Tools for managing the desktop

As federal agencies struggle to gain better control over the desktop computers on their networks, they are increasingly choosing products and services to help give them a global, enterprise view of all systems, down to the desktop level.

The trend toward improving desktop systems management has become increasingly important as federal and private-sector organizations strive to maintain and upgrade ever-growing numbers of PCs. Also, the biggest savings possible today often come from improving desktop systems management.

"With the total cost of ownership of a single PC hovering in the $10,000 range, any tools that help reduce that cost must be considered," said Joe Quigg, senior vice president of Computer Associates International Inc.'s Federal Division, Islandia, N.Y.

Analysts say there are a variety of tasks required to adequately manage desktop systems in any organization. Among the key jobs are:

* Asset or inventory control, which examines the precise content of each desktop computer, down to the operating system and chip level.

* Automated software distribution, which delivers software programs and upgrades to users automatically from a centralized location.

* Well-organized help desks, which provide support when something on a system goes awry.

* Centralized backup and recovery, which, although not really a systems management issue, is nonetheless critical to maintaining PCs in any organization, said Jonathon Eunice, an analyst for Illuminata Inc., a consulting firm in Nashua, N.H.

In a few cases, the struggle to adequately maintain PCs can become so great that some federal agencies decide to throw in the towel— passing control of desktop systems to third parties via seat management contracts. Typically, seat management contracts encompass a number of information technology services, including hardware and software acquisition, asset management, desktop and network management, operations management, support services and technology refreshment, among others.

Federal users admit that seat management contracts do alleviate many of the headaches of PC ownership. That's because these desktop outsourcing contracts enable agencies to focus on their core missions. "We look exclusively to OAO [Corp.] to handle any problem JPL has regarding desktop systems," said Richard R. Green, program manager for desktop and network services at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California

But whether they decide to buy systems management software or outsource the entire desktop management task, vendors, analysts and current federal users say there are several options organization must consider when selecting a desktop management solution. That's because the leading suppliers offer a variety of approaches to help alleviate the desktop systems management headache.

JPL's seat management contract covers 8,600 Mac and PC systems and includes options for managing Unix and network systems as needed in the future. OAO, Greenbelt, Md., is currently using Command/Post from Boole & Babbage Inc., San Jose, Calif., to manage JPL's desktop systems.

Command/Post manages service levels; it doesn't perform desktop administration. "It's the operations of desktop systems that [are] important to us, especially when those systems contain mission-critical applications," said Saverio Merlo, senior vice president of marketing at Boole & Babbage.

"Unlike Tivoli [Systems Inc.], CA and others, we don't focus on desktop management itself, only in the context of the desktop as a link in the chain. In our offering, service levels are determined by the weakest link in the chain," Merlo said.

According to JPL's Green, OAO brings innovative systems management approaches that would have been difficult for JPL to implement but that are relatively easy for the contractor to add, such as remote network management and advanced systems administration. OAO officials said the company provides a complex integration of the best-of-breed tools to manage systems for their clients. "Many organizations throw money at tools, but it really takes three key things— people, processes and tools— to successfully manage all of the systems on a network," said Ed Blanchard, vice president of the Desktop Networking Service Division of OAO.

For OAO, the first two components are as important as the third. "A fool with a tool is just a faster fool," Blanchard said.

In all, JPL's seat management contract features 44 metrics by which OAO's performance is measured.

Before JPL decided to outsource desktop systems management, Green maintains that such an ad hoc collection of computers made it difficult for anyone at JPL to get a clear picture of desktop computing costs. "But we know those costs were higher than what JPL is currently spending on this contract," Green said. By charging a fixed unit price to each user for each desktop computer, "it's quite visible now what each system really costs. And this helps users make informed decisions about adding more computers," he said.

It's a Modular World

But among those organizations that choose to continue supporting their systems in-house, some believe a modular approach to systems management is best. That's the reason the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chose Tivoli's TME to help manage all its systems. The agency is convinced that Tivoli, Austin, Texas, offered the best systems management solution "because it's structured to enable us to choose the modules we need to put into place and still add other products, even from other suppliers as required for special security purposes, for example," said Ned Goldberg, chief of operations and support for the DEA's IT organization.

The DEA has 5,000 nodes in a shared desktop environment, located in 450 sites throughout the world. But by 2002, the plan is for every desktop in the agency to have a PC, which would increase the total to 10,000 systems.

