PC-management tools take aim at cost of ownership

PC prices have been dropping during the last several years but not the burdensome cost of PC administration. That situation is changing however with industry vendors now offering a slew of software packages designed to ease what is now popularly known as the "total cost of ownership."

Total cost of ownership or TCO became a hot topic in January when Gartner Group a Stamford Conn.-based research firm released a study showing that a PC can cost large organizations nearly $10 000 annually to manage and refresh. A flurry of similar studies have put PC-management tools into the spotlight with vendors bringing out new products and users paying more attention.

"The past few years have been a buying frenzy of PC hardware and software " said Anthony Battista fielding team leader with the Army Small Computer Program office in Fort Monmouth N.J.

"But it's only recently that federal agencies have begun looking at questions like managing and connecting all this and how much it costs to have a PC on everyone's desktop " he said. "Now the buzzwords are 'cost of ownership.' "

The tools cover a range of functionality. Some such as CyberMedia Inc.'s First Aid 95 and Compaq Computer Corp.'s Insight Manager can be operated directly by end users on stand-alone or distributed networked PCs.

At the other end of the spectrum are large frameworks - such as Computer Associates International Inc.'s Unicenter TNG - that are tailored to let administrators perform PC management as well as a wide range of other functions from a central point on the network often across multiple platforms.

Return on Investment

PC-management tools address TCO by reducing the time and effort needed to keep a PC up and running. Not only do tool vendors aim to save customers money by reducing administrative support costs but also by increasing overall end-user productivity.

Gartner's TCO model looks at the complexity of PC-management solutions said Ray Paquet a research analyst for Gartner. PC-management tools that are relatively simple also tend to be relatively inexpensive posing fewer opportunities for cost savings and consequently fewer investment risks. Conversely "the more complex you are the higher the opportunity [for savings] but also the higher the risk."

Gartner has recently developed a second and related model known as LCO (lowered cost of ownership). "TCO says 'Here is the cost.' LCO says 'Given the cost how can you reduce it?' " Paquet said. LCO takes into account such factors as life-cycle costs of tools and the impact of the hardware and software inventory on the computing environment.

"Generally speaking the core products in suites tend to be geared to inventory or asset management change management and software distribution " said Rick Villars director of network management research for International Data Corp. Beyond that suites contain such capabilities as remote management fault management anti-viral software and licensing management.

Some tool vendors start with low-end TCO solutions by combining groups of perhaps three to six PC-management tools with related functionality into suites. CyberMedia is now offering a bundle of PC-management tools for end users called the Federal PC Companion Kit said John Inkley CyberMedia's manager of government programs.

The companion kit combines Micro 2000's Micro-Scope Client for testing PCs and reporting results to support staff with three tools from CyberMedia: First Aid for automatically detecting and fixing Microsoft Corp. Windows 95 operating system problems Uninstaller 4.5 for removing unwanted applications and files from Windows 95- and Windows NT-based PCs and Oil Change for obtaining automatic software updates from the World Wide Web.

"I like First Aid because now I don't have to drop everything each time something goes wrong with someone's computer " said April Merryman technical local-area network coordinator for the National Institutes for Health.

Merryman estimated that it once took her up to eight hours to restart Microsoft Windows each time Windows "did a flip" as a result of user-installed software applications. With First Aid users can often diagnose the reasons behind a Windows crash and solve the problem in 30 minutes or less she said.Norton Administrator for Networks (NAN) a PC-management suite for centralized administration incorporates tools for license metering software distribution and inventory a term that refers to discovering what kinds of hardware and software "assets" are running on networks.

Norton Administrator Suite (NAS) a suite introduced later adds anti-virus remote administration and other capabilities to the core functions said Kevin Haley product marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard Co. which purchased these packages from Symantec Corp. earlier this year.

The Senate is looking closely at using NAN primarily to find out precisely what kinds of hardware and software are running at its offices in Washington D.C. and at some 400 field offices throughout the United States said Kimball Winn assistant director at the Senate Computer Center. "We want to discover what's out there first. Then we'll probably be interested in doing more with PC management " Winn said.

While selling its network business Symantec has retained its Norton Utilities product line which supports the DOS Windows Windows 95 Windows NT and Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh environments. Norton Utilities provides PC users with protection against software conflicts screen freezes and system crashes among other services.

