Keeping track of asset management

Desktop management packages may not score well in heterogeneous environments, but they sure beat low-tech approaches to maintenance.

In this article:
Managed desktop PCs will jump from 3% to 34% of all business PCs
Lessons learned
Proliferation of products spurs spending on asset management software

George Lioudis, director of systems engineering at Prudential Insurance Co. of America in Newark, N.J., has the cards stacked in his favor for centrally managing his company's desktop resources.


Click here to read how computing executives have found ways to include laptops in their administrative regimen.
Prudential has standardized most of its 60,000 desktops on Microsoft's Windows NT 4.0 operating system. That helps reduce compatibility problems with the company's application of choice for remote software distribution, Microsoft's Systems Management Server (SMS). Remote distribution of software is one of the most important functions of asset management software. Prudential also operates a robust, high-speed frame relay connection, which provides better than average bandwidth for carrying out the sometimes data-intensive tasks of remote desktop management applications. In addition, most of the company's laptop users have direct access to the network for high-speed connections.

Even so, Lioudis is very deliberate in his use of network desktop asset management tools. For example, when he wants to distribute a software update to Prudential's 4,000 call center employees, he first performs a test run to a "model office," a site configured with network hardware and desktops matching those at the call centers.

If that goes smoothly, he double-checks to make sure there will be time on the network when bandwidth demands are low so that he can conduct the distribution at a low-usage time. Finally, Lioudis contacts all local support personnel at the call centers to follow up that the distribution went according to plan.

"Quality assurance and the model office are keys for us," Lioudis says. "These desktop management products are great because they give you the ability to work simultaneously with a large number of desktops. But they also give you the ability to deliver a time bomb to the network." And a time bomb is no laughing matter: if a mistake occurs while using desktop management products, you will effect a large number of users. For example, if an update of a program is not configured correctly, then that configuration mistake will be multiplied across the network.

More support than aggravation

Some IT managers might not describe desktop resource management applications in such apocalyptic terms, but few would argue with Lioudis' fundamental message. Indeed, for many computing professionals, desktop asset management applications are a godsend. These products allow them to remotely administer networked desktops, conducting everything from software installations and inventory management to configuration and metering, all from the convenience of a centralized workstation.


In the real world, desktop management packages are less than a panacea. Besides not being able to adequately juggle a hodgepodge of technologies, they also can hog bandwidth.
But at the same time, savvy IT managers know that these applications need as much help as they can get. Desktop management packages are at their best in homogeneous environments. In the real world of heterogeneity of hardware, operating systems, network protocols, and other IT areas, though, desktop management packages are less than a panacea. In addition to not being able to adequately juggle a hodgepodge of technologies, they also can hog bandwidth and place a strain on network resources. Furthermore, deployment of these applications can be tricky, and not just technically.

As a result, these packages don't offer the financial benefit that vendors would have you believe. Although they do provide more support than aggravation, IT managers must create and establish policies that bring out the best in these management tools. However, the new generation of 32-bit operating systems, such as Microsoft's Windows NT, is designed with remote management in mind and is helping relieve many of the problems that have held back these tools.

While today's contingent of remote desktop management is far from perfect, IT managers have more than enough incentive to work through their limitations. The products can save countless hours of technician time and, as a result, can save companies thousand or millions of dollars every year. Thanks to these network management tools, tasks such as software installation that once took a handful of IT professionals days, weeks, or even months to complete, can now happen overnight with just a few mouse clicks.

Lessons learned
Savvy IT managers know that these applications need as much help as they can get. Here are some points to ponder:
They need lots of bandwidth.
Plan to spend more time to install than expected.
The more heterogeneous the environment, the lower the chance of success.
Desktop management can change the nature of employee use of computers, e.g., no games allowed on desktops or even total lock-down, so look before you leap.
Involve upper management for buy-in.
Spend your energies up-front on need assessments.
Manage laptops via docking stations during downtime.
Boosting that competitive edge

Prudential's Lioudis says he has not conducted a return-on-investment study yet, but SMS is clearly saving the company money. Before using SMS, Prudential distributed some software with scripting programs it created in-house. The success rate of those automated remote installations ran about 70%. With SMS, this figure has increased to 98%, eliminating many follow-up visits by technicians to install manually the software that didn't configure to certain desktops.

Lioudis says SMS also allows his company to increase its competitive advantage by distributing software much more quickly. Employees at call centers now receive application updates overnight. That's instead of the weeks or months it would take to install software using sneakernet--you know, sending out a bunch of technicians on foot to work on individual desktops.

Ken Blackman, director of strategic architecture for Memphis-based Promus Hotel Corp., says he has had great results using Microsoft's SMS application for conducting inventory surveys of his company's 1,500 desktop users. These inventories help him check that all desktop users are up-to-date with the latest software and not using any noncompliant programs. He runs the program once a month, rather than continuously, which is the default setting for the function. The reason, adds Blackman, is that the SMS feature scans networked desktops whenever a user turns them on, greatly slowing down the boot-up and log-in process for users.

A sound investment

Other IT managers also say these packages are more benefit than bane. "Anyone who doesn't consider using one of these desktop management packages is just nuts," says Mark Horak, manager of technology at the Houston-based law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski LLP, which uses Computer Associates' Unicenter TNG desktop management suite for software distribution and remote control to 1,500 end users.

Like Lioudis, Horak is concentrating his initial efforts on remote software installation. Both IT managers note that software distribution is one of the most cost-saving values of desktop management products.

Bill Holder, director of operations for Micropath, a Bellevue, Wash., asset management consulting service, says a company with 1,000 PCs that conducts four to five software installs a year can expect to save around $2 million with a desktop management package, mainly from a reduction in sneakernet costs.

