Subscribe to our Newsletter
There was a time when managing a network of PCs involved buying a fleet of computers for the lowest price possible, loading them up with a bunch of software and hoping that they worked for a few years before embarking on another round of purchasing in a few years time.
Today, the business of managing PCs has become much more complex. There’s the choice to either purchase or lease, software needs to be managed as licensing conditions are more tightly enforced and workforces are no longer confined to the office – it’s not unusual for a business’ computing fleet to be out of the office more often than not. And then there’s issue of securing and deploying applications to the myriad mobile data appliances – Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, iPhone and iPad.
In order to ensure that the maximum value is extracted from these assets, it’s essential that a whole-of-life view is taken to their management. That means making considered decisions about financing at the procurement stage through to the cost of deployment, management of software installation and licensing through to user support and, ultimately, decommissioning and disposal.
All of these elements must be considered together if costs are to be managed and value maximised. For example, buying a cheap, no-name system might save you money initially but when it comes to buying more systems later you may find that the system images you’d prepared need to be recreated from scratch to accommodate hardware changes. That means the money saved on hardware is paid back with more work for your already busy support staff.
The PC Lifecycle starts with procurement and the decision-making process that precedes any significant purchase. There was a time when all PCs looked more or less the same. But today, one needs to look a little deeper at the design philosophy and the standards that apply in the manufacture of the computers you’re planning to buy.
While “greenwashing” – declarations of environmental friendliness – are now a standard part of computer manufacturers’ marketing, most are working to a set of standards. EPEAT (www.epeat.net) sets a number of mandatory and optional criteria. We’d expect that corporate and government clients would look at only Gold Standard systems as these satisfy all of the mandatory criteria and at least 75 per cent of the optional measures. EPEAT looks at the materials used in manufacture, energy consumption, packaging and recyclability of components.
Perhaps one of the most challenging technology procurement programs of recent times has been the purchase of notebooks as a result of the Federal Government’s Digital Education Revolution. For the Chief Technical Officer of the Catholic Education Office, Milton Scott, that meant deploying a new fleet of computers to 48,000 users in 148 schools – 80 per cent of whom would be receiving a new notebook.
Setting the requirements for the new systems was a challenge. Scott says, “You need a processor and memory that can cope with everyday tasks as well as some heavier tasks such as video editing. Atom processors don’t cut it. We start with the person’s needs and translate that into a spec at the time. Therein lies another problem – six or seven months later the whole world moves again.”
Scott’s strategy is to buy with a view on balancing specification and prices, although “it’s more driven by specification” as that will drive the ultimate usability of the system for this vast body of users.
Thus far, with about 17,000 of those systems deployed to teachers and pupils, the project is going well, although Scott noted some important lessons that were learned along the way.
“We started with a tender process that focussed not just on price, but on servicing as well. We’re also focussed on ‘dead on arrival’ rates. That’s the most problematic thing at the start of a lifecycle.”
Interestingly, as Scott is responsible for both Windows and Mac environments, he’s found DOA rates on Macs far lower than on PCs and that Apple provides solid professional development backup for staff wanting to learn about Apple’s applications.
Once a fleet of new systems is purchased the next challenge is to get them in front of users as quickly as possible with all the required applications installed and configured correctly. Ask any end user about what they hate most about a new system and it’s inevitably that things aren’t in the same place as the old system and personal customisations, such as template macros, are lost.
Vendors such as Dell try to make this process as painless as possible. Mike Townsend, Latitude Brand Manager for Dell Australia explains, “We have Custom Factory Integration. Customers can provide an image. They test, ensure it works and sign it off. We then deliver direct from the factory to the end user. This prevents multiple handling of the device and time-wasting.”
For the Desktop Services Team Leader at the City of Melbourne, Ashe Potter, the challenges of deployment were considerable. When he joined the City of Melbourne, there were several different computer brands on users’ desks and no agreements in place with a vendor. That made deployment and management tricky with his constituency of over 1400 users.
When choosing a single supplier, Potter’s primary consideration was choosing a “green” solution. As the City of Melbourne was moving to a new six star rated building, only vendors with strong environmental credibility were going to be chosen. One of the overarching principles held by Potter and his team was that, “Nothing must go to landfill.” So, from the outset, Potter had the full lifecycle from procurement to disposal in mind.
Potter’s preferred deployment approach has been to create a “Gold” image that forms the basis of all system builds. “We then inject new drivers into the image using Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager rather than relying on auto updates when the system is deployed.” Potter’s approach, coupled with keeping a few spare systems in stock, means that he can have a new system on someone’s desk within 30 minutes if a computer breaks down. If the system requires any special applications then the new computer needs another 30 minutes.
