Tools you can count on

How many PCs does your organization own? The question may not be as easy to answer as you might think.

In one case, a federal agency believed that it owned 40,000 PCs, but an inventory found fewer than 25,000 machines, according to Martin Fredrickson, director of government sales for Tivoli Systems Inc., IBM's management software division. The faulty estimate had been based on purchases over several years but did not factor in PCs that were disposed of because of age.

Aside from demonstrating that the agency had little control over its PCs, that kind of mistake could have cost huge sums of money. Maintenance, help desk and software licensing contracts are all based on the number of PCs supported. Paying to support 15,000 nonexistent machines could have added 60 percent to the agency's support contracts. "They can be paying a heck of a lot in maintenance they don't need," Fredrickson said.

Industry has responded to this problem with desktop management tools that can provide information on all of the components running on users' desktops and ensure that systems are configured correctly. Managers can use this information to trouble-shoot problems and upgrade PCs remotely.

A Growing Problem

The incredible proliferation of PCs in federal agencies has made the task of tracking the number of PCs and their configurations extremely difficult. Some agencies do not even know how many PCs they own, much less what hardware and software is installed on them.

"We need accountability," said Jeff Brooks, logistics management specialist for the Army at Fort Monmouth, N.J. "The Army originally fielded stand-alone PCs. Now we don't know where those PCs are."

The Internal Revenue Service, on the other hand, knew how many PCs it owned because it made employees count them by hand, said Tom Hoffmann, senior technical manager for the IRS' assistant commissioner of information systems field operations in Dallas. "The [end users] do their own inventory," he said. "We want to relieve them of that burden. They should be assisting taxpayers, not inventorying information technology assets."

To help buyers keep track of the number of PCs they own and the PCs' configurations, most major PC vendors include desktop management software with their computers. Many vendors have even developed their own specific software, while others customize third-party software such as Intel Corp.'s LANDesk Client Manager.

To make better use of this client information, software vendors offer tools for network managers to gather and analyze information from all the PCs on a network.

The overall market for desktop management tools totaled $589.4 million in 1998, a 28 percent increase from the previous year, according to Stephan Elliot, a Gartner Group analyst in Lowell, Mass. The products leading the market are Microsoft Corp.'s Systems Management Server, Intel's LANDesk and Novell Inc.'s Managewise, Elliot said.

Although many of the same vendors that offer desktop management products also provide network management tools, the two are entirely different. Network and server management is done from centralized management consoles, possibly the same ones used for desktop management. But those consoles analyze phenomena such as network traffic or disk activity on servers, rather than examining the PCs sitting on users' desks.

Because of this interconnectedness, the industry organization founded to address desktop management compatibility issues, the Desktop Management Task Force, changed its name to the Distributed Management Task Force. Support for DMTF's Desktop Management Interface (DMI) standard, which allows administrators to obtain information on desktop devices and software, accelerated with the 1997 release of DMI 2.0, according to PC vendors.

The Defense Information Systems Agency is participating in DMTF's shift toward distributed management standards as a member of DMTF's customer advisory board, the Army's Brooks said. "In the government, we are always being told what we have to use," he said. "We are trying to reverse that by grabbing the bull by the horns and helping define the standard."

Observers said concern about two popular trends - Year 2000 compliance and total cost of ownership (TCO) - is behind the increased federal interest in desktop management tools.

"Y2K testing is driving a lot of the demand for desktop management," said Rick Villars, vice president of networked software research at International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass. Agencies need to know exactly what hardware and software they own before they can begin to tackle the question of whether it is Year 2000-compliant, he said.

Consequently, agencies are showing a lot more interest in desktop management and related asset management features, Villars said.

When surveying its desktop population, the IRS found a lot of ancient hardware, Hoffmann said. "We still had 286s," he said. "We're still trying to get rid of all the 486s, and now we are trying to get to all Pentium-based systems."

But knowing processor speeds is not detailed enough information when it comes to certifying Year 2000 compliance. And if older Pentiums need to be upgraded to run newer operating systems and applications, managers need to know what their upgrade options are.

When a user requests more memory, managers need to know how much memory already is installed and what its configuration is before buying more. If, for example, all the memory slots are filled with low-density memory, then all of it must be removed before new RAM can be added to boost overall memory power.

