Air Force studies PC costs

Information technology managers often ask their workers to solve problems by thinking outside the box, but if an ongoing study at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is an indication, the better advice might be to remove the box from the desktop.

In an attempt to minimize the interruption of service to computer users at Hill, the base's chief information officer is conducting a total cost of ownership study comparing the traditional distributed desktop environment with a centralized, managed PC architecture from ClearCube Technology Inc.

The base normally gets one-third of its PCs refreshed annually through the Air Force's central purchasing authority, said Capt. Tim Ohrenberger, the base CIO who also serves as the information services flight commander at Hill's Tanner Memorial Medical Clinic. The ClearCube PC environment "just made sense" as an alternative to traditional distributed desktops by requiring fewer man-hours for similar tasks, he said.

The Blade, ClearCube's CPU box, is long and thin and sits in a rack removed from the actual computing environment. That provides physical security for the hard drives and helps ease downtime because the Blades can be kept near support personnel, said Michael Frost, president and chief executive officer of the Austin, Texas-based company.

ClearCube commissioned IDC to conduct a total cost of ownership study last year comparing the ClearCube technology to Hill's current desktop environment. IDC's report estimated an annual savings of about $1.5 million during a three-year period using Blades, including annual savings of more than $100,000 on trips to the desktop and $330,000 in "technician utilization."

But Ohrenberger said he knew the Air Force central purchasing personnel would need more proof, especially since Blades cost about twice as much upfront as a standard Dell Computer Corp. desktop PC.

"I decided to do a pilot [project] to attempt to validate those numbers, which could show the spectrum of complete failure to [totally] true," he said, adding that funding was then made available and the pilot launched May 24.

Since the IDC study, which concluded in January, Ohrenberger and his staff have been collecting data on updgrade costs they received in the traditional environment, including cost, man-hours and other variables.

Through the pilot project, those same numbers are being compared to ClearCube's centrally managed system and will continue to be collected through the end of this month (see box).

Despite the fact that the Blades initially cost more than a standard desktop, there are benefits that make them a viable alternative to the traditional environment, including lower IT support costs and faster and easier support for local users, Ohrenberger said.

"The bottom line is a minimal interruption of service to my internal customers, which in turn, relates to them providing a higher level of care" to the patients and visitors seeking medical attention, he said.

Frost acknowledged that Blades initially cost more than a $900 Dell desktop, but he said the same concept that causes people to buy wireless telephones applies: Consumers are willing to pay more as long as the plan includes more minutes at a better price.

The cost of supporting a Dell is three to six times more than the cost of buying it, Frost said. "We're a self-funding product."

"You, as the user, can't tell the difference," he said, because the user is still using Microsoft Corp. Windows.

Leslie Fiering, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Inc., said, "PCs in a managed environment always have a lower total cost of ownership."

"It's a way of forcing consistency in the system image and software load," said Fiering, adding that she was not surprised by the estimated savings and commended the ClearCube technology for its security, easier maintenance and backup.

But there are potential pitfalls associated with the centralized architecture. For notebook users who travel frequently or require flexible software application loads, ClearCube is not the answer, she said.

"The style of computing must match the organizational structure," Fiering said. "In the right environment, the savings can be dramatic."

And that's what Ohrenberger is hoping this total cost of ownership study will prove.

"By the end of June, we should have enough data," Ohrenberger said.

By mid-July, he said he would like to forward his conclusions to the central purchasing authority.

"The end product that I'd want is that you're at your facility and need to purchase 125 PCs and you can decide if you want all desktop, all ClearCube or a mixture," he said.

***

Study basics

The chief information officer of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is conducting a total cost of ownership study comparing the traditional distributed desktop environment with a centralized, managed PC architecture. The base has about 350 users in five buildings and a staff of about six in the information technology department.

The study is being conducted in the medical group, which is housed in a building separate from the main facility and runs patient care for three clinics: optometry, pediatrics and the flight surgeon's office. There are 44 users in the medical facility, and everyday obstacles include space, security and reliability, said Capt. Tim Ohrenberger, Hill's CIO.

"The environment is totally realistic," he said. "It's not in a classroom or a test bed that's not indicative of the actual environment."

Ohrenberger used $75,000 in funding for equipment purchases and said he was using "my own people and all other resources." Final results of the study are expected in mid-July.

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