Standard Issue

FRAMINGHAM (04/03/2000) - Standardizing desktop configurations at American Ref-Fuel might have been easier if IS Director Jeff Winter hadn't run into David Gutacker in the hallway of the company's Houston headquarters in late 1997.

Winter and Gutacker, the company president, got to talking about the plan to standardize on Windows NT 4.0 and lock down the firm's desktops and laptops so employees couldn't load their own software.

Gutacker liked the efficiency standardizing promised. But he didn't think it was a good fit with American Ref-Fuel's historically trusting corporate culture, so he decided to forego the lockdown.

The results have been mixed. Standardizing on a single operating system and using remote software distribution capabilities have saved the company from adding to its 14-person IT department.

But without locking down the desktops, technicians still find themselves struggling with machines that have been compromised by unapproved software.

"It's somewhat livable," Winter says. "We're in the process of deciding now whether we should rethink the decision."

Faced with an ever-growing list of applications and operating systems, more and more companies are standardizing desktop configurations. The benefits include improved efficiency, lower technical support costs and less network downtime.

But standardizing raises a host of managerial issues, from how to sell upper management on the idea to questions of how strictly the standards should be enforced.

Faucet-maker Kohler of Kohler, Wisc., standardized briefly on Windows 95 as an operating system but is now migrating to NT as it replaces computers. All 3,500 desktop users get a basic package of applications that includes Internet Explorer, Outlook and SAP. And Kohler lets individual users purchase from a list of optional applications such as PhotoShop.

"It's better to give them some flexibility," says Shaun Brachmann, the systems project leader at Kohler. "If you tighten it down too far they can't do their job."

Now that the desktops are standardized, Kohler uses Tivoli Systems' NetCensus to patrol the net and provide inventory reports to ensure that no unauthorized applications have been added. Brachmann doesn't scrutinize the reports too closely, but when he catches offenders, he usually removes unnecessary software.

Selling desktop standardization to upper management can be challenging, says Rudy Panigas, a network analyst at Guardian Capital Group, a Toronto mutual fund firm with about 250 desktops in three locations.

"When we told them we needed money for system monitoring and standardization because it would be easier to keep the network running smoothly they asked, 'Isn't that what you do?'" Panigas says. "It was a bit tricky."

But Panigas convinced his bosses that a combination of server monitoring and standardization would make network demands far more predictable. Guardian Capital uses Tivoli Network Director 2.1 to manage applications and distribute software, while additional modules provide server monitoring. At a cost of less than $10,000, Panigas says the network management product has already paid for itself.

"If we're running out of disk space the monitors will tell us that at the current rate of usage we'll be out in four days," he says. "So there's less downtime. It also helps us plan for next year's budget."

Of course, standardization is more complicated than swapping operating systems.

At least that's what managers discovered at Alliance Funding, a mortgage lender in Orangeburg, N.J. Alliance recently standardized its 2,000 desktops on NT, migrating them from OS/2 and Windows 95. But when the changes took effect at the first of 20 sites last fall, the help desk was flooded with more than 100 calls that day. The problem, says Enterprise Management Administrator Michael D'Aversa, was that some keyboard shortcuts changed with the new operating system, but users didn't receive training.

"On all the sites after that we had a training representative on the day we switched over," D'Aversa says.

It wasn't hard to sell American Ref-Fuel's management team on the idea of desktop standardization. But it was hard to determine what it should standardize. About one-third of the 400 or so computers are laptops used by staffers traveling between the company's waste-to-energy plants in the Northeast.

Some people in IT were advocating for NT on the desktops and Windows 95 on the laptops because of perceived problems with NT power management. But ultimately IT decided to stick with NT for everything.

"We really only wanted to have to deal with one operating system," Winter says.

As far as what to do about the lockdown policy, Winter says the company is likely to lock down the desktops at some point in the future but leave the laptops open and simply monitor them.

"If it's an engineer or an environmental scientist who is on the road, he needs some applications so he can manage his personal business," he says. "But if it's an operator in the plant, that thing can be locked down."

Duffy is a freelance writer in Haydenville, Massachusetts. He can be reached at tduffy62@rcn.com.

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