Get smart about desktop management

Neglect the basics and you’ll risk having days of high-profile grief and frustration

Here’s a tall order: Time the replacement of hundreds, if not thousands, of desktop and laptop computers, balancing factors such as user productivity, return on investment, vendor upgrade schedules, component pricing and broad technology trends.

That’s the task information technology organizations face as they seek to keep large inventories of computers up-to-date and running productively.

Desktop PCs, and increasingly laptops, remain the workhorses of government IT. Keeping them functioning requires an ongoing investment in parts and labor. Improperly configured PCs are welcome mats for security breaches. And when computers reach the inevitable end of their lives, managers must find the dollars to pay for the next generation of technology.

Those dollars add up to a significant slice of agency spending on IT. Public-sector IT managers surveyed in a 2006 Accenture study reported that they plan to spend about 15 percent of their technology budgets on desktop PC infrastructure.

How and when should organizations spend that money? The best practices in mature fields such as desktop PC management provide some answers, but hard-and-fast rules don’t exist yet for handheld units such as smartphones, BlackBerrys and the like.

Meanwhile, budget pressures have compelled some government agencies to pursue nontraditional technology management approaches. For example, seat management — the outsourcing of desktop PC acquisition and support — is making a comeback after failing to win widespread acceptance a decade ago. Thin-client computing is also generating increased interest as a cost-saving measure.

Read more to learn how industry and government executives break down the art and science of desktop management.

Tech refresh cycle
Age is of the essence when it comes to the technology refreshment cycle, said Mark Margevicius, a research director and vice president at Gartner. “Most of the time, decisions are predicated on the age of the equipment,” he said. 

Customers whose upgrades are driven by new applications or operating systems are in the minority, Margevicius said. In some cases, a new piece of software will inspire organizations to retrofit or replace PCs to accommodate the technology. But for the most part, the opportunity to buy a new operating system or application doesn’t compel agencies to spend money.

That observation also applies to Microsoft’s recently released Vista operating system.

“What’s happening with Vista?” asked Margevicius. “The answer for most of our clients is nothing. Customers have come to the conclusion…that they will make the jump to new applications and operating systems when it makes sense for business, not because the vendor says it is time to make the move.”

However, a Microsoft official said that more than 10 percent of the enterprise-level customers participating in the company’s early adopter program for Vista are federal agencies.

“Participation has been very healthy,” said Patrick Svenburg, Windows client solutions specialist at Microsoft Federal.

So if age is the primary factor for deciding when to refresh, the question becomes: How old is old?

Margevicius said many customers have replacement cycles of three to five years.

Other observers say the cycle varies according to the technology platform.

Steven Kempf, deputy assistant commissioner of integrated technology services at the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service, said three or four years is a typical desktop PC replacement cycle. For laptops, it is about two years.

Kempf said most government organizations have a replacement plan that takes into account the condition of existing equipment, marketplace trends and current budget.

Bruce Michelson, national life cycle manager at Hewlett-Packard’s U.S. Personal Systems Group, said organizations also need to consider the proliferation of handheld devices in their refreshment plans.

Before handhelds, managers were chiefly interested in statistics such as the number of PCs per employee. “The question now becomes: How many access devices do people have?” he said.

Michelson suggested that the norm for replacing handhelds is about 18 months. He recommended having a plan for retiring the handheld devices, which often contain contact lists and other kinds of sensitive information. Most organizations, Michelson said, purchase a replacement device without thinking about removing the old device’s memory and making sure it’s inactive.

“The end-of-life [management] of handheld devices is an immature discipline right now,” he said.

Maintenance costs
Whether the life cycle is two or five years, cost considerations weigh heavily in determining replacement cycles.

Maintenance expenses mount as machines age and outlive their warranty periods, which generally run three years. Once a device exits the warranty window, organizations can expect maintenance activities to be two-and-a-half times more expensive, Michelson said. He added that for laptops, in particular, incidents begin to accumulate. Service calls usually involve a two-hour minimum, with labor rates ranging from $85 to $125 per hour, depending on location. An agency may also need to maintain an inventory of spare parts to keep the machines running.

“Overall, that whole proposition becomes quite costly,” Michelson said.

Kempf cited several consequences of keeping old equipment too long. “Repairs tend to occur with more frequency. There’s more down time for the user. And the IT staff focuses more on repair than working on other issues that they might have devoted attention to.”

Another factor to consider is that vendors typically stop supporting older software.

