Getting a Grip on Desktops

For Ward Lange, a technical adviser at Nabisco Group Holdings Corp., an $8 billion international food company in Parsippany, N.J., the software-distribution feature in the company's desktop-management applications suite has been an undeniable money-saver. Microsoft Corp.'s Systems Management Server (SMS) 2.0 has greatly simplified frequent upgrades of antivirus definitions, he says.

Last year, his group sent out 400,000 copies of virus definitions, a task that Nabisco's system isn't set up to handle.


Management Goes Mobile

The need to manage mobile and remote systems will fuel most of the growth of desktop management software over the next few years, predicts research firm International Data Corp. (IDC) in Framingham, Mass. IDC estimated the U.S. mobile workforce at 36 million last year and predicts nearly 7% annual growth. And 27% of network executives surveyed said remote users represented at least one-fifth of their workforce. So where are the tools to manage these users?

While desktop management suite vendors are expected to someday absorb these remote-management tasks (Novell, for one, last month added features for mobile systems to its ZENworks 3 suite), users today rely on products from a small group of companies that specialize in the unique problems of tracking and managing systems outside the office.

Callisto Software Inc., Mobile Automation Inc., On Technology Corp. and XcelleNet Inc. offer software that can manage connections that are frequently broken and conducted over low-bandwidth connections. Mobile Automation, On Technology and XcelleNet also support handheld operating systems such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palm Inc.'s Palm OS.

Two important technical features in this niche include checkpoint restart, which allows a portable system to resume a download where it left off after an interruption, and bandwidth throttling, which adjusts downloads so they don't hog a mobile computer's network resources.

But users want more than technical features.

"It is critical for these vendors to tie into the large installed base of these management suites, as IT administrators prefer to have one view for management," says Stephen Drake, a senior research analyst at IDC. "For example, Callisto integrates its Orbiter into Microsoft's SMS, and XcelleNet's Afaria is also integrated with SMS and to a lesser extent works with Tivoli['s NetView], CA['s Unicenter] and HP's OpenView," Drake says.

These vendors acknowledge that their connections to handhelds, especially, aren't as solid as to desktop PCs. Most require handhelds to be docked in their PC synchronization cradles for software updates and reports on system status. And some notebook PC vendors - notably Gateway Inc. in San Diego - don't uniformly support Desktop Management Interface, says Becky Hjellming, vice president of product development at Callisto Software.

"One of our most important directions for the future is native engine support" for even the newest wireless devices, like pagers and Web phones from Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion Ltd., says Mike Teplinsky, an enterprise consultant at Mobile Automation.

Teplinsky touts the benefits of including data from mobile devices in desktop-management inventories. Upgrades and other costly system changes are easier to justify; users can avoid trips into the office for service; and help-desk calls are reduced, he claims. Drake cites statistics that corroborate the help-desk opportunity. "In 1999, in interviews with over 20 companies with extensive remote user bases, IDC found that resolving a typical help desk call takes 80% to 100% longer for remote users than for LAN users," he says.

One user of Intel's LANDesk Management Suite confirms that bandwidth is indeed a barrier to effective administration of notebooks. "That's the reason we don't attempt to provide remote support for our laptops," says Alex Kiss at Lufthansa Systems Network.

The company's application department employs SMS to upgrade SAP AG's R/3 client software as well as to distribute updates to its Essbase multidimensional database from Hyperion Solutions Corp. in Sunnyvale, Calif. "It's saving Nabisco a huge amount of money in distribution costs," Lange says.

For many companies like Nabisco, desktop-management suites are also valued for their ability to track licenses, manage hardware inventories, facilitate remote technical support and monitor improper activities. Operating on desktop PC clients and often complementing network-level software such as OpenView from Hewlett-Packard Co. and Unicenter from Computer Associates International Inc. in Islandia, N.Y., desktop-management suites such as market leaders SMS, Intel Corp.'s LANDesk Management Suite (LDMS) and Novell Inc.'s ZENworks provide centrally managed control over key aspects of users' desktops.

Desktop-management software and suites have historically been plagued by incompatible standards for collecting and storing hardware and software configuration data. This has made it hard to share data among competing products and related tools, especially asset-management software from the likes of Remedy Corp. in Mountain View, Calif., and Peregrine Systems Inc. in San Diego.

Today, most of the software supports the Common Information Model (CIM), a metastandard that accommodates older - yet still popular - standards such as the Desktop Management Interface, which provides a uniform way for hardware vendors to report system configurations to management software. While vendors report satisfaction with CIM as a widely followed standard, they acknowledge that true interoperability hasn't arrived, though users are clearly demanding it.

Two trends should continue to influence the design of desktop-management suites, according to vendors and analysts. The biggest is the need to manage remote and mobile hardware that today's suites barely touch. In addition, technologies such as Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, Novell Directory Services (NDS) and Microsoft's Active Directory enable information technology administrators to include users alongside PCs, printers and other devices in a broader, more useful view of system resources. Further trends toward thin clients and server-based applications are driving this influx of directory standards into desktop-management suites.

Three IT managers agreed to share their experiences with desktop-management suites. All say they're generally satisfied with their tools. But they also say interoperability and standardization could still stand improvement.

Managing a Cast of Thousands

Lange uses SMS to manage about 9,000 Windows NT-based PCs in 184 locations in the U.S. The suite's main functions are software distribution, hardware inventory and remote control, while App Manager from Santa Clara, Calif.-based NetIQ Corp. monitors mission-critical NT applications and NetView from Austin, Texas-based Tivoli Systems Inc. keeps an eye on the mainframes. Other departments use Remedy's Asset Management, but for them to get SMS data, Lange must create SQL reports in SMS and e-mail them. He says the data-sharing process should be more automated.