PC-management capabilities also are being rolled into network and PC operating systems such as Windows NT and IBM Corp.'s OS/2 Warp. Windows NT now includes hooks to Microsoft's Systems Management Server which enables network administrators to detect every machine on a network inventory software and hardware configurations and send key information back to a central database.

Computer Associates and Tivoli Systems a subsidiary of IBM have announced plans to integrate their systems management frameworks with Systems Management Server.

Likewise OS/2 Warp Server comes with tools for remote administration of Warp Windows and other PC clients. OS/2 also supports a "network computer" approach to administration said John Albee the OS/2 Warp manager at IBM. A technology called Remote Initial Program Load allows Warp clients to work locally with mirrored images of desktop software that is actually running on the server IBM said. Because the software is centralized the management is too.

Hardware vendors also are getting into the act. Earlier this year Compaq began to bundle a software package called Insight Manager Personal Edition with all new Deskpro PC models providing a Network Edition for systems administrators as well.

Compaq became aware early on of the relationship between PC management and cost of ownership coining the phrase "intelligent management" back in 1995 said Michael Takemua North American product manager for desktop product marketing at Compaq.

Initially Compaq's initiatives were confined to hardware-management efforts he said. Insight Manager adds such capabilities as fault management asset management configuration management and for hardware and data security management.

In fault management for example Insight Manager will send out an alert if the user's hard drive is about to fail. "Personal Edition also gives the end user a robust amount of information about desktop assets such as memory utilization " Takemua said.

Compaq also makes it possible to integrate Insight Manager with other vendors' management frameworks and tools. "We also realize that some customers have made additional choices so we provide hooks into other tools " he added. Compaq has provided "close integration" between Insight Manager and some outside tools and frameworks integrating with other tools and with larger management solutions through such industry standards as the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) and the Desktop Management Interface (DMI).

The Bigger Picture

In fact some vendors believe the larger platforms provide the best approach to reducing the cost of ownership of desktop clients.

These platforms include systems management frameworks such as Computer Associates' Unicenter TNG and IBM's Tivoli Management Enterprise (TME) as well as SNMP-based network management frameworks such as HP's OpenView and IBM's NetView.

SNMP-based network management systems such as HP OpenView are geared primarily toward managing network devices such as hubs and networks although administrators also can obtain views of all nodes on the network - including servers and PCs - as well as SNMP alerts for fault management.

HP however has just announced an HP TopTools Web browser-based PC-management application that will comply with DMI and SNMP. The tool will be pre-installed on HP hardware including PCs servers network computers and palmtops.

On the framework side vendors emphasize the advantages of cross-platform interoperability as well as integration with different tools.

"The biggest bang for the buck to customers comes from the ability to tie together different platforms " said Mike Miller senior vice president of federal sales for Computer Associates. The company's Unicenter TNG systems management framework runs on multiple Unix platforms as well as Windows NT.

The Unicenter TNG Asset Management Option supports all the major client platforms and provides such features as hardware and software inventory configuration management software metering and policy-based management.

Unicenter's policy-based management capabilities provide the ability to define organizationwide policies such as "no games on the desktop " as well as actions to be taken when policies are violated or problems are detected according to Miller.

Industry analysts emphasize though that for PC-management tools to really succeed in reducing cost of ownership policy issues must be addressed first.

In conducting return-on-investment studies for client organizations IDC has found that PC-management tools can bring dramatic cost savings improved productivity and reduced downtime.

However organizations see such savings only when they develop and put in place management policies according to Villars.

"Acquiring the tools is not that hard what's much more difficult is to reach decisions about organizational policies " he said.

Vendors agreed. "We can provide a lot of great tools. But these tools also need to be supported by customer best practices " Takemua said.

-- Emigh is a free-lance writer based in Boston.

* * *

At A Glance

Status: PC-management tools are available from multiple vendors in stand-alone products or product suites often with links to management frameworks.

Issues: Industry analysts have found the biggest return on investment comes from the more complex solutions. Ultimately management policy is a must.

Outlook: Excellent. The variety of options is constantly growing with new tools coming out of every corner of the market.

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