As a consequence, “you’ve got a product out there, [and] there are no security patches for it, no support for it,” said Bob Brigham, vice president of Northeast operations at TechTeam Government Solutions. For example, Microsoft ended support for Windows 98 in July 2006.

 “There comes a point in time when older technology becomes a problem both in terms of cost and risk,” Michelson added.

On the other hand, agencies that are too quick to upgrade may not get the full economic value of the product.

“You don’t want to replace too soon and not get the useful life out of a piece of equipment,” Kempf said.

Component-level upgrades

Most midlife upgrades make little economic sense given comparatively low desktop and laptop PC costs, industry executives say.

So when a new PC costs $500, does it make sense to bring in a technician to install a new part? In many cases, the answer is no.

However, memory upgrades stand as one exception to that rule.

“Memory comes to mind as the most viable,” Margevicius said, because RAM is relatively inexpensive and simple to install. He said anyone can buy a memory upgrade for about $150. It requires no configuration changes or application testing.

The cost of a memory upgrade is easily justifiable if it extends a system’s life for another nine to 12 months and improves user productivity, Margevicius said.

Oscar Slusarczyk, Intel brand manager at reseller CDW Government, said RAM fluctuates in price much like stocks do, but most of the time it is relatively inexpensive. He said the biggest advantage of purchasing a memory upgrade is relieving the bottleneck between a system’s hard drive and processor.

The upgrade, however, should provide a noticeable performance improvement, such as the ability to keep multiple windows open, Brigham said. “If you don’t get that, it is not worth it.”

Brigham also said one memory upgrade for a given machine “is as far as you should ever go.”

Even one memory upgrade may be going too far, said Michelson, who thinks such upgrades seldom make sense. He said resorting to such midlife rejuvenation should be done only when the upgrade is scaled across a large installed base and extends the machines’ usefulness by 12 to 18 months.

Configuration management
As agencies acquire new desktop and laptop computers, they should develop standard configurations for those machines. Minimizing variations eases the work of help-desk employees and reduces support costs.

Government contract vehicles also help enforce configuration control. Kemp said blanket purchase agreements through the GSA schedule establish standard products and configurations. A waiver process exists for buyers who want to purchase outside of those agreements.

BPAs “limit the number of nonstandard computers and configurations
and still allow for flexibility [for] people who have different requirements,” Kempf said.

Another practice is to limit the number of system images, or standard software content, for desktop and laptop PCs.

Corporate best practice is to maintain one basic image for desktops and another for laptops. This super image typically satisfies 80 percent of software requirements and includes operating system, office software, antivirus protection and firewalls, Michelson said. The remaining 20 percent of software content is personalized based on user needs.

“Those are not considered new images,” Michelson said. “Everybody has the same super image and then the business unit applications are applied.”

IT shops can automate the process of installing standard software content by using tools such as Acronis’ Snap Deploy, Altiris’ Deployment Solution and Symantec’s Ghost Solution Suite.

A single-image approach helps ensure standardization that a help desk needs to work effectively and efficiently, said Sean McCarthy, a senior analyst at IDC’s Government Insights unit.

Contractors can often help agencies with this standardization. EDS, for example, reduced the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ desktop software content to a single basic image, down from 10, said Rob Holder, client delivery executive at EDS. He said a handful of variations of that basic image meet the specialized needs of particular user groups, such as certified fire inspectors and crime gun investigators.

Because of that simplification, EDS can manage variations of the one image rather dealing with a plethora of images that don’t allow for configuration management and control, Holder said.

Seat management is back
Agencies can leave the business of managing upgrades and policing configurations through a contracting arrangement known in the industry as seat management. Under this system, a contractor takes on the chores of PC support and technology refreshment, and the agency pays a per-seat fee for support. This method met widespread skepticism when it became an option in the late 1990s, and GSA eventually phased out its Seat Management contract for desktop PC outsourcing.

However, the practice persisted in the federal sector. NASA, in particular, liked the arrangement, and awarded its Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA (ODIN) contract in 1998. Today, 10 NASA centers use ODIN to varying degrees for a broad range of PC gear and related services.

“Based on the baseline identified in the original business case for ODIN in 1997, NASA has realized between 25 percent to 30 percent cost avoidance for desktops under ODIN,” said Gary Cox, acting deputy chief information officer at NASA’s headquarters.

ODIN covers desktop and back-office services, printers and peripherals, local-area network operations, storage, servers, cell and landline telephone services, mobile computing, help-desk services, and associated hardware and software services, Cox said.

