PC refresh strategies evolve

The goals: lower costs, tighter security, and more flexibility

Linda Cureton likens the process of configuring PCs across the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to the wayward scientific experiments from "Jurassic Park." "We had a standard desktop configuration, but like nature finds a way in the movie," ATF staff found a way to alter that standard, said Cureton, deputy chief information officer at ATF.

Adaptation didn't send raptors scrambling across ATF desktops, but something almost as scary to a technology manager began happening. Ad hoc customizations of PCs and software created hundreds of permutations that made it difficult to centrally manage and secure the information technology environment.

The situation was also expensive. A third-party total cost of ownership (TCO) study estimates that the bureau was spending about 44 percent more to manage its desktops than were comparable agencies.

As a result, ATF is now undergoing a sweeping modernization that will not only give its employees the newest desktop hardware, applications and operating systems but also will narrow standard configurations to about four "images," or basic computing footprints.

But this comes only after ATF officials learned some hard lessons about avoiding one-size-fits-all configurations and locking people into rigid refresh cycles. That had been the government's favored cost-management approach in recent years, but it is now being reassessed. "In the past, we hadn't found a way to provide enough flexibility," Cureton said.

ATF isn't alone in trying to work out the complexities of desktop modernization, which requires discipline and centralized control and must recognize individual needs so employees don't upgrade systems themselves. It's a task made difficult by quickly changing technology and plug-and-play products that make guerilla customizations easy.

Facing similar challenges, the headquarters of the Department of the Army in Washington, D.C., launched a wide-scale revision of past practices in which Army agencies with separate IT budgets determined their own desktop PCs, software and support services. The Army is looking for cost, management efficiency and security benefits through greater management centralization, but it is allowing flexibility when the need can be justified.

The Commonwealth of Virginia began a desktop modernization effort that's also trying to balance flexibility and control through a central office known as the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA).

"We wanted to change the way we did business by leveraging our size for hardware and software discounts when we negotiated contracts," said Lemuel Stewart, the state's CIO.

Desktop modernization, public-sector CIOs now know, requires more than simply buying the latest and greatest technology.

Bottom line

According to International Data Corp., a technology research firm, public-sector spending for desktop PCs has been declining for the past year. Sales hit about $2.3 billion in 2004, almost 7 percent less than the year before.

Caution may continue for the near future. For example, analysts at the market intelligence firm Input expect only moderate growth in state and local IT investments in 2005 as agencies grapple with tight budgets. Desktop modernization plays an important role in IT economics.

Standardizing on a limited number of configurations can mean better return on investment, said Rich Dodds, senior manager of product marketing at desktop hardware maker Hewlett-Packard. "The initial acquisition costs of hardware are only a fraction of what it costs to run the systems," he said. "Organizations may spend $4,000 to $10,000 on maintaining their desktop environment, so they need to pay attention to complexity."

Economic issues aren't the only challenges for public-sector CIOs. They're also trying to develop long-range buying strategies to help minimize maintenance problems.

"The public sector is now looking at a holistic approach and trying to understand all the ramifications involved in modernization," said Thom Bailey, director of product management in the Enterprise Administration unit of software vendor Symantec. "That includes doing audits of existing desktop resources, decommissioning old hardware and determining how the needs of the engineering department, for example, may differ from those" of another one.

Efforts like these aren't new. One of the highest profile public-sector projects is the 10-year, $8.8 billion Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) collaboration between the military and systems integrator EDS.

The new enterprisewide computer network will eventually link more than 400,000 sailors, Marines and civilian employees across about 300 bases in the United States and overseas. But in 2003, three years into the program, EDS reported losses of $126 million amid disagreements with the Navy and Marine Corps.

Since then, EDS officials say they've had success in boosting acceptance of the modernization program among military employees, as measured in user satisfaction surveys. The process for making changes to the IT environment continues to be a problem area, however, with only 55 percent of end users in the most recent survey saying they are satisfied with how change is being managed.

Fortunately, as the public sector learns from such modernization projects, best practices are emerging that promise to create successes in the future.

Taming nature

ATF has been working since 1997 to bring order to its desktop computers, first with a three-year seat management contract and later with a three-year blanket purchase agreement for leased hardware and desktop services.

Those efforts centralized IT resources and gave each ATF agent a basic and consistent level of technology, at least initially. Because of configuration inflexibility, ad hoc updates soon made the systems difficult to manage centrally and to secure.

The bureau hired technology consultant Gartner to conduct a financial analysis and TCO study, and used the results to fashion a new $300 million modernization contract with EDS, which hadn't been part of the previous efforts.

"We were able to apply lessons learned from those first two contracts to improve our current efforts," Cureton said. "We saw an opportunity to reduce costs and improve the new contract."

The biggest stumbling block in the old arrangement came when some staff members, particularly those from scientific-oriented investigative disciplines, outgrew their desktop systems within the second year of the lease arrangement.

