Avoiding the PC upgrade beast

At the Gartner Symposium ITxpo, an analyst explained why it's better to roll out a new OS gradually, and he recommended several other PC management tips for saving money and cutting down on help desk calls.

SAN DIEGO -- There's more to buying enterprise personal computers than you might think. According to a Gartner

analyst, IT managers should carefully consider the ramifications PCs will have on a company during their entire life cycles -- from deployment to discard -- before the machines are ever purchased.

Speaking at the Gartner Symposium ITxpo, Michael Silver, a vice president with Gartner, said that organizations often focus their energy on the first day of deployment, which often goes quite smoothly, but they forget to consider what happens in the thousand or so days that follow.

One of the most pressing PC life cycle concerns is operating system upgrades. Many IT managers upgrade PCs running older operating systems when vendor support ends. Businesses aiming for a homogenous operating system environment can then be forced to upgrade all of the operating systems at once, which can be disruptive.

Instead, Silver said that organizations should upgrade operating systems as PCs are replaced. Businesses will end up supporting two or three operating systems at once, but any forced upgrade will inevitably involve fewer PCs and will be more manageable.

James Zimmermann Jr., an attendee and manager of network security and quality assurance with the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin, Texas, agreed. Two years ago, 20% of LCRA's PCs were running Windows 2000, and the rest were on NT. Today, 95% are on Windows 2000. He accomplished that by simply installing Windows 2000 on new workstations as they were rolled out.

Though it can be more complex to manage multiple operating systems, Silver said, it is worth the extra effort to avoid being stuck with an obsolete OS on all of your PCs.

Zimmermann said his company has benefited from having the majority of PCs on a newer operating system. Help desk calls have involved fewer in-person visits because personnel are more familiar with the operating system. Since his organization has many remote offices, this strategy has been a great time saver for the IT staff.

Implementing lockdowns can also be a challenge, Silver said. Many organizations either are too strict with their approach to user controls, which leads to many frustrated employees calling help desks, or they become far too granular in how they develop permissions.

Silver recommended a simple approach with no more than four levels of lockdown. Employees should either have all permissions, none, or one or two levels of access in between. When implementing changes such as lockdown, communicating to users is very important, Silver said.

Client imaging can also be problematic for organizations, especially as they deploy different operating systems and applications for various user groups. Silver encouraged organizations to streamline where they can -- and keep PC imaging as simple as possible.

Silver also urged businesses to set up a lab to test new application deployments as well as patches and service pack deployments. Zimmermann has had a lab for such purposes for the past five years, and he has found it to be beneficial.

Finally, even at the purchasing stage, IT managers should consider how they will dispose of PCs when their life cycles end. Organizations need to be certain that when they do dispose of PCs, the hard drives do not contain any data.

Silver recommended setting up arrangements with manufacturers at the time of purchase, getting them to agree to take back the PC at the end of its use. Otherwise, Silver said, organizations end up with warehouses full of old PCs that they can't get rid of.

LCRA donates many of its PCs to charity, and its IT staff ensures that the hard drives are clean before its computers are donated.

Discarding PCs is such an important concern that companies have been created just to handle this problem for corporations. Attendee Stampp Corbin, CEO of Retrobox, a Columbus, Ohio-based firm, said that his company resells old business PCs and returns up to 70% of the resale value to the business.

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