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Rethinking desktop strategies

Aug 02, 20047 mins

Small form factors, notebooks move to the top of the list as customers undergo refreshes.

While IT executives put off replacing aging client systems during the economic downturn, a brightening economy is prompting companies to take a closer look at their desktop plans. And they are finding broader options when it comes to PC sizes and features.

Analysts and users say that client systems are 5 years old or older at many companies and that the performance improvements alone in newer systems make a strong case for refreshing an aging fleet of PCs. In addition, smaller form factors, advanced management features and wireless connectivity that is becoming more stable and more secure is resulting in some interesting changes in the PC market.

“Today, the focus is on cutting costs and increasing security and productivity. That is pushing standards very hard and new form factors like blades and small PCs are lighting a huge fire under laptop computers,” says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group. “We should see some interesting hybrids, like blades married to tablet PCs and handheld computers.”

Vendors are realizing that “selling general-purpose machines to a general audience is sort of last year’s trick,” says Roger Kay, vice president of client computing at IDC. “PC vendors are trying to get more clever.”

Dell, HP and IBM all have introduced desktop PCs that cut space needs dramatically. Notebook computers are becoming more powerful and less expensive. Handheld devices are getting more attention. And HP joined ClearCube and Avocent Technologies earlier this year when it introduced a blade PC that puts the guts of the computer on blades that can be centrally managed in a data center or computer closet.

Management tools are also a key focus. The aims are to reduce the number of system images IT has to manage and create tools that let self-healing or remote service reduce the IT man-hours associated with keeping networked PCs up and running.

For example, IBM offers a range of PC software tools called ThinkVantage Technologies that are aimed at improving security and streamlining management and deployment of PCs. In June, HP and Altiris, a server and desktop management software vendor, announced a connector to link Altiris’ management tools to HP’s Systems Insight Manager, giving users the ability to manage servers and desktops from one console. Dell also partners with Altiris to provide a single view of servers and clients.

Nevertheless, as enterprise users prepare to update their systems, they are pragmatic.

“They’re buying traditional stuff,” Kay says. “A PC that is 5 years old now is going to be one-tenth the speed of a PC today, and that’s the point where the productivity justification becomes more compelling. More than anything else, [enterprise customers] are looking for performance at a good price and then secondarily they’re looking for space savings and manageability and things like that.”

According to Gartner, almost 100 million computers will be replaced this year and nearly 120 million more will be replaced next year.

IDC and Gartner say PC shipments are strong, with double-digit growth compared with the same time a year ago. In the U.S., about 14 million PCs shipped in the second quarter, up 11.4% from the second quarter last year, Gartner says. An upturn in enterprise buying is helping drive the momentum, analysts say.

At Getty Images, a provider of imagery, film and digital services in Seattle, the focus is on standardizing hardware from the data center to the desktop, and that means moving all client systems to HP.

As part of the move, Getty is expanding its use of notebook computers in part because of the increased performance available in today’s systems, which can handle demanding digital applications.

In addition, by providing employees with systems they can bring home, there is less of a concern about security than there was when employees hooked in to the company VPN with their own computers, says Kenneth Stringer, vice president of IT infrastructure for Getty.

“It’s all about people being able to work from home on a secured asset,” Stringer says. “We know the anti-virus is up to date because every time [the computer] plugs into our network, it updates.”

In the past, about 15% of Stringer’s client systems were notebooks, but he says he expects that number to increase to about one-third.

Stringer began the refresh late last year, updating about 40% of his company’s PCs. He plans to update another 30% this year and finish the project next year.

“What’s high on the list is reliability and secondly pricing,” says Stringer, who estimates he spent about $800,000 on client machines last year.

“I look at the desktop as a way to increase my total spend with [HP] to get advantages in other areas,” he adds. “It fits in well with the whole Adaptive Enterprise strategy that we’re partnering with them on: We’ll have one vendor all the way from the desk to the servers and the storage and everything in between.”

For Steve Childress, manager of branch support at Charter One Bank in Cleveland, management tools were what came to the fore. Childress started his PC refresh about a year ago after learning that his DOS-based systems, from a hodgepodge of vendors, weren’t robust enough to support the company’s new teller software.

Faced with bringing in some 4,500 new machines and updating the operating system on 1,500 more, Childress was focused on finding a vendor that could make the process easier.

“Hardware is hardware,” Childress says. “It was the tools that we could get that was the selling factor on keeping us with IBM.”

Without IBM’s ImageUltra technology, which lets users deploy one image across an entire PC fleet, Charter One would have had to warehouse thousands of PCs, have them configured at a configuration center and then shipped to dozens of branch offices, Childress says. He wouldn’t be specific about cost savings, but says with ImageUltra, part of IBM’s ThinkVantage portfolio, Charter One was able to redirect some 2,000 man-hours to more-productive tasks, plus he saved on shipping and warehousing costs.

At Oklahoma Heart Hospital in Oklahoma City, IT executives were looking for client machines that were small, quiet, secure and clean. That meant no fans and no humming hard drives.

Initially, the hospital, which bills itself as the first fully digital medical facility, considered a thin client deployment, but then discovered PC blades from ClearCube. With the PC blades, the hospital has a monitor, keyboard, mouse and small client appliance in all patient areas.

“The man-hours you save are phenomenal,” says Jeff Jones, lead systems engineer at the hospital. “It’s so easy to roll out and set up. You can build PCs in the background and then pull a blade out and pop a new blade in.”

Oklahoma Heart Hospital has about 120 ClearCube PC blades and runs about 200 conventional Dell desktops. Jones says he would consider moving all the desktops to PC blades, but cooling is an issue. Today, the blades are deployed in a computer closet that don’t have room for additional cooling equipment.

“We’re working on a plan to move the blades to our main data center, which would solve that and open up the possibility to add more,” Jones says.

He says he’ll be looking to do a PC refresh next year, and while he’ll keep ClearCube PC blades where they’re already deployed, he might consider building his own PCs whereas conventional desktops are used today to trim costs.

“If we build PCs that are exactly identical to the next generation of ClearCube, then we create a common PC and one set of images,” he says. “It would cut our software management in half.”

Time for a refresh

While businesses continue to install more desktop clients than notebooks or ultraportables, the smaller systems are gaining ground.

 Shipped in 2003 Expected to ship in 2004 % growth Expected to ship in 2005 % growth
Desktops 110.24 million120.8 million9.6%128.86 million6.7%
Notebooks37 million46 million24.3%55.54 million20.3%
Ultraportables*2.5 million3 million20.1%3.75 million24.6%
*Typically weigh less than 4 pounds and have keyboards smaller than notebooks. Have an internal hard drive, but no other internal drives.SOURCE: IDC