"We used to follow a one-size-fits-all philosophy — one image for the entire bureau — and that didn't work well," Cureton said. "Different specialties need different computing environments."

Now ATF and EDS are attempting to match refresh cycles with particular specialties within the bureau.

"Administrative customers might use their desktop systems for maybe four or five years, while the scientific users may need refreshed equipment within one year, depending on how quickly the technology changes," she said.

Conforming to set configurations will also make it easier for the bureau to negotiate enterprisewide software licenses and to establish standard strategies for security and system availability.

However, flexibility won't mean undisciplined upgrades, as it has in the past. As technologies and business needs change, bureau personnel will be expected to follow a formal upgrade process that funnels requests through the contractor. For example, if one of the agency's certified fire investigators needs a new application, EDS will modify that profile and give everyone in that capacity the same software update.

Cureton knows change won't be easy. Pushing uniformity will be difficult in a bureau where people have been used to requesting and receiving customized PCs.

In the future, staff will receive computing capability, not a piece of hardware, Cureton said. It's a mind-set that even she admits will take time to adjust to. "We're used to managing pieces of hardware, so we're changing our thought process to think about managing capabilities and leaving the [technology specification] details to EDS," she said. "The challenge has been in articulating what our requirements are vs. telling EDS to go and buy this or that equipment."

Army maneuvers

Changes in desktop modernization practices in the Army became a priority after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and eventually led to the Army headquarters' Desktop Realignment Initiative, a multiyear effort focused on centralized management and revisions to its standard hardware and software configurations.

The Army's Information Management Support Center (IMCEN) manages about 8,500 Army PCs, which will grow to 10,000 this fall and nearly 15,000 in about two years.

IMCEN officials declined to reveal the estimated dollar value of the centralization and standardization effort, but Jeff Riplinger, IMCEN director, said the Army is seeing financial benefits in larger volume purchases, greater management efficiencies and improved cybersecurity because a central staff installs antivirus software and up-to-date software patches.

The backbone of the refresh effort is a network that connects IMCEN support staff to the desktop PCs. That allows them to service PCs and load new software without "a lot of touch labor," Riplinger said. "Sometimes we don't have to go to the desktops at all. If we need to install a patch to the operating system, we can just push it out to each machine, something we typically do at night."

Even major software upgrades involving entire application suites go quicker because of networked automation. "People aren't losing their desktops for half a day or more," said Mike Shea, program director at Titan, an IMCEN contractor. "With only about 30 minutes of downtime, we can get the new applications running."

Service-desk management is more efficient because of centralization and platform standardization. "We're looking at the same [hardware and software] image so we can familiarize ourselves with all the problems that might be out there," said Lt. Col. Angelo Riddick, chief of IMCEN's Customer Support Division, in Washington, D.C.

The desktop group also keeps close tabs on unilateral software installations. Any software that is not included in the standard platform model must receive several signoffs and pass tests that evaluate the software's compliance with the standard Army platform and security guidelines.

IMCEN is now working with an outside consultant to review the center's hardware refresh cycles, perhaps adding a year to its traditional three-year cycles.

"Desktop technology has outstripped the software development," Riplinger said. "We're primarily seeing incremental improvements in software, whereas the increases in hardware are dramatic."

His research also shows that some private-sector organizations are delaying hardware updates. "We like to employ best practices, so if [private companies] are looking at four years, we are also," he said.

ATF's upgrade advice

Successful desktop computer modernization strategies require a mix of close communication with users and a long-term plan that facilitates technological change. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officials learned several lessons in their latest effort to better manage desktop computers. They offer this advice:

  • Create a financial baseline. Before starting a desktop computer modernization program, you need to determine your expenses, said Linda Cureton, deputy chief information officer at ATF. "Arrange for an outside financial analysis and total cost of ownership study to measure where you are and so you'll know whether the actions you eventually take actually produced an improvement," she said.

  • Know your users. For the ATF desktop computer modernization effort, officials from the lead contractor, EDS, interviewed managers and users at ATF offices nationwide to determine their computing needs. EDS officials also used asset management software to develop profiles of existing desktop computer configurations, most of which were customized by users.

  • Model the standard environment. Applying information from the user surveys, ATF and EDS officials created a new baseline hardware/software desktop computer configuration, used primarily by agency administrators. They also created one customized version for criminal investigators, certified fire inspectors and fire lab researchers. Hardware for these groups include notebook and desktop computers with three levels of processing power, depending on the user's needs. All use Microsoft's Windows XP operating system, and each configuration runs the same antivirus and e-mail software.

  • Keep users in your camp. To avoid rogue upgrades by users, EDS officials plan to keep users informed about the project's status, said Robert Holder, EDS' client delivery executive for the ATF contract. "Now that we found subject matter experts, they'll become part of our team to make sure we get the right [desktop computer platform] to the right people at [the] right time," he said.

