5 ways to ease desktop PC-induced pain

It didn’t take long after the desktop PC earned a regular seat at the enterprise technology table in the early 1990s for agency managers to realize that PCs can be a real drag. Buying, managing, backing up, fixing and securing PCs are expensive, time-consuming tasks that spawn a seemingly never-ending ordeal.

The problem must be tougher than they thought because they’re still trying to fix it. Here is a rundown of what has been working, what hasn’t and what might work in the future.

What’s the plan?

Desktop outsourcing, also known as seat management, has been around since the late 1990s. The basic idea is to find a willing party to take over the cat-herding exercise that is PC management. In this scenario, a contractor assumes responsibility for managing the desktop PC environment by bundling hardware, software, support and maintenance. The government customer pays a fixed price on a per-seat basis.

Ideally, desktop outsourcing makes chores such as maintenance and updates someone else’s headache. The practice can also make it easier for agencies to achieve standard configurations on the desktop. There’s also the potential to reduce total cost of ownership (TCO) through centralized, contractor-provided support and upgrade services.

Who uses it?

The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives generally gets the credit for kicking off the desktop outsourcing approach. That was in 1997. Since then, a number of other agencies have queued up for seat management. Notable examples include the Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA contracts, awarded in 1998, and Navy Marine Corps Intranet, awarded in 2000.

Has it worked?

That has been a dangerous question to ask NMCI users, some of whom consider the program a dastardly plot to undermine their productivity and aren’t shy to say so — just Google “NMCI complaints” for a taste. E-mail and Web performance have been among users' concerns. That said, customer satisfaction rates have exceeded 80 percent in recent years.

As for TCO improvement, NASA reports that ODIN keeps costs in check. In 2007, NASA cited 25 to 30 percent cost avoidance for desktop PCs through ODIN. John Sprague, NASA’s user services project executive for ODIN, said the program has generated an additional 10 percent cut in desktop PC costs. The cost of catalog items, such as memory and external hard drives, also has declined.

Future prospects?

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, desktop outsourcing contracts are in transition. Last month, the Navy awarded HP Enterprise Services a contract worth an estimated $3.4 billion to transition NMCI to the Next Generation Enterprise Network. And NASA will transfer ODIN capabilities to a new program, the $2.5 billion Agency Consolidated End-User Services program.

In both cases, making seat management more responsive to users' needs seems to be a priority. A contract summary provided by the Navy states that the new award will offer the “flexibility to meet emerging requirements.” Meanwhile, ACES calls for multiple seat types, including a build seat that will let scientific and engineering users get the specific desktop tools they need, Sprague said.

Although some agencies are refining seat management, observers question whether other agencies will move in that direction. “There hasn’t been a lot of other agencies that have adopted the practice,” said Chris Burns, director of engineering at General Dynamics IT.

One reason: Many agencies now take a do-it-yourself approach to managing desktop PCs. Burns said that over the years, agencies have gained experience in managing information technology assets, making them less likely to outsource. He cited a maturation in management processes and frameworks, such as the IT Infrastructure Library best-practices and self-help guide, and better desktop management software for deploying software updates and patches on an enterprise scale.

NEXT:  What about open source?

PC Fix #2: The Open-Source Desktop PC

What’s the plan?

Linux on desktop PCs offers the same cost savings potential as it does on server platforms: no upfront licensing costs. Novell's SUSE Linux, Red Hat and, most recently, Canonical's Ubuntu all have operating system distributions available via GSA Advantage.

Security is another bonus. Red Hat Enterprise Linux Version 4 includes the SELinux security feature, which stems from technology that the National Security Agency developed. Suse Linux Enterprise 11 also supports SELinux, while the AppArmor security module comes standard with Ubuntu versions 8.04 and 7.10. That module can be disabled to employ SELinux instead.

Open-source office suites for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations provide an alternative to a widely used software package from a company in Redmond, Wash. Those suites include OpenOffice.org, KOffice, and Gnome Office.

Who uses it?

Although government agencies now commonly use open-source software to meet their IT infrastructure needs, the use of open source for desktop PCs appears to be less mainstream at this point.

