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Desktop Management: Getting It Right Print E-mail

For many companies, desktop management is not a core competency and there are other IT tasks that are considered mission critical or more strategic. Yet for many workers, the desktop is mission critical. Schedules, correspondence, contact lists, presentations and work in progress all live in the desktop for most office workers. Take away the desktop and work stops until the desktop is back up and running. Most small and medium businesses do not have the IT staff and tools to treat desktop management issues with the attention they deserve. IT departments in small and medium sized companies are generally overloaded and doing the best they can to keep the IT infrastructure running smoothly. Budgets are much smaller than those of their large enterprise counterparts, staffing is limited, and toolsets are few and far between. Individual users can be left to handle minor issues for themselves, and pseudo power users often get themselves into trouble and require IT staff assistance to resolve problems they have created through their self-help efforts. It is no longer a viable answer for small and medium sized business to treat desktop management casually.

Importance of PC Management
The task of PC management has become too large and too important to be handled on an ad-hoc basis with limited tools. There are many versions of operating systems and many different software applications. This is further complicated by the number of employees working from remote offices. The scale has become quite large, even in a small to medium sized business. Now add in the constant stream of Microsoft patch updates (security, operating system and application software updates), periodic operating system upgrades, user initiated software installations and configuration changes, antivirus updates, and IT configuration changes. The rate and volume of change is significant, if not overwhelming. The risks of doing a poor job of desktop management are now quite high given the security risks to every PC every day. Left unprotected, PCs are subject to Trojans, Keyloggers, Spyware and Viruses. One of the best ways to be protected is to apply all patches to operating systems and applications in a timely fashion. However, coordinating, staging and testing these patches is time consuming and something that should not be left to end users or ad hoc processes by the IT team. Every desktop needs Anti-virus software that is constantly updated, and users cannot be trusted to keep their virus data files current. Mobile users should also be protected with personal Firewall software, but again, users cannot be depended upon to install and keep such software current. Leaving this to chance can put the entire network and subsequently the entire company at risk. The employee desktop today contains significant corporate data, both data taken from corporate repositories for use on the desktop as well as work-inprocess data not yet stored on a secured and backed-up repository. Employees handle important and sensitive data that needs to be protected. This can include price lists, customer lists, customer data, human resources data, strategic plans, product plans and corporate financial information. Security breaches, viruses, and spyware can lead to stolen, lost or corrupted data. Regular backups can mitigate the risk of lost or corrupted data, however most users are not disciplined enough to perform regular backups. Mobile and remote users complicate the backup problem and render home grown backup scripting ineffective. Dealing with the disruption and potential data loss of security breaches can represent significant productivity loss. Work-in-process data on the desktop can represent weeks of effort and may be difficult or impossible to recreate. The loss of such data can affect project timelines which in turn can cause customer satisfaction issues and/or contractual penalties. Desktop data loss can also affect revenue if a desktop problem interrupts critical timeframes for customer proposals. Another factor driving the need for good desktop management is the increasing regulatory compliance issues that are affecting businesses of all sizes. Consumer and patient privacy laws include requirements for rigorous asset and data management. This should be of concern for more than just the public companies covered by the law. Many small and medium sized businesses are working toward an eventual acquisition as an exit strategy, and most such acquisitions are by companies that are subject to privacy laws. It is much easier and faster to work through the due diligence phase of the acquisition if the company being acquired has implemented the proper types of controls . Good desktop management can assist a company in certain aspects of regulatory compliance.

