a fear of cutting out that end-user support relationship," says Andy Ray, a systems administrator at the company.

However, after Mirant filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July 2003, the company made cutbacks across the board, and the PC support group dropped from 10 people to two. Suddenly, automating desktop management became a priority. "SMS has come back to the forefront," Ray says.

There's a hodgepodge of tools available to assist harried helpdesk staffers in doing everything from reformatting disk drives to remotely controlling a PC. But the products gaining the most traction in the category are suites that combine multiple functions into one integrated whole, says IDC analyst Fred Broussard. Leading packages that fit this description include Microsoft SMS, Novell's ZENworks and Altiris' Client Management Suite (CMS). Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard (HP) has announced plans to acquire Novadigm and integrate its configuration-management software into HP OpenView.

Desktop-management software is often deployed in conjunction with specific projects, such as upgrading PC operating systems. Advertising firm OMD Worldwide migrated 400 desktops in its New York office from Windows 2000 to Windows XP in about four days with Altiris' CMS, a task that otherwise would have taken three months, says John Chandler, OMD's desktop support manager. "If we had to do it manually, forget it," he says.

Another big driver has been the need to rapidly and automatically plug up Windows security vulnerabilities, which a few enterprises, to their dismay, have discovered by accident.


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