However, agencies do make desktop PC open-source software available. For example, NASA’s ODIN offers a Linux option. Sprague said productivity software such as OpenOffice isn’t available through ODIN, although some NASA centers use open-source suites.

Rob Glenn, chief of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's IT Security and Networking Division, said he sees open source used more in NIST’s research areas. “There are a few scientists that prefer to work in the open-source arena,” he said.

Has it worked?

So far, the lure of lower upfront costs and robust security hasn’t led to widespread adoption in the federal sector.

“We haven’t seen it embraced by the average desktop user,” said Darren Petrie, chief technologist at General Dynamics IT. For example, he said, OpenOffice.org adopters tend to be the most tech-savvy users in an organization.

Joe Moye, chief executive officer of Capgemini Government Solutions, said he’s seen a definite interest in Linux for commodity applications and hardware but noted skepticism regarding open-source office suites.

“Compatibility still remains a challenge for open-source office products,” he said.

Future prospects?

Products such as Microsoft’s MS OfficeLive, Google Apps and Zoho’s productivity software shift desktop applications to the cloud. Open-source purveyors, some of which already fuel cloud solutions, could find the cloud to be another avenue for influencing the federal desktop.

NEXT: Maybe use laptops?

PC Fix #3: Laptops as Desktop PC Replacements

What’s the plan?

Improving laptop prices and performance have led some agencies to replace traditional desktop PCs with more portable units. The move aims to please bean counters and users: The organization purchases one unit per user instead of two, and employees get the flexibility of a portable machine.

Who uses it?

Lots of people. In late 2008, IDC reported that laptop shipments outpaced desktop PCs for the first time. Just a month ago, IDC projected that portable devices will account for close to 70 percent of the PC market by 2012 and remain the driver of growth across consumer and commercial segments.

In government, the laptop population has climbed as well. Sprague said the NASA desktop vs. laptop PC split was 70/30 when ODIN started. The mix is getting closer to 50/50. At last count, the desktop PC population stood at 25,915 with laptops coming in at 21,553.

“I believe we will pass that and more on the mobile side,” Sprague said.

Darrell Graddy, vice president of Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Services-Civil, said that among the civilian agencies his company works with, the mobile portion of the PC population has grown to 46 percent this year. In 2011, he said, laptops — along with other portable computing devices, such as tablet PCs — will “more than likely exceed the amount of desktops.”

Has it worked?

Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights, said the laptop decision has proven to be a good one for agencies from a cost and energy consumption perspective. The typical desktop PC requires more power than a laptop does, especially for those desktop PCs still equipped with a CRT monitor, he said.

Portable PCs are also an obvious boon for telework and business continuity. The show can go on even if Washington is buried under two feet of snow. Yet security has been one significant downside, as any agency that has experienced missing laptops can attest. Greater use of encryption has eased that pain.

Future prospects?

Expect more of the same as tablet devices arrive on the scene. Apple’s iPad has already found its way into federal agencies and a bevy of rival tablets are expected to launch this year. However, tablets could cannibalize other portable categories. Forrester Research anticipates that tablets' growth will come at the expense of netbooks.

NEXT: How about a server-based solution?

PC Fix #4: Server-Based Computing/Thin Clients

What’s the plan?

Server-based computing, sometimes called presentation virtualization, has been around since the 1990s. Instead of having all users run a local version of a software application on their desktop PC, this approach lets users share access to an application hosted on a central terminal server. Server-based computing’s desktop sidekick is the thin client — a minimalist, less expensive PC that lacks a hard drive.

The basic thinking is that moving application-processing chores and storage to the server side eases the desktop management burden. It also allows agencies to get by with a stripped-down computer as opposed to a more costly, fully equipped PC. Central control over desktop PCs also promotes security.

Who uses it?

Server-based computing remains fairly common in government, although it tends to exist in pockets. For example, NIST provides thin clients to guests from universities or corporations who conduct research at facilities made available for external collaboration.

Thin clients let NIST “lock down what users can get access to while they are here,” Glenn said.

The Agriculture Department also has adopted thin clients as part of its server consolidation and virtualization strategy. The intelligence community also uses thin clients that run trusted operating systems.

Has it worked?