Effective PC Management
Effective PC Management begins with knowing what you have to manage. Knowing how many machines of what type, their location, memory, hard drive, processor speed, etc., is a big step forward for many small and medium sized businesses. Tools available today have automatic discovery capabilities and excellent management reporting which can assist IT staff in establishing and maintaining good processes for asset management. With an accurate picture of the installed hardware base, it becomes much easier to assess operating system and business suite software upgrades. This information can minimize the number and duration of on-site visits by IT support personnel.Another good practice is to keep software installs to the minimum required for each employee to do their job. This will shorten install time, reduce updates and patches required, and use fewer resources leaving more capacity for each user’s needs. Some systems administrators will attempt to make things easier by standardizing the desktop to one image for everyone. PC management is one place where “one size does not fit all.” Overcomplicating the software image for every user by installing all applications everywhere will increase work in the long run. A better practice is to define unique user types by department or job function, and to define a standard image for each user type. This can limit the time to upgrade applications and allow for better service for each user. With an accurate inventory of all hardware and only the software needed on each desktop, the next step toward effective PC management is to automate software distribution. Automated software distribution minimizes the number of onsite visits IT staff must make. This lowers the cost of support and allows for more frequent updates. This can be applied to virus data files, operating system patches as well as updates and new versions of application software. Changes should be staged in a separate environment for testing and then rolled out based on individual or group user profiles. Automated software distribution is the first step in remote management. Full remote management includes the ability to remotely control the desktop and make all required configuration changes through a networked connection. This is a critical function as the number of remote and mobile workers has increased. IT staff must be able to perform administrative functions from their office as if they were sitting in front of the PC of remote and mobile workers. When considering how to implement desktop management best practices, companies need to acquire management tools to automate the management tasks. Companies can license tools and build an in-house management infrastructure, access management tools through a hosted Software as a Service (SaaS) model, or outsource the entire desktop management process. Each of these alternatives is explored in more detail below.

Alternatives for Acquiring Good Tools: Build, Software as a Service, Outsource
A company with as few as 15-20 employees can struggle with manual desktop management processes. The more desktops to be managed and the more mobile and remote workers to support, the more difficult it becomes to deliver good service with manual processes. The severity of issues that can arise from poor PC management requires that the problem be taken seriously and therefore automation should be given significant consideration. There are now many options available to automate some or all of the PC management functions, and some of these options are cost effective even for small and medium sized companies. However, tool selection should be made carefully to ensure that the necessary functions are addressed by the tool, to keep training time to a minimum and to avoid selecting a tool that requires more effort to administer than it saves. As with any decision, all of the alternatives should be considered before making the decision. PC management is no different, and it can be accomplished through several approaches: management tools deployed in-house to internally manage PCs (the “build” approach), using a Software as a Service hosted management tool with internal staff, and outsourcing the management of PCs to a third party. Building an Internal PC Management Infrastructure This traditional approach to management involves identifying tools to purchase, purchasing those tools, deploying the tools, training IT staff on how to effectively use the newly deployed management tools, and staffing sufficiently to manage the PC infrastructure on an ongoing basis. One of the advantages of this approach is that the IT organization retains full control of the management infrastructure and functions because the solution is an internally deployed solution. However, the control also brings with it the responsibility to manage the management system/software itself. The build approach typically requires a larger initial budget outlay for purchase/licensing costs, with on-going maintenance fees, and any investment in additional hardware that is required to run the management infrastructure. In addition to these initial licensing costs, it is also important for IT organizations to realize that there is an associated cost of management. The IT staff is naturally responsible for managing the IT infrastructure, but in addition, they are also responsible for managing the IT management infrastructure itself. For example, in the case of internally deployed management software tools, these costs reveal themselves in deployment costs of the management tools, maintenance of the management tools (upgrades, patching), support personnel for ongoing operational support, management tool consulting services, training, software licensing costs (both initial purchase and recurring maintenance costs), hardware costs for additional hardware that is required to run the management software, and the cost of integrating tools in-house.
The cost of management depends on several factors:

  • the ease-of-use and ease-of-deployment of the management solution,
  • the stability of the management code, 
  • the frequency of new releases,
  • the maturity of the IT organization.

Most of these factors translate to IT staff time that is required to manage the management infrastructure. In addition to these direct costs, maintaining a help desk to assist users with PC issues is another additive cost of management. For geographically dispersed companies, the help desk may be required to operate 24x7, which adds significantly to the cost of ownership.

