Bulking up your desktop toolbox

When it comes to justifying the price of a desktop management suite, it doesn't take that many workstations before the benefits start to outweigh the costs. But as this field of network management evolves, users are becoming more demanding in what they want from their desktop toolboxes.

In the 15 months since we last tested these products, we've seen a bit of a shakeout in the market, with products from McAfee and Seagate Software going the way of the Edsel while other new products or releases of existing products have moved away from the "complete suite" to offer best-of-breed tools in specific desktop management areas.

Also putting pressure on vendors in the desktop management arena in the past year has been a growing need to manage mobile users with laptops and wireless devices. Some of the products on the market -- such as Novell's ZENworks, which addresses the disconnected/mobile user -- have made strides on this front, but this area still stands open for improvement.

A number of companies have emerged to provide niche products that do a specific task very well. For example, TS.Census from Tally Systems does an extremely thorough job of software and hardware inventory. Altiris eXpress does a great job managing new deployments. Novadigm specializes in software distribution and desktop management through its Enterprise Desktop Manager. The problem customers face when using these best-of-breed point products is how to integrate them into a broader framework should they need additional capabilities.

Topping the list of most widely used desktop management features is software distribution. Volkswagen Credit, a financing agency in Chicago, switched from Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) Version 1.2 to Intel's LANDesk for one primary reason: It helped the company get its application distributed in roughly a quarter of the time that it took with SMS.

"We were disappointed in the amount of time that it took SMS to accomplish the distribution of a 10M-byte file. When we went to Intel LANDesk, we cut our time down from eight hours to a little over two hours," says Scott Fuzer, network services manager at Volkswagen Credit.

Asset management -- meaning hardware and software inventory -- is another key capability for many companies. It has become even more important as companies deploy Windows 2000 across their networks. Key issues include determining how many machines have enough CPU speed, disk space and memory to upgrade directly to Win 2000 Professional.

Accurate inventory records are also important for companies that lease their equipment. A common problem for large organizations with a heavy commitment to leasing is overpayment. One Novell customer, ON Semiconductor, a Motorola spinoff in Phoenix, was able to reduce its annuaal lease budget by $750,000 by comparing inventory records, complete with serial numbers, against lease billing information.

On the software inventory side, more companies are beginning to show an interest in determining how many people are actually using a particular application as they look to trim their software budgets. A more accurate picture of how many users are actually using a particular application at any one time can help managers budget for future software buys.

Remote control has become increasingly important as companies consolidate their administration capabilities. This feature -- which ships with most desktop management suites on