Reducing Windows desktop total cost of ownership

IT managers who make the Windows desktop environment a high priority can grow the business -- instead of making it a cost center.

Bernie Klinder, Contributor
The Windows Desktop workstation is the primary productivity tool in business today. Although it's the primary metric most employees use to judge their IT departments, the Windows desktop environment is often given a low priority.

Well managed Windows environments in Windows shops typically have very low call volumes and often have a desktop support-to-user ratio of 400 to 1 -- excluding the call center. If a system fails and the technician cannot resolve the issue in 20 to 30 minutes remotely, the system is replaced or re-imaged and up and running within the hour. Users have enough flexibility to do their jobs and customize their workspaces -- but cannot change their core workstation configuration.

The corporate reality is quite different. Most organizations go through the motions of applying best practices by implementing them superficially but then fail miserably at following through to make sure the details are implemented correctly. For example, most organizations have an OS imaging capability to rapidly re-image and deploy workstations. Ideally, enterprises should try to standardize on one or two images -- desktop and laptop.

In Windows Vista, organizations can standardize on one image for 32-bit or 64-bit platforms. However, Windows XP made this a bit difficult because of the different HAL requirements for single and dual core, different media for tablet PCs or different language support requirements.

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As a result, some Windows shops have as many as 18 desktop OS images with an estimated annual maintenance cost of $20,000 per image. The practices in application management are even worse. It is not uncommon to find a large organization that has the capacity for putting centralized application packaging and automated distribution in place but, when audited, it discovers it has more "unmanaged" than managed applications.

There are several factors that lead to a high number of unmanaged environments:

  • A desktop is the entry point for most IT staff members and management -- The desktop support environment is the entry point for many IT careers and traditionally has a high turnover rate. As a result, staff may be inexperienced and have little point of comparison for more effective practices. Learning and troubleshooting are ad hoc, and the staff is reactive, not proactive.

  • IT management is focused on direct costs -- Many of the advantages gained from a well-managed environment frequently translate into indirect costs in terms of productivity gains instead of line-item budgetary gains that many IT managers are measured against. While Windows IT managers may not care about indirect costs, CEOs and CFOs often do, and support for these initiatives frequently start at this level and trickle down to IT.
  • Management can't smell how bad it stinks -- In my experience, IT managers who have worked only in poorly managed desktop environments don't appreciate how bad things are or know how much different things could be. For IT managers who have worked in well-managed environments, the benefits are obvious -- and they wouldn't have it any other way.

The goal is to create an extremely stable, reliable and consistent platform for applications that's easy to manage. Ideally, if the hardware, operating system and applications have all been thoroughly tested -- and the users don't have the ability to "break" their own systems -- the only support calls an organization should receive are for hardware failures, service requests for things like new software or password resets.

But implementing the changes needed to move from an unmanaged Windows desktop environment is frequently more of a political challenge than a technical one. Here are some tips on how to make changes with as little interference as possible:

  1. Get buy-in from the top -- In order for any change initiative to succeed, you'll need support from the business leadership. Focus on the benefits to the business and get as much C-level support as you can. Then communicate those benefits to the organization.
  2. Make changes slowly -- People often resist big changes but will accommodate smaller incremental changes over time. This is especially important for security initiatives like Windows desktop lockdown or least-user privilege.
  3. Use refresh or migration cycles to push change -- Migrating to Windows Vista or replacing hardware requires IT to re-examine every desktop system and is a perfect time to capture the knowledge gained, audit existing practices and implement needed changes.
  4. Choose your battles -- every environment has a department or division that insists that a managed desktop environment will impede its ability to function or do its job. Work around this group and implement your program as broadly as you can. Once the ROI numbers and quantifiable data start streaming in, you'll have the empirical data you need to effect change.
  5. Audit -- Well-managed environments are like gardens. Only a little periodic maintenance and weed-pulling are required to keep them healthy. Audit your Windows desktop environment every few months to ensure best practices are still being followed.

The core components of a well managed Windows desktop environment include creating a common desktop environment by standardizing hardware, operating system configurations and applications. Preventing users from significantly changing the configuration and then centrally monitoring and managing the environment are key factors.

Application upgrades, hardware refresh efforts and even OS migrations should be simple and straightforward projects. If they are, then the Windows IT staff can be more responsive to the business needs and can spend their time identifying initiatives that can grow the business -- instead of simply being a cost center.

Bernie Klinder is an IT Project Lead with Blue Chip Consulting Group in Cleveland. He was the founder and editor of LabMice.net, a comprehensive resource index for IT professionals who support Microsoft Windows NT/2000/XP/2003 and BackOffice products. For his contributions to the information technology community, Bernie was selected as a Most Valuable Professional by Microsoft. He can be reached at berniekl@earthlink.net

This was first published in February 2008

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