    — Alan Joch

  • State guarantees service levels

    In Virginia, Lemuel Stewart, the commonwealth's chief information officer, knows change is difficult for people. "There's comfort in an environment where everybody has their own equipment, and they don't want to give that up," he said.

    He's more fortunate than most CIOs because he has a persuasive stick at his disposal — a legislative mandate for information technology transformation. But Stewart knows that "carrots" are also necessary for success.

    "We still have to work the communications pretty hard," he said. Accordingly, he drafted agreements with department managers that guarantee minimum service levels to help allay fears that centralized control of desktop resources will leave people wanting for processing power and applications. "We needed to show them we weren't just taking their equipment" and not replacing it with something better, Stewart said.

    He expects to eventually upgrade about 60,000 desktop computers throughout the commonwealth at a rate of about 25 percent a year. The desktop program is a subset of a larger, seven-year initiative to consolidate the IT infrastructure for all 91 commonwealth agencies under Virginia Information Technologies Agency. In addition to desktop modernization, Virginia is building a new primary data center and redesigning its voice and data networks.

    The catalyst for change was the rampant duplication of IT contracts and service agreements, which squandered volume-buying opportunities and failed to establish clear refresh cycles. Desktop PCs are a focal point because the current environment is so disorganized.

    "You pretty much find everything" in terms of hardware and software combinations, Stewart said. In addition to lost financial opportunities, the freewheeling approach makes locking down security difficult.

    Stewart's staff is now determining best-of-breed hardware and software to eventually determine a standard combination for the desktop computers. "We've got lot of different platforms and products now," he said. "But as we go into the initial refresh and replace technology, we'll narrow it down to one standard operating system, a standard virus software package and a standard security application for the PCs."

    He'll also choose a private contractor to take control of purchasing, implementation, servicing and upgrading systems for a set monthly service fee. The commonwealth is now evaluating two suppliers, IBM and Northrop Grumman.

    "We're not just buying PCs; it's also the support organization behind it," he said. Stewart foresees separate three-, four- and five-year refresh cycles, depending on job and department requirements.

    A standard service fee will relieve a variety of refresh headaches, Stewart said. "From a governance standpoint, this will make the desktop environment easier to manage and run," he said. "We'll create a standard refresh process and add a lot of discipline to the program."

    It will also be an aid for budgeting. "We'll know what the number is [for new equipment], as opposed to now, where agencies buy 100 systems here, 1,000 systems there, and there's all kinds of variability in the prices," he added.

    The entire infrastructure reorganization project could save perhaps $500 million during five years, with the desktop component making its own significant contributions to those savings. In the past year, Stewart has prepared for the new desktop initiative by renegotiating existing contracts, many of which now attract volume discounts by combining hardware, software and services purchases.

    So far, the commonwealth has saved about $28 million from the renegotiations, even before any tech refresh has even begun. "We're picking the low-hanging fruit," Stewart said.

    — Alan Joch

    Air Force PC program making headway

    Pentagon and industry officials often point to the Air Force when talking about a defense agency that manages PCs well.

    Service officials formed the Air Force Information Technology Commodity Council two years ago to improve the way the service buys and manages IT by shedding the piecemeal approach used in the past.

    "We want to meet user requirements, lower cost of ownership, perform life cycle planning and deal with market forces," said Ken Heitkamp, council director and the service's assistant chief information officer for life cycle management.

    The council consists of representatives from the Air Force's nine major commands and its headquarters at the Pentagon who oversee the service's desktop and notebook computer purchasing strategy.

    The council's approach centralizes purchasing, standardizes hardware and software configurations, and establishes equipment support and disposal policies. It mandates that purchases of desktop and notebook computers go through the service's nine commands. To get better prices, the council requires officials to consolidate hardware buys by aggregating purchases once every three months using the AFWay online procurement system. It also stipulates that Air Force members use desktop computers for four years and notebooks for three before replacing them.

    To date, Air Force officials purchased 94,000 PCs under the quarterly-buy process. Those purchases now account for almost 20 percent of the service's computer inventory. "We're satisfied with the progress we're making," Heitkamp said. "We're achieving a high level of consistency."

    The Air Force's desktop modernization strategy represented the first phase of the council's mission. The second phase involved combining 38 separate Microsoft software contracts servicewide into a single pact and awarding a support deal to the company last November.

    The third phase entails further standard system configuration and patch management to strengthen security on the service's computers. Microsoft will provide software images of major company products to the Air Force for testing and servicewide deployment.

    The benefits of lower costs and tighter security should be enough to garner service members' cooperation with the new approach, but council officials have given themselves a powerful stick to ensure compliance.

    "The objective is a compliant computing environment for networked capabilities," Heitkamp said. "If you comply, you can connect to the Air Force network. If you don't, you can't connect until you do so."

    — Frank Tiboni

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