The system's inventory function helps the company locate leased systems and control software that could present problems. "We've been able to track down nodes that had illegal software that we didn't want on our systems and send out SMS jobs to remove them," Lange says. He said he plans to soon put hardware inventory reports on the Web for all employees to access.

Lange says he experienced a few bugs with SMS. For example, software packages created on Windows 2000 servers were ignored when downloaded on Windows NT 4 systems. SMS had to be uninstalled and then reinstalled on Windows 2000 servers that functioned as domain controllers. And some site deletions in the SMS inventory screens didn't always propagate through the directory hierarchy. Microsoft addressed the problems in a June service pack upgrade.

Lange says he has specific ideas for the next SMS upgrade. "We would love multicast," he says. Multicast would speed transmission of updates, which can exceed 100MB per system. Also on his wish list are "Delta" upgrading, which saves time and bandwidth by transmitting only the parts of a program that have changed; better integration with Windows 2000 (the full rollout is in the planning stages); and a smaller client footprint.

Microsoft group product manager David Hamilton says these items are under consideration, but customer demand for multicasting has been minimal, in part because multicasting requires additional server and network investments. "We think it's a young technology," Hamilton says.

Lange says he's considering using additional inventory software in SMS to perform predictive failure analysis based on data from newer hard drives that report on their own health. He's also evaluating SMS's license management feature. Nabisco's server group is investigating using thin clients, but it's unclear how they'll be managed if they don't run Microsoft's Terminal Server thin-client software. "If you're using an appliance that doesn't have a local hard drive, SMS would have little role in that," Lange says.

Permission Required

Alex Kiss, manager of IT services and operations at Lufthansa Systems Network at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, and Clark Eggers, engineering and project manager, use LDMS Versions 6.1 and 6.4 to manage 700 Windows NT workstations and laptops in the Western Hemisphere offices of the German airline's cargo division. Administrators elsewhere use LDMS to manage an additional 3,300 systems in 230 global locations.

Kiss says Lufthansa engineers in Germany picked LANDesk largely because of a critical item: federal privacy laws requiring employees' permission each time their systems are remotely accessed. However, "In our [North American offices], we've turned off the permission feature," he says.

LANDesk provides other benefits, especially for remote troubleshooting and software distribution. When necessary, workstations can be rebuilt by using LANDesk to tell a local management workstation to start a sequence that reboots the system and uses a homemade server script to reinstall the system's software. LANDesk's remote-control feature lets Lufthansa's help desk get to the root of technical problems, which are often mischaracterized by users, according to Kiss.

Systems that don't meet minimal hardware requirements are easily spotted in the LANDesk inventory. "We found a number of PCs that were short of memory," Eggers says. "We were able to quickly upgrade them." Adds Kiss, "Last year, we were able to tell which sites did not complete their Y2k upgrades. We were able to use LDMS to get them their updates."

Eggers says that LANDesk's software distribution and hardware inventory features are easy to use. But despite the availability of industry standards for reporting system configurations, he says LANDesk's ability to detect certain chips and peripherals is lacking. "In my opinion, it could be better."

Kiss and Eggers say that in the near term, they're keenly interested in LANDesk's new multicasting software, which speeds software distribution and economizes on network bandwidth by transferring packages to subnets, rather than directly to clients. "That's one hell of a tool," Eggers says. "It opens up a lot of options."

The implications of an upcoming thin-client development project are fuzzy and will depend on the robustness of LANDesk's thin-client software, yet to be evaluated by Lufthansa. "How it will fit into LANDesk, we don't know yet," Kiss says.

Special Delivery

Novell's ZENworks Version 1.1 is an indispensable tool for software distribution and remote technical support at Hamilton Sundstrand Corp., a division of Hartford, Conn.-based United Technologies Corp. that manufactures auxiliary power units and fans for airplanes. Tom de Castro, master information systems consultant at Hamilton Sunstrand, and Laura Hepburn, a team leader from El Segundo, Calif.-based Computer Sciences Corp. who works at the San Diego site, say ZENworks enables them to almost completely automate application installations on about 850 Windows NT 4.0 workstations. "We have literally hundreds of applications, and every one is delivered, in one way or another, with ZENworks," de Castro says.

The team used ZENworks to roll out Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0 after business hours, and plans to use it for a migration from Novell's GroupWise e-mail to Microsoft's Exchange and Outlook. Finer control over applications will come with ZENworks 2 - the upgrade is under way. De Castro says it will let users run application objects and can associate such objects with individual workstations. He says he's also eyeing recently released ZENworks for Desktops 3, especially its off-line distribution feature, a critical piece in supporting mobile systems.

De Castro says that because of its NDS integration, ZENworks was the only suite given serious consideration. The company runs mostly NetWare servers. NDS brings its familiar scheme of user rights and directory-based "policy packages" to desktop management, he says. "It's a good design, and the fact that they leveraged it so well was really the deciding factor," says de Castro, who nonetheless criticizes Novell's decision to include hardware inventory data in the first version of the directory. "That doesn't belong in NDS," he says. "It's a lot of volume. It's too much, and you need a better reporting interface." He says he would also like to use the suite to determine which applications have installed particular Dynamic Link Libraries.

De Castro says the slow performance of ZENworks' remote-control feature is one of the suite's few disappointments; instead, he and Hepburn use Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp.'s PCAnywhere to manage mobile systems. He says he also needs ZENworks to do a better job reporting the status of application installations, which sometimes hang up when ZENworks fails to complete its processes.

Overall, satisfaction with ZENworks is high, though not easily measured in dollars and cents. "I think we've saved time," Hepburn says.

Essex is a freelance writer in Antrim, N.H.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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