Server-based computing has saved agencies money on tech refresh and support cost, while making it easier for them to meet security standards, such as the Federal Desktop Core Configuration. But thin clients haven’t captured users’ imaginations with their limited customization capabilities. The server-based approach also tends to struggle on multimedia and graphically intensive applications.

Future prospects?

Thin clients will appear on NASA’s ACES contract as a seat has been reserved for the technology on the upcoming contract. Elsewhere, the Defense Intelligence Agency has been using thin clients for a while but plans to introduce a new thin-client infrastructure that can handle graphically demanding applications. That infrastructure will tap desktop virtualization technologies from Citrix, Intel and Microsoft, among others.

Michael Mestrovich, DIA's senior technology officer of innovation, said thin clients are significantly cheaper to support. However, their lack of support for multimedia and geospatial applications limited the devices to mostly office automation roles. But that will change with virtualization technology, and then thin clients will be suitable for any application, Mestrovich said.

NEXT: Move to the cloud?

PC Fix #5: Desktop Virtualization/Cloud Computing

What’s the plan?

Desktop virtualization goes beyond the presentation variety. Instead of focusing just on the application, this newer method maintains each user’s entire desktop as a virtual machine running on a central server running in a data center. Computing’s return trip to the mainframe-era glass house aims to centralize administrative tasks and boost security. The technique is different, but the general direction tracks with server-based computing.

Desktop virtualization dovetails with cloud computing. Those server-based virtual desktops can be maintained and doled out to users via the Internet by a commercial cloud provider or an agency IT shop that has built its internal infrastructure to function like a cloud service.

Who uses it?

Government agencies are putting desktop virtualization to the test. Stan Lequin, chief operating officer of Ensynch, an IT consulting firm, said much of the activity at the moment is in proof-of-concept projects. He said security is the biggest business driver among federal agencies.

DIA is one of the agencies exploring desktop virtualization. It completed a next-generation desktop pilot program at the end of June. DIA’s approach is to virtualize the organization’s applications and stream them to the desktop from the agency’s Virginia data center. The pilot program used Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager and Application Virtualization technology to deliver applications to thin clients and traditional PCs.

The test let DIA run geospatial applications, such as Google Earth, on thin clients, which isn’t possible with the agency’s existing thin-client environment. Mestrovich said the difference is that desktop virtualization provides a single instance of the application for each thin client, whereas the organization’s older thin-client infrastructure operates in a multiuser mode, which degraded performance.

The pilot program didn’t specifically involve the cloud, but DIA did collaborate with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which has also virtualized applications. The two agencies were able to exchange some of their virtualized software.

Has it worked?

With the test program wrapped up, Mestrovich said he has been “very pleasantly surprised with the state of the technology as it exists today.”

But the business case for the emerging technology has yet to come into complete focus. Mestrovich noted a lack of studies on desktop virtualization’s return on investment. “I personally think the cost of infrastructure is going to be substantial,” Mestrovich said. “The hosting of desktops on a server in a server room — that is an expensive operation.”

On the plus side, Mestrovich said he thinks DIA’s next-generation strategy will trim operations and maintenance costs and dramatically improve the agency’s security posture.

Future prospects?

Deniece Peterson, manager of industry analysis at Input, said she expects desktop virtualization to remain limited to pockets of the government until agencies become more comfortable with the technology and its variants.

That said, a recent study by CDW Government suggests there is potential for widespread deployment of desktop virtualization. The study reported that 84 percent of all government agencies are considering or implementing client virtualization. The company grouped most agencies in the learning phase of the adoption curve.

Dan Griggs, virtualization solutions architect at CDW-G, said customers are asking, “If I do desktop virtualization, what is it going to cost me, and what are the advantages and disadvantages?”

Government IT managers ask plenty of questions about cloud computing, too, particularly related to security. But as the technology gains ground, it could end up rejuvenating older desktop techniques.

Lee Koepping, senior director of the Technical Solutions Group at Iron Bow Technologies, an IT systems provider, said seat management might move into the realm of virtual technology and become a cloud offering.

“It will be ‘desktop as a service’ under the cloud umbrella,” he said.

And that just proves once again that if something stays around long enough in IT, it can always become new again.

About the Author

John Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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