Software as a Service
Another way for IT organizations to employ PC management functionality is through management software delivered as a service. This option shifts the responsibility for the management software deployment and maintenance to the service provider. Software as a Service (SaaS) results in eliminating the following costs for enterprises: deploying the tool, maintaining the tools, consulting services to deploy the tool, software licensing, internal tool integration, hardware to run the management software, and troubleshooting when the tool is not working properly. Instead of these costs of ownership, the cost of the hosted software is in the form of fixed monthly subscription fees. PC management SaaS can bring additional advantages beyond the features of the tool. Virus protection and automated update of virus data files is a feature often available. Some services include significant coordination of new patches; simplifying the staging, testing and deployment of patches. The service may include automated backup and offsite storage features providing excellent data protection with little additional effort or hardware costs. The infrastructure itself is under third party control in this alternative. Company IT staff remain in control of the actual end user interface and the actual processes and actions taken on individual desktops. The SaaS model provides access to a full suite product without the upfront license and setup costs. It allows the IT staff to maintain control of the desktop management process without the effort required to setup and maintain the management environment. It does require training and good internal processes. It also requires a way to track service requests and problems. To provide effective support, a help desk is useful, and for some companies a 24x7 help desk is necessary.

Outsourced PC Management
The point of acquiring good PC management tools is to provide effective PC management. There are a number of full service outsource options available to small and medium sized businesses for desktop management. This alternative solves the effective PC management problem by turning the work over to a service provider. The service provider is responsible for tool selection, deployment and operation. The service provider also brings trained staff and proven procedures. Like the SaaS model, the outsourced model eliminates the costs of licensing the management tool, deploying the tool, consulting services to deploy the tool, integration costs, maintenance costs and hardware costs. Additionally, the outsourced model eliminates the costs of internal staff for PC management and the costs of an internal help desk function for PC management. Outsourced PC management is typically charged on a per desktop per month fee. It is more expensive than a SaaS model as the service includes the staff and the help desk functions. While outsourced PC management can bring good tools and good processes to the problem of PC management, it does come with a few trade-offs. Control over the internal PC infrastructure is turned over to a third party. This also exposes internal company and client information to the service provider. This loss of control is cause for concern for some IT staffs. Some businesses have experienced higher individual user costs for desktop management as individual users can spend more time attempting to solve their own problems rather than look to the third party provider for help. The quality of the service delivered by the service provider must be excellent, and the services must be flexible enough to fit in with the way the company works. A collaborative working relationship must be established. This can require a different kind of management oversight than exists in some small and medium sized businesses. An outsourced service may bring improved service by providing a 24x7 help desk, something that may not be cost justified as an internally provided service in many small and medium sized businesses. EMA’s Perspective Desktop Management is a critical business practice that, when done well, can keep employees productive and keep external threats to the company network in check. The traditional approach to managing PCs has been to deploy the management software in-house or use manual methods. Most companies now realize that manual efforts are no longer viable given the number of desktops, the frequency of changes and the risks to employee productivity and data. However, licensing and deploying desktop management tools in-house requires significant cost and effort, particularly for the small and medium business. Some companies are turning to Software as a Service (SaaS) or full outsource alternatives to manage PCs. While the full outsourced model can provide a cost effective answer to the desktop management problem, it comes with control trade-offs and vendor management challenges that offset the benefits for some companies. SaaS is an option that balances the internal effort and internal control issues. SaaS is becoming a very popular option for many types of software as it allows users to benefit from the software without the hassle of running the software. Software updates are painless as the vendor handles all testing and change management, and the datacenter environment for SaaS offerings often has more redundancy and better backup capabilities than an in-house installation of similar software. Users of desktop management SaaS are benefiting from access to high end, integrated tools with the added benefit of coordination of security and operating system patches by the service provider. These companies are freed from the burden of managing the management tool itself and yet they remain in control of their internal desktop environment. They get use of a high end tool at a lower cost than licensing and managing the tool directly. Although management SaaS is not a universal solution for all companies, it should be one of the alternatives that companies consider when they are looking to improve the quality and efficiency of managing PCs. The solution should have a full set of integrated PC management tools that are offered modularly, which allows customers to select only those services that they need. Just as important as the features of the software is the reputation of the service provider. Potential customers should carefully consider the reputation of the service provider in terms of service levels provided, collaborative approach to customers, and stability. As companies compare the alternatives, they should remember to include the hidden costs to the business from using less than adequate management tools, as well as the cost of ownership for internally deployed tools. Such an analysis will prove useful in determining which approach is best for the company, rather than just doing what is most familiar.

 

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