Comparing the City of Melbourne and Catholic Education Office, it’s clear that they have different customers, requirements and methodologies. However, the most marked difference between them is the degree of system mobility. The Catholic Education Office has a fleet of systems that are mobile and only sporadically connected to the local network. This trend is one that the Gartner group sees continuing. A recent report they released suggests that PC and mobile device management will converge over the next couple of years. Given the popularity of smartphones and tablet computers like the iPad, this is not surprising, but it will provide a fresh set of challenges.
Operation and management
When it comes to maintaining systems in the field, there are literally hundreds of potential solutions to choose from. Some vendors, like HP and Lenovo, offer custom solutions that come installed on their hardware. In other cases, niche applications and utilities can automate small tasks to reduce the workload for support staff carrying out repetitive tasks.
The City of Melbourne uses NightWatchman from 1E. The application scans the network for PCs that have been left switched on overnight and powers them down remotely. Potter and his team have developed scripts that check the PC for open files and ensure that any work is saved before the computer is switched off. That simple act alone saves tens of thousands of dollars on the electricity bill each year.
Another benefit that Potter has realised from NightWatchman is that it can also be used to turn systems on. A typical routine is for all systems to be powered off in the evening, powered up later at night, patched with the latest security and antivirus updates and then powered down again.
For those looking at manufacturer independent solutions, software vendors like Kaseya also provide Standard Operating Environment (SOE), image and application deployment. Their solutions also allow automation of repetitive tasks such as updates of anti-virus software, deletion of temp files and disk defragmentation. In addition, being able to remotely manage systems makes it possible to proactively manage problems – often before users realise that there’s an issue.
Scott Nicewarner, IT manager at City of Hagerstown in Maryland, USA, explains that “Kaseya allows us to set up alerts and monitor trends in our computing environment, giving us a heads up on performance issues prior to the system going down. We’re no longer running around reacting to the world falling down around us. We’re on the offensive.” Although the City of Hagerstown’s fleet is quite small – about 250 systems – they are geographically dispersed so being able to troubleshoot and fix without having to make a physical visit cuts hours off the time taken to resolve some support calls.
The Catholic Education Office in Sydney takes a very different approach to system maintenance. Rather than relying on high degrees of automation, they’ve taken more of a self-service approach. With a huge fleet of notebooks that are only connected to the school LAN sporadically, secondary school students are handed the responsibility of looking after their own systems.
Each notebook computer is shipped with a recovery DVD that can be used to reinstall the Catholic Education Office’s SOE. So, if there’s a major software issue, the students can boot from the DVD and rebuild their system independently. The regular system and application patches that come from Microsoft on Patch Tuesday and from other software providers are managed by students most of the time, through their own Internet connections at home. This sort of approach works for them as a significant proportion of the software pupils use is delivered a software as a service. This approach also means that most of the application security is covered by a hardening of the services delivering applications rather than the PCs.
Decommissioning and disposal
Once a PC has reached the end of its useful life, either from a functional point of view or because the accountants have decided that the asset has no further book value, it’s time to take the asset out of service and replace it, thus starting the PC lifecycle again. There are several different approaches that can be taken with bringing a PC asset to the end of its life.
A recent study by Gartner suggests that redeploying old PCs as thin clients offers several benefits, including a reduced security risk as old PCs aren’t shipped out but kept within the business, so potentially sensitive data left on old disks isn’t released. Furthermore, the cost of disposal, estimated by Gartner to be around $400, is deferred. In environments where applications are delivered as a service or through a terminal client, this approach can deliver some value.
The Catholic Education Office has a different approach. As notebooks are given to students in Year 9 and depreciated over four years, they write the systems off and allow students to keep them once they’ve finished school. However, this arrangement may change as a potential change of government at the Federal election later this month may lead to a change in the purchasing arrangements for the laptops. Computers that aren’t handled in this way, such as those deployed to teachers, are wiped and donated to disadvantaged people in places such as Fiji and the Solomon Islands.
The City of Melbourne takes a more conventional approach. It triple wipe the hard drives and then sell the systems through a third party. Machines that have no resale value are pulled apart with the scraps shipped off to recycling facilities. This is where their initial procurement decisions come home to roost as no parts should end up in landfill.
It’s about the bottom line
Although it’s tempting to look at computer deployment purely around the costs of hardware and software acquisition, an end-to-end look at the entire PC lifecycle is how costs will really be reduced. Also, managing a fleet of computers need not be a matter of choosing between costs and service delivery for users. By making some smart choices at the beginning, it’s possible to buy hardware that meets the users’ needs but also reduces costs through smarter power management and reduced downtime through robust support systems.