The agency is in the middle of converting from an 8-year-old Unisys Corp. mainframe environment to a Microsoft Corp. Windows NT-based local-area network/wide-area network system. With 20 large offices and many smaller satellite offices, some with no IT staff and fewer than 10 people, "we need the ability to remotely check machines. Tivoli TME enables us to not only receive alarms but also to perform backups and restarts from a central location. So we don't need to send technicians to, in some cases, very dangerous places," Goldberg said.

The Tivoli systems management portion of the agency's effort includes NetView, asset management, security and software distribution as well as a separate help-desk function that integrates under Tivoli's TME as well. In all, the system cost just less than $4 million, but Goldberg estimates the investment will be recouped in less than a year and demonstrated in the new ability to distribute software without sending technicians to every desktop system.

The new network system is being funded under the Justice Department's Firebird project. Goldberg maintains that key to the success of any systems management project is top-level management commitment. "We got that by demonstrating the cost of sending technicians to touch every system for just seven minutes apiece," he said.

The DEA is considering adding a software metering capability from Tivoli to provide better leveraging for enterprise licensing agreements and to position the agency for a possible seat management contract in the future. "We are thinking about leasing systems in the future," Goldberg said.

And in the meantime, "we really don't want to manually count every user of a particular software package, though the vendor deserves to know precisely how many users are accessing that package," he said.

Tivoli's Bill Johnson, product line manager for infrastructure, sees the modularity of Tivoli's approach as one of its biggest strengths. "TME was built from the ground up as a framework of common services leveraged across all products," he said. That way, Johnson maintains, customers can buy what they need now and add more functions as required later.

The Unicenter Universe

CA, meanwhile, offers a broad over-arching product strategy that encompasses 14 functions in its Unicenter systems management offering.

"We consider our solution to be the most comprehensive and enterprisewide platform for systems management available," Quigg said. Unicenter incorporates key tasks such as hardware and software inventory management, software license management, automated software distribution, remote control of distributed systems and software metering, among others, he said.

Anniston Army Depot, Anniston, Ala., is using CA's Unicenter product for software distribution and for monitoring the depot's network for outages. "It manages the routers, hubs, minicomputers and desktop systems, and [it] alerts us when any of those subsystems goes down so we can execute a repair," said Donal Meynig, director of information management at Anniston. The depot is also adding a help-desk function designed to enable Meynig's staff to be more proactive in problem determination and in tracking user problems. With the addition of Unicenter's latest generation of help-desk software, users will be able to check over the Internet the status of a continuing problem, "which will hopefully save our staff some time on the phones," he said.

With 2,600 employees and some 1,200 PCs on the network, adding more memory or hard disk storage to avoid costly, time-consuming system crashes is a key goal for Anniston.

Meynig summed it up this way: "The depot is 8 square miles in size, and if we can avoid loading parts on trucks and driving to another location to make corrections and/or replace parts, we need to save that time and labor."

For its part, the world's largest software company is also working to make desktop management an easier process as well. That's why Microsoft focuses on the systems management of Windows platforms through its Systems Management Server product, SMS Version 1.2, which is now available, and SMS Version 2.0, which will be shipping in the fourth quarter.

SMS focuses on hardware and software inventory control, software distribution, software metering and remote diagnostics. In addition, separate from SMS, the company offers Microsoft's Zero Administration Kit for Windows, which is a set of tools for IT administrators to build policies and profiles in Windows NT and Windows 95 or Windows 98 that enable organizations to lock down systems. "This is used to control the look and feel of Windows for users and to control what users can access and what they can do on a system," said Victor Raisys, lead product manager for Windows management infrastructure and products at Microsoft.

According to Raisys, however, Microsoft's systems management capability is far less comprehensive than that of CA or Tivoli. And the leading systems management suppliers are both partners with Microsoft in offering advanced systems management functions for Windows PCs.

In the future, analysts said, the landscape will evolve to incorporate other desktop technologies, including thin clients, which analysts contend offer better centralized control. "Right now, most IT organizations can't adequately manage the ever-increasing numbers of desktop systems currently in place. But with the help of advanced systems management offerings and thin-client computing technologies, it will be increasingly possible for them to see what's happening on remote PCs— down to the chip level— and manage and control every aspect of a system from a centralized location," said Greg Blatnick, an analyst for Zona Research Inc., Redwood City, Calif.

-- DePompa Reimers is a free-lance writer based in Germantown, Md. She can be reached at bdepompa@aol.com.

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