Time Savers

Meanwhile, agencies are searching for ways to automate expensive, time-consuming processes, such as installing updated software and drivers on PCs. Desktop management products that survey the configuration of PCs also can help automate update installations, said Don Tiaga, a technical consultant for Hewlett-Packard Co.

"With the government looking at TCO, having to administer a bunch of machines can be a very time-consuming process and is very expensive," Tiaga said. "[Desktop management tools] improve overall MIS efficiency."

Automatically gathering relevant information about PCs requires a hardware component in addition to software tools. Hardware vendors build their machines to comply with the Wired for Management specification to ensure compatibility between brands. WFM certification also serves as an indication for buyers that the PCs they are considering have the requisite instrumentation for proper management. Installing management software on old PCs that lack WFM certification will provide no detailed information about hardware status.

"Management is only as good as the information you can get from the thing you are trying to manage," said Ray Williams, vice president of technology for DMTF.

Desktop management also can help agencies avoid conflicts between incompatible pieces of hardware or software because the management software provides a clear accounting of the components present on a malfunctioning machine. "Seventy-five to 90 percent of problems happen as the result of some kind of configuration error or application error," said Dave Taylor, director of marketing for Intel's systems management division. "If we can provide an organization [with] a means by which they can control devices, they can eliminate the vast majority of errors."

Preventing errors from ever happening in the first place is probably the best way to save money on technical support, Taylor said.

Williams said this type of configuration management could just as easily be called problem management - the ability to solve problems that previously could not be solved without an on-site trip. Desktop management software allows administrators to see exactly what is installed on a machine, and this view can provide evidence of the source of the problem, he said.

Often, an end user installs software or changes settings, unknowingly causing conflicts, Williams said, so it is critical for trouble-shooters to be able to evaluate machine status and pinpoint how problems arise. Desktop management tools enable managers to resolve such problems remotely, he said.

The IRS' Hoffmann pointed out that these tools allow agencies to support additional PCs without increasing staff. He said the IRS is adding thousands of PCs to its network but will manage them with the same support staff, thanks to desktop management tools. "We're anticipating not having to increase staffing," he said.

Remote trouble-shooting is important especially for federal agencies that have field offices that do not have their own support staff, said Rick Watson, a Hewlett-Packard federal sales representative. Watson said this capability will be especially valuable to agencies with distributed locations.

While the software provided by PC vendors with their machines is almost uniformly DMI-compliant, vendors add features to their own PCs that reveal additional information about the devices or provide some additional ability to manage them.

Mike Smith, product manager for Dell Computer Corp., said hardware manufacturers must give their customers the capacity to perform management tasks that they could not do using tools from third-party vendors. By providing such capabilities, PC companies will offer users an incentive to use the vendor's own software and to buy future PCs from the same vendor.

Compaq Computer Corp., for example, manufactures the hard drives in its machines to predict failure before it happens. So an agency using Compaq's desktop management software will enjoy the benefit of early-warning alarms.

Compaq also provides tools that let agencies automatically update PCs with newer drivers as they are released, said Scott Edwards, manager of Compaq's Deskpro value-added marketing group. He said users can easily maintain and update 10,000 to 20,000 desktops in 30 minutes because the management software tells administrators exactly what software and drivers are on each machine, and the update software determines which machines need which updates.

Such technology could spell the end of the traditional all-night upgrade for computer support workers. Users will no longer have to stay late and upgrade computers one by one.

Perhaps desktop management tools will eliminate another expense: pizza delivery during those late-night PC upgrades.

-- Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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AT A GLANCE

* Status: The market for desktop management tools has been growing as managers attempt to deal with the proliferation of PCs within their organizations. These tools are necessary to help managers keep track of inventory, address compatibility issues and remotely upgrade and trouble-shoot.

* Issues: The Year 2000 problem has created an urgent need for desktop management tools that can help identify all devices within an organization that must be made Y2K-compliant. Also, agencies looking to mitigate the total cost of ownership of PCs have found desktop management tools helpful in reducing expenses associated with the manual administration of Pcs.

* Outlook: Good. The continued reliance on PCs and the government's focus on total cost of ownership will continue to drive the need for desktop management tools. Hardware vendors are beginning to expand these capabilities by adding proprietary management tools that go beyond the standard management capabilities provided by third-party vendors.

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