Maximizing payback

When it comes to keeping track of PCs and managing the software running

on them, federal technology managers can gain several benefits by using

a centralized desktop management system.

However, making the decision to purchase one of these products and getting

the maximum return on investment from it are two different things.

"Planning is critical to success: The more you put into it, the more

you get out of it," said Don Vincent, director of software development for

Attachmate Corp. "What's more, the opposite is true in spades: The more

casually you think of the system as a total solution and not as a tool to

execute what it is that you want to do, the more trouble you're going to

be in. It can actually cause situations where you lose money or damage your

existing system."

Of course, the benefits will far outweigh the risks if the system is

deployed properly. For example, information technology managers can use

a system to automatically distribute software packages and upgrades to every

PC on the network. They can also perform remote diagnostics and repairs

on those machines. This saves money by reducing IT personnel time and improving

user training and help-desk operations.

Agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Navy, the Defense

Logistics Agency, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Bureau of Alcohol,

Tobacco and Firearms, and the Drug Enforcement Administration have installed

desktop management products.

The tools work best with large organizations that have some form of

centralized IT management in place, but most agencies can still benefit

by using desktop management software. Going from product acquisition to

productivity gains requires several key steps.

Assess and Plan

The first phase involves conducting an in-depth investigation of your

current IT environment, planning for contingencies and future growth, and

determining objectives and expectations.

First up: A bare-knuckled inventory of the enterprise — right down to

the last handheld.

"In some cases, it may be the biggest challenge," explained Jim Russell,

director of federal sales for Tivoli Systems Inc. "Many CIOs have no idea

what their [IT] landscape looks like because of all the purchasing that's

been done in the field, so they've got to go out and essentially do a discovery

and identify anything and everything that's attached to the network."

Once an inventory is complete, organizations can begin to decide on

platform and application standards and policies. Do you want to limit the

number of hardware platforms or find a tool that can support everything?

How will you decide which users will be assigned to certain user groups?

What rights and packages will the financial group have at their disposal

as compared to, say, the human resources group?

Think about the future: "Are you going to be deploying mobile devices

in the next year or two?" asked Allan Anderson, vice president of business

management for Computer Associates International Inc. "If so, you'd better

choose a solution that incorporates it now, because if you have to deploy

new infrastructure to handle these new requirements, it could be very difficult

and disruptive."

Get End-User Buy In

User acceptance can technically be considered part of the planning phase,

but it is so critical to success that it deserves its own category. "You're

going into other people's fiefdoms," Russell said. "You're not necessarily

dictating, but you're trying to enforce standards, and it's not always well-received."

To protect against user resentment or an all-out revolt, you'll need

to prepare users on how the new system will work and how it will affect

their jobs. Then get their input on applications standards.

"This is a chance for the IT department to really market itself and

show the users how this is going to benefit the whole organization," said

Mark Israel, vice president of marketing for Cognet Corp. "They need to

explain how they'll be improving the stability of the environment, better

managing the standards, enforcing certain policies — all of which is aimed

at reducing help-desk support calls and freeing up the IT staff to do other,

more productive tasks."

In speaking with users or user representatives, IT managers need to

set realistic expectations and keep communication lines open throughout

the process, perhaps via a newsletter or routine e-mail messages.

Choose the Right Tool

There are more than a dozen software distribution tools on the market

and, not surprisingly, each has a different approach and capability.

When choosing the best tool for the job, organizations need to take

into account their enterprise architecture and personnel resources and ask

some pertinent questions: Will the tool effectively support all the platforms

that you have within your enterprise and you expect to have in the future?

Can it support custom-developed as well as off-the-shelf applications? Is

the tool end-to-end? Will it automatically check for disk space on each

individual PC before it implements the application? If for some reason an

application does not work, does the tool have a recovery mechanism in place

that will allow you to quickly and easily uninstall the distributed packages?

"The key to picking a good tool is expectations," Israel noted. "A lot

of people will purchase a tool without really determining whether that tool

can deliver on that expectation. So you really need to list out what it

is that you need and then shop around."

Fine-Tune the System

"When it comes time to implement, do it very quickly," said John Goddin,

product manager for government services for Beyond.com Corp. "Just get it

out there and then deal with things that don't work, but deal with them

very quickly."

Although a well-installed system will help minimize software distribution

errors, IT staff can still improve the success rate during the production

and maintenance phases. "A lot of times, agencies are focusing on the big

jobs but they're not necessarily thinking about virus tables and patches

and regular things that have to happen to ensure the integrity of the environment

and the user experience," Israel said.

One of the most important steps is to continually test applications

in a lab environment before shipping them out to PCs. Testing potential

bugs will guard against configuration problems or other errors that can

disrupt the system and actually increase help-desk call volume.

When errors occur, be very structured about collecting data and documenting

the errors. IT staff needs to routinely set up shortcuts, make sure that

as updates are put in, familiar interface settings are kept, and continually

evaluate and update user privileges and policies.

— Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached

at Heather B. Hayes.

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