Tools make Wintel low-cost option to NetPCs

The government information technology community has voted overwhelmingly for Wintel, the unavoidable combination of Microsoft Corp.'s system software and Intel Corp.'s microprocessors. But tight budgets are causing more federal IT managers to evaluate other lower-cost alternatives, such as the Oracle Corp./Sun Microsystems Inc. Network Computer and the NetPC, as they come to understand the Life Cycle Cost of Ownership (LCO).

Although the platform may not be perfect— any user running Windows 95 is painfully aware of its perils— Wintel's dominant duo indisputably offers access to the largest pool of application software. Furthermore, Wintel's ubiquity ensures system compatibility and guarantees a robust future development path.

Increasingly, federal managers recognize that support, downtime and training account for about 70 percent of the Total Cost of Ownership of a PC for a five-year period. It is this realization that is driving the new volley of seat management outsourcing contracts.

Cognizant of the huge Wintel installed base, yet challenged to deliver increasingly efficient operating environments, federal CIOs are weighing the trade-offs between the traditionally LCO-expensive Wintel and the disruption that would occur if they crossed the chasm to the largely unproven world of network computing.

The rival vendor camps are all too aware of the implications of the government's decision. As the world's largest IT user, the federal government is the standard setter for corporate computing. Consequently, competition and pressure to choose either Wintel or network computers has more implications in the federal market than in any other segment of the economy.

However, a closer look at the options of sticking with Wintel shows how an agency can slash the LCO without abandoning its installed IT infrastructure.

A new class of automatic technical support software tools, designed to address the software shortcomings of mainstream Wintel platforms, are delivering solutions without requiring federal IT managers to compromise.

The enabling solutions tune and fix the software to tweak performance and reduce Wintel costs. Running on the Windows client, the tools offer a broad range of functionality. Shadowing the operating system, fix tools watch for conflicts among the application software, the operating system software and hardware and intercept Windows crashes— all of which radically reduce the need for end-user support. Other tools use the Internet to deliver easily downloadable software-bug fixes, patches and upgraded software.

In addition to reducing Wintel's LCO and making network computers look less attractive, these automatic service and support tools complement installed enterprise network system, application, and data management solutions such as Computer Associates International Inc.'s Unicenter, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView, SunSoft Inc.'s Solstice SunNet Manager and BMC Software Inc.'s Patrol. The tools play beneath the organizational management architectures to provide functionality at the desktop level.

It is no wonder that these tools are taking root at agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Logistics Agency and in the integrator base.

In the government community— where prime contractors sign up to provide 24-hour, seven-day, free telephone and on-site support; offer software upgrades at no charge throughout the duration of a contract; and serve federal users worldwide— these so-called "self-healing" solutions deliver significant

service and support as well as lower costs caused by downtime. According to Gartner Group, the cost of a support call averages $22 to $42 per node, per year in organizations with 1,000 nodes.

Industry experts estimated that 80 percent of these calls are the result of "routine" Windows problems caused by already identified software conflicts. Gartner anticipates a daily call volume of 72 for every 1,000 users.

By deploying the self-healing PC solutions, integrators and agencies' in-house support offices could expect an annual savings of nearly $581,000 for every 1,000 users. Add to this the savings associated with using the World Wide Web to automatically push software upgrades to users— as opposed to notifying via mail— then shipping and installing the software, and the cost-avoidance case becomes more compelling.

With these tools, chief information officers can sidestep the either or choice on LCO and Wintel and focus on more pressing issues such as the Year 2000 problem, the European monetary unit and data center consolidation.

Kerins, director of federal sales and marketing for CyberMedia, has more than 15 years' experience in the public-sector marketplace.

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