As little as five years ago, few programs existed for the remote administration of desktops. Now, however, computing professionals can buy solutions a la carte or as soup-to-nuts packages. Holder says the cost of desktop resource administration applications can run from $2 per node to $30, depending on the functionality of the product and the vendor. Many IT managers interviewed for this story report getting their money back on their investments within a year.

Some of the industry's leading software and hardware vendors now offer desktop management products as part of a suite of network and systems management packages. The most popular include products from Computer Associates International (www.cai.com), Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com), Intel (www.intel.com), Microsoft (www.microsoft.com), Network Associates (www.netassoc.com), Novell (www.novell.com), and Tivoli Systems (www.tivoli.com), as well as a host of point solutions from smaller companies.

Richard Villars, director of network software research at International Data Corp. (IDC) in Framingham, Mass., says worldwide spending on desktop administration software totaled $837 million in 1997, an increase of almost 43% from the year earlier. He anticipates corporate demand will continue the strong growth of the market, with sales reaching $1.1 million this year and $1.4 billion by the year 2000 (see chart, "Proliferation of products spurs spending on asset management software").

Villars adds that the worldwide installed base of managed business PCs is 23.5 million, or 7.3% of all PCs. He predicts that percentage will leap to 33.7% by the year 2000 (see chart, "Managed desktop PCs will jump from 3% to 34% of all PCs"). And he notes that the development of cohesive LAN networks and 32-bit operating systems is making such remote desktop administration practical. "It's very much a LAN and Windows story," Villars says.

No silver platter


"Anyone who doesn't consider using one of these desktop management packages is just nuts."
--Mark Horak, manager of technology, Fulbright & Jaworski LLP
IT managers, however, must be prepared to work for all the benefits possible from desktop management applications. That's certainly been the experience of Julian Carr, the network administrator of the Bureau of National Affairs, a leading publisher of print and electronic news and information in Washington, D.C. Carr manages a mixture of more than 2,000 desktops running Windows 3.1, Windows 95, and Windows NT on PCs, along with various flavorsof UNIX, from Sun Solaris workstations and other brands, in addition to a few Macintoshes.

About three years ago, Carr purchased Intel's LANDesk Management Suite for assisting his organization's internal help desk personnel with remote control and desktop configuring. While Carr is quick to laud LANDesk's functionality, the product has suffered chronic problems working with many of the company's desktops. In particular, the current version of LANDesk, 2.5, can't service UNIX and is not "jiving" with NT, Carr says. "It's more of a configuration nightmare than anything," he adds. "The product is still very immature and a long way from where we would like it."

Carr says he realizes the problems with LANDesk are more with the lack of standardization in his network than with the product. "If we had been using any other package, I would be telling you the exact same thing," he says. "LANDesk is actually doing pretty well, considering it wasn't designed for the kind of environment we have."

IDC's Villars says Carr's experience is not unique. "Corporate networking environments are typically more heterogeneous than these systems are capable of handling," he says. Besides standards issues, bandwidth is another sticking point IS managers need to consider when setting up networked desktop management applications.

Fulbright & Jaworski's Horak, for example, operates his network over a 512Kbps frame relay connection--not the beefiest bandwidth compared with bandwidths available on many corporate networks. But Horak says that his company does not suffer any significant limitations running Unicenter. The reason: Horak uses Magic Packet technology from AMD in Sunnyvale, Calif. Magic Packet allows network managers to power up computers remotely. And it allows Horak to run administration on desktops at any time, mainly during off-peak hours, without the fuss of asking users to leave their computers on.


Despite standards and bandwidth issues, the Bureau of National Affairs' Carr covers 1,200 laptops from one server, while Horak covers about 800 users from one server at Fulbright & Jaworski.

A question of scalability

While network managers must be thoughtful about how they run desktop asset management programs over their networks, the applications have on the balance proven robust. Micropath's Holder, for instance, reports installing desktop management software for as many as 30,000 users on one network. Nancy Mulshine, operations manager for Florida Power & Light, Juno Beach, Fla., says common sense network design can extend these desktop asset management applications to as many users as necessary. Mulshine relies on "fan servers" to replicate Tivoli Systems' TME 10 suite of desktop management products locally, which helps increase the speed of the applications while spreading processing demands among several servers.

Fan servers work locally with replicated versions of the software program and manage data transfer, only forwarding and exchanging information to the central server as necessary. "These products will scale, but you have to deploy hardware for handling the load," Mulshine explains. Essentially, an organization has to spend more on hardware to save on software. The point is that to scale, you just need additional servers, etc., so scaling involves only marginal cost increases, since a server in general costs less than one of these desktop management programs.

A large commitment

Although desktop management programs are capable of handling great numbers of users, installations of these programs can prove daunting, since these programs often involve so many of the technical and administrative aspects of a network. These days, some of the more robust enterprise desktop management applications can take years to deploy through a corporation. Mulshine figures the full installation of Tivoli's TME 10 applications will take two to three years, given the amount of internal changes, training, and other management issues she will need to address. "The biggest challenge is not installing the software. That you can do in a few months," she says. "The trick is getting all the process changes in place."

Micropath's Holder says 40% of desktop resource management software is never installed because companies are not prepared for the labyrinth of issues associated with such applications, including policy establishment, project planning, hardware inventory assessment, and network integration issues. "People need to be very prepared that this is a larger commitment than they might imagine," he says.

Prundential's Lioudis, for one, is convinced that desktop management software is well worth the time and effort. While Prudential has used remote desktop controls for managing the desktops in its call centers, Lioudis says his company plans to extend this technology to all of its 60,000 users as soon as possible. "This is critical for us to accomplish," Lioudis says. "We will try to do everything remotely because it is so much more cost effective." //

Charles Waltner is a Seattle-based freelance writer who covers computer and digital technology issues.







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