• United States
Senior Editor

Riding herd on desktop demands

Feb 10, 20036 mins
Data Center

Software vendors attempt to ease the burden of managing desktops, laptops, servers and mobile clients.

Basil Blume learned a lot about desktop management his first week on the job at Centennial Bank of the West. For one, he learned that he needed a better way to do it.

Blume, CTO at the chain of banks headquartered in Fort Collins, Colo., found a software distribution project waiting for him when he started his new job. “I was told on a Wednesday we had a new release for one of the bank’s primary applications that had to be installed by Saturday,” Blume says.

With the bank’s 150 workstations at nine locations and a staff of three, the application upgrade took more than 40 hours of “going to each branch and physically installing the software on each computer,” he says. Today, with the help of Vector Networks’ desktop management software PC-Duo Plus, Blume says he can upgrade Centennial Bank’s 225 workstations and 25 servers spread across 13 branches from one management console in eight hours or less.

Desktop management software – products that perform software distribution, inventory and asset management, remote control and remote access capabilities — typically doesn’t top the list of sexy new technologies. But desktop products from Computer Associates, Microsoft and Marimba do fall under an enterprise network manager’s list of must-have management software – especially in today’s tough economic times.

“With the economic effects of downsized IT staffs, desktop management is an area that can significantly impact productivity of operations and service desk,” says Audrey Rasmussen, a vice president with Enterprise Management Associates. Because desktop management tools automate several tasks, the software can reduce headcount on tedious tasks and increase efficiencies.

“We have seen tremendous time savings, and we can serve our users much better and faster than we could before,” Blume says. He also increased his staff’s response time by five times. “Today, we can respond to the user support calls faster and be more productive.”

Patching things up

Along with time savings, network managers also can look to desktop management as a source for additional security on their networks. Patch management broke out as a high priority for IT managers last year; partly because IT shops haven’t been able to upgrade hardware as often, and partly because frequent virus and software updates quickly overwhelm understaffed companies.

Industry watchers say the technology, which automatically distributes software patches to desktops and servers, will continue to garner attention this year because it promises to better secure networks.

“People are looking for the immediate benefit of patch management to eliminate risks on their desktops and servers, but it’s really a one-trick pony,” says Ronni Colville, a research director with Gartner. “The interest in patch management will help people get their arms around the bigger problems that can be addressed by configuration management and software distribution tools.”

Carey Allen True, IS director at Mark IV Industries in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, deployed Computer Associate’s Unicenter suite of desktop management products in January 2002. He says he initially needed to update antivirus software across 400 clients. “We were concerned that our software was not catching the latest viruses,” he says.

With CA’s Software Delivery product, True updated all the PCs within two days, rather than the month he estimates it would have taken in the past. To install Unicenter on each PC, True worked from a centralized administrative console and had each client machine run a logon script that installed the program from the network. After the script completed, he could tap Unicenter features on the clients and manage each PC remotely.

“In all, there was a minimum of disruption, and everyone is now protected with the latest software,” True says. He says the software paid for itself by helping reduce the departmental headcount by one person and eliminated the need to hire another full-time employee. And, True says, “turnaround time on large-scale software updates has been reduced from months to days.”

Going remote

A growing area of importance for IT staff is managing remote clients, laptops and other mobile devices. Companies such as LANDeskAltiris and Novell now offer features specifically to support remote clients.

But managing remote clients still is a work in progress. Jasmine Noel, principal at JNoel Associates, says tools might be able to address the simpler management tasks on remote clients, but more complex applications remain a challenge.

“The big issues with remote management include disconnection during a management task. Simple file transfer is one thing . . . but application data replication can be a nightmare if it is not designed properly,” Noel says. Other remote connectivity concerns include execution speed, which includes bandwidth management, file compression and protocol efficiency.

Vendors have addressed some of these concerns in recent products, which include features such as bandwidth throttling, upgrade deferral and checkpoint recovery. The tools can help network managers and remote users get better control over the connectivity issues associated with software distribution and upgrade processes.

Bandwidth throttling limits the amount of system resources and time that a software upgrade can consume. Remote users also can choose to defer an upgrade until a less-active time on their client machine. And checkpoint recovery tools let application upgrades that have been dropped because of a poor connection restart from the point at which they were dropped, saving the user PC from downloading the same data again.

Michael Niehaus, IT consultant at Marathon Oil in Houston, says about 40% of the 11,000 PCs his staff supports are laptops. Supporting those often “not well-connected” clients proved a challenge for Niehaus, who says his company would host “upgrade-fests in hotel rooms” to keep traveling sales representatives’ PCs up-to-date.

“We used to have to send IT personnel on extended road trips to upgrade PCs, collecting PCs as reps walked in the door for a conference and promising to return them within 24 hours completely up-to-date,” Niehaus says. Now he uses Microsoft’s Systems Management Server (SMS) 2.0 to manage Marathon Oil’s desktops and laptops. He is in the process of upgrading to SMS 2003, which is expected to be generally available in September.

While using SMS 2.0 software enabled Niehaus’ staff to reach about 75% of their mobile management goals, the software required work and maintenance to support the fleet of PCs he manages. After working with Microsoft to get the desired results from SMS 2.0 in his network, Niehaus says he had to write some custom scripts to support the poorly connected users.

“We create DVD-ROMs and CD-ROMs containing software packages for the Ônot well-connected’ clients to use. SMS 2.0 didn’t provide any good way to handle these situations,” Niehaus says. He says he expects the upgrade to SMS 2003 to help him achieve 90% to 100% of his remote and mobile management goals. Yet he doesn’t expect Microsoft’s or any software to be able to manage without some work from him and his staff on the front end.

“Don’t think you can just install it and forget it. These are complicated products that require TLC and will collapse from neglect if you let them,” he warns. “And don’t expect it to be a one-week project – a good design is essential.”