Some skeptics insist they can provide desktop management cheaper than NASA gets the service under ODIN, Cox said. But those assessments typically fail to factor in systems administration time and an apples-to-apples comparison of security and availability, he added.

Another factor often overlooked is the reduced property management and procurement effort associated with ODIN, Cox said. ODIN vendors own the hardware and software licenses and provide those as a service to NASA.

Seat management also seeks to alleviate an organization’s upgrade headaches. Technology refreshment is baked into the outsourcing arrangement.

EDS’ seat management contract with ATF, for example, provides two upgrade paths. Standard desktop and laptop PC models may be upgraded twice in the course of the deal, which will span seven years if ATF exercises all options. Those upgrades occur at 36-month intervals.

A second category, desktop and laptop PCs used in scientific applications, refreshes on an 18-month cycle, Holder said, because the technology for higher-end PCs changes more rapidly.

Cox said ODIN’s ability to keep pace with technology probably provides its greatest benefit to NASA.

“What’s more impressive is the technology infusion and security performance we’ve achieved under relatively stable pricing, adjusted for inflation, over the last eight to nine years,” Cox said.

Michelson said he has seen a growing interest in seat management as more organizations seek to tap into a service provider’s best practices.

James Krouse, vice president of sales strategy at Government Sales Force, said budget pressure has led government agencies to consider practices such as leasing and seat management.

“When there are serious budget problems, people start looking at other options,” he said.

In addition, early government adopters of seat management are now seeking to recompete expiring contracts. For example, the Treasury Department will rebid a seat management deal that it originally conceived through the GSA’s Seat Management contract, Krouse said.

The Navy, meanwhile, recently asked the Center for Naval Analyses to help it plan a follow-on contract to the Navy Marine Corps Intranet program.

“Desktop outsourcing…is back with a vengeance right now,” Michelson said
Easing PC management headachesThin-client computing is one option for agencies seeking to get a firmer grasp on difficult-to-manage desktop and laptop PCs.

“Many customers have come to understand that managing a PC environment is undoable,” said Mark Margevicius, research director and vice president of client platforms at Gartner.

To regain sanity, some information technology shops have adopted server-centric computing in which they put applications on servers. Those shops allow people to access and share applications through thin-client devices, which replace the PCs on people’s desks.

“That approach works great for some clients,” Margevicius said.
He said thin clients may especially suit agencies with high-security requirements. Because thin clients lack hard drives, application data resides on the server side, which reduces the risk of data loss.

Thin-client systems also reduce support costs, said Bill Vass, president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems Federal. Vass said organizations commit far fewer full-time equivalents in managing thin clients. He described a ratio of one systems administrator for every 10,000 to 20,000 thin-client desktops. That ratio can vary depending on the network, he added.

“The end device never requires any management,” Vass said. “You just manage the server.”

Vass added that thin-client computing eliminates the need for frequent desktop technology upgrades. Servers must be refreshed, he said, but thin-client desktops can operate efficiently without upgrades for about 12 years.

15 fast facts on desktop managementMaintaining a fleet of desktop and laptop PCs is like doing maintenance on your car. If you ignore regular checkups and oil changes, you’ll likely get hit later with costly repair bills and unproductive downtime. To avoid that situation in managing your agency’s fleet of computers, you should consider five factors as you devise a desktop maintenance plan.

1. Tech refresh cycle
  • Desktop PCs have a three- to five-year replacement cycle with an average unit cost of $600.
  • Laptops have a two-year replacement cycle with an average unit cost of $900.
  • Handheld devices have an 18-month replacement cycle with an average unit cost of $400.
2. Maintenance costs
  • Expect service calls to cost at least $170 per incident after warranties have expired.
  • Laptops carried when traveling are especially vulnerable to breakdowns.
  • Older software may lack vendor support and security patches.
  • Overall support costs for PCs range from $800 to $1,000 per device per year.
3. Component-level upgrades
  • Additional memory is the most sensible midlife upgrade.
  • Upgrading PC memory should provide noticeable performance improvement and extend life by at least nine months.
  • Memory upgrades should be extended to a large installed base.
  • The cost of a memory upgrade is about $150 per unit.
4. Configuration management
  • Limit variations in software content on each machine to reduce support chores and associated costs.
  • Adopt a basic system image for all desktop and laptop models and add additional software content to meet users’ specialized application needs.
5. Seat management
  • Contracts tend to span at least five years to allow contactors to recoup their initial technology costs.
  • Upgrades occur on a set schedule. Standard per-seat pricing doesn’t apply to any upgrades made outside that schedule.

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