Affordable IT: Desktop Management

Desktop management suites are becoming more complex. Fortunately, commoditization and freeware options can help keep your costs down.

September 1, 2004

5 Min Read
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Arm yourself with this estimate the next time you requisition a desktop-management suite: The cost of an unmanaged Windows XP desktop is $5,309 over three years, whereas a managed XP desktop runs only $3,335, according to Gartner. If you have a lot of desktops, the justification for spending the big bucks on a management suite may be in the savings per desktop over time. Cheaper alternatives are available, but they'll cost you in terms of the time it takes to research, implement and maintain them.

No matter how you go at it and what your budget allows, your desktop-management suite must keep track of your resources, distribute/install software and patches, and keep your software licenses up-to-date to avoid lawsuits. Any additional capability is icing on the cake.

Suite Deals

More advanced features--tiered administration, dynamic groupings, report generation and notification, remote control and accounting packages--come in pricier offerings, like Altiris' Client Management Suite, which can run, with all the bells and whistles, more than $70 per node. Simpler suites, such as Software Innovations' Systemhound and Vector Networks' PC-Duo, offer inventory scanning, software-license monitoring and report generation and might be enough for you.

Most suites are modular, so you can negotiate out functionality you don't need. Vector Networks offers at least 39 different software combinations, each with its own price. You can skip the suite and get solo inventory-scan products, such as Tally Systems' 30-day free trial of its WebCensus for 100 nodes. Trouble is you must manually engage the scans from each user's PC rather than schedule recurring scans. The inventory database is not accessible, so you can't write your own queries and reports.Let the Experts Do It ...

You can also outsource desktop management. The philosophy here is that off-loading the mundane but ever more complicated task of maintaining your desktops will free up people to manage your core business. For small and midsize companies, outsourcing may make more sense than buying a suite or building a system. Regardless of the size of your business, desktop-management service providers such as CenterBeam and Everdream boast that their expertise will help you plan better for the future.

... Or Build Your Own

If you're not into spending the big bucks, or can't find a suite to fit your needs, you can piece together a package with any combination of freeware, service providers, and separate scanning, inventorying and license-checking tools. You can use Shell, Perl, VisualBasic and login scripts to run tasks on end users' machines.This approach comes with scalability, integration and consistency problems. Multiple products, including all associated infrastructure, must be built and maintained separately. But diverse tools won't always integrate with one another in the same management interface, nor are they likely to share data. Although doing it yourself works for specific tasks, like installing a Windows hot fix, tying together all the features of desktop management is complicated and labor-intensive, especially at the onset.

You can get new software onto a PC using either disk imaging or a centralized application installation. If most of your computers have the same hardware, imaging is a quick way to install software.

Some desktop-management products, such as Altiris' Client Management Suite, offer an imaging component. If you're piecing together your own desktop-management system, Symantec Ghost provides a snapshot of all the files on the system and is easy to use (for more on Symantec Ghost 8.0 Corporate Edition, see "Send in the Clones").

There are a couple of caveats to imaging. First, user data saved on the reimaged drive may be lost, so users must be trained not to save to the C: drive. Second, imaging uses a lot of bandwidth, as images can range from 500 MB to several gigabytes.

One of the biggest advantages to using centralized application installation is tiered distribution, which lets you specify and create fan-out servers to reduce load and conserve bandwidth. This feature often comes with high-end suites and isn't always necessary in small shops. One reasonably priced suite is LANDesk Management Suite. Altiris Client Management Suite and Marimba Client Management deserve a look as well.

Needs Vs. Wants

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Monitoring Usage

Under federal law, penalties for using unlicensed software go as high as $150,000 per program. Software-license monitoring is not only the first step in keeping unlicensed software off your network, it also lets you know the number of copies you have of a particular program. This information can be used to verify that you have the correct number of licenses, as well as to ensure that your upgrades are complete and your maintenance contracts are up-to-date. A good monitoring program will give you reports on demand as well. That way, when the lawyers come knocking on your door, you can show compliance in just a few minutes.

Demos of monitoring programs abound, but unlimited freeware isn't available. Check out the 60-day demo of Attest Systems' GASP, which does software inventory and reporting. As mentioned earlier, Tally's WebCensus offers a free 30-day demo. And Altiris and LANDesk both offer fully functional 30-day demos of their product suites.If you don't have a homogenous desktop environment--uniform hardware and software platforms--the cost of management goes up no matter which method you use. The key is coming up with a solution to fit your needs and your budget.

Outsourcing is the way to go if you're uncertain about the features you need, or if you simply want to turn the job over to an expert.

Questions to ask providers:

* SLAs: Response time? Availability?

* Cost: Per computer or user? Site arrangement? By subscription?* Security: User-configurable roles? Data storage?

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