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.
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.
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."
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.