Desktop Management's Dirty Little Secret

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You've just spent nearly $2 million to roll out Windows Server 2003 on the promise that you could reduce the number of Microsoft application servers throughout your global enterprise by 25 percent. There were other assurances of more streamlined application delivery and performance.

Here's a tip: Don't start counting the return on investment (ROI) yet.

The ROI that software vendors promise often ignores the time and expense of installing and maintaining the software. Rolling out a new application or installing a patch for a 30-person office is barely tolerable. The task becomes daunting for 20,000 desktops scattered over 35 different countries. Managing these desktops when fixes and upgrades appear every week is a network administrator's biggest challenge, and headache.

Many enterprises have turned to electronic software distribution (ESD) technology to mitigate desktop and server management pain. ESD promises to simplify software distribution and management, and eliminate "sneakernet" the costly, time-consuming manual process that some companies still use to do upgrades and installations. Unfortunately, the cure often has some of the same pitfalls as the problem, not to mention a few snags of its own. ESD vendors don't always include the up-front deployment costs in the "impressive" ROI schedules they tout to customers. Instead, customers find out the hard way after deployment has begun. A new class of ESD technology is emerging that seeks to automate much of the hands-on custom coding that has plagued administrators struggling to simplify software distribution and maintenance. This new technology installs quickly and gives administrators mouse-click control of desktop management tasks. In doing so, it allows companies to reduce software distribution and management's hidden costs and realize most of the ROI their enterprise software vendors promised.

Streamline Desktop Management, at a Price

The need to streamline desktop software distribution and management and reduce costs for enterprises has fuelled rapid growth in ESD sales. The ESD market will nearly double in size to $1.1 billion in 2006 from $659.6 million in 2001, according to a report by industry analyst firm IDC. Security patches alone cost businesses and government agencies more than $2 billion per year to identify, research and deploy to enterprise devices, according to analyst firm Aberdeen Group.

Migrating to a new operating system (OS) can take large enterprises months to complete and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Enterprises often use imaging (burning a copy of the new OS onto every PC's hard disk) to streamline OS migrations. Even this process requires hands-on attention, increases help desk calls and causes work stoppage. Enterprises must upgrade the OS' components, drivers, service packs, and roll out patches and hot fixes to insure new applications and legacy applications will work properly.

An enterprise with 10,000 desktops, for example, upgrading just a quarter of its desktops, laptops and Microsoft servers (2,500 PCs) with a new OS and installing or re-installing 50 applications might spend $100 per PC, or a total of $250,000 for the migration. This cost includes planning, writing and debugging scripts (the specific commands that tell the deployment software what to do), and correcting installation problems. These time and labor costs often aren't revealed in the ROI figures ESD vendors show prospective customers.

ESD technology evolved to troubleshoot such software distribution and management problems. It set out to simplify routine PC management tasks so administrators wouldn't have to hop from desktop to desktop to manually load patches and upgrades. ESD gives administrators a platform for managing thousands of desktops from one location, so they don't feel like they're constantly two upgrades behind the most recent version. A few mouse clicks, and a new application arrives at targeted desktops throughout an enterprise, or a new patch fixes a glitch in an application running on 1,000 PCs. That was the hope, anyway. The reality is far different.

What ESD Vendors Hide Behind Impressive ROI Figures

It takes weeks or even months of expensive custom coding, training, testing and debugging ESD software to prepare it for deployment. Companies may have to hire programmers or contract with the vendor to write the code, and train staff on how to use the application. For example, Microsoft's System Management Server (SMS) is one of the most widely used ESD platforms in the world. Yet, it can take a company with 5,000 desktops several months, complete with special programming, to install and test the software before administrators can even begin using it.

Prior to distributing or managing software, administrators must launch time-consuming auto-discovery probes within ESD applications so the software identifies all of the applications on every PC in the enterprise. These inventory checks can take weeks in a large enterprise and are often inaccurate, causing roll-out and management problems later on. In the end, managing the ESD installation project becomes an IT management issue itself, and many of the upfront costs don't appear in ROI estimates.

Despite touting automation, the current generation of ESD products still force administrators and programmers to manually package any new software (including upgrades) before rolling it out to the company. This manual packaging often involves weeks of script writing to target the application to the appropriate PCs throughout the company and ensure that it integrates smoothly with other applications. Administrators will have to debug and test these applications in their labs prior to distribution. The costs add up quickly.

Packaging Microsoft Office 2000, for example, can take a month. A company could end up paying $16,000 just for the programmer billing at $100 an hour in wages and benefits to script and test this one application. Some industry experts estimate that only about 70 percent of the targeted computers will have software installed correctly the first time. Imagine the cost of deploying and managing 100 applications for an enterprise with several distributed offices. Allotting an average of two weeks to develop and test scripts for these applications, it would take 3.8 man years to complete this task at a cost of about $800,000. Again, software makers constantly issue upgrades, service packs, patches, new security settings, drivers, etc. that administrators must push out to the company. Each task requires more costly and time-consuming script writing. There's also the headache of babysitting the ESD system in off-hours during bandwidth-gobbling actions such as migrating to a new operating system. Trying to complete these types of ESD tasks can slow productivity and effect revenues.

Eliminating the Hidden Costs

The next generation of ESD technology purges hidden costs from ROI projections by automating much of the upfront scripting current products require. It gives network administrators point-and-click control to roll out new applications and operating systems, send patches and upgrades and close security holes.

The new generation of products succeeds in simplifying desktop management by delivering ESD from a network administrator's point of view, not a code-driven programmer's point of view. It anticipates what script network administrators must write to deploy the ESD platform, roll out new applications and manage desktops. Most of the scripting to roll out and manage Microsoft applications, for example, follows standard protocols that can be transferred from one management task to the next. Baking this code directly into the software eliminates the costs that many ESD vendors hid from their customers.

Since enterprises often tailor applications to their specific needs, this new class of ESD technology provides a straightforward rules engine that allows administrators to customize applications in just a few minutes. For example, an administrator can direct the ESD platform to roll out Office 2000 only to PCs that have the latest Microsoft security patch, preventing possible breaches. The software intelligently knows which PCs don't have the patch and automatically bypasses them.

Increased automation means administrators can complete most software distribution and management tasks in a few mouse clicks. In the above example, the administrator rolling out Microsoft Office 2000 can use this new approach to slash the roll-out time from a month to just a few hours and eliminate most of the associated costs. That leads to a much faster and more tangible ROI. Managing software is one of the most expensive ongoing problems in enterprise technology. Enterprise software vendors entice new customers with slick ROI projections. The dirty little secret that customers discover after they've bought is that those projections only told half the story. Ongoing management and training costs suddenly pop up, not having appeared in any ROI calculation. The ESD products that many enterprises purchase to streamline how they manage software also typically carry hidden costs that can drain IT budgets.

When choosing an ESD technology, look for one that automates much of the hands-on custom coding and gives network administrators a tool that intelligently automates routine ESD tasks and eliminates the expensive script writing that current products require. Be sure to require that the vendor demonstrate this functionality and backs up claims with solid references of client sites where the software is delivering.

About the Author

Chet Sargeant is president of NetSupport Solutions, Inc., based in Schaumburg, Ill. A 30-year software industry veteran, Sargeant has held senior-level software sales, marketing and operations management positions with database tool vendor DBMS, business intelligence solution provider Information Builders, mail pre-sort software vendor LPC, and ESD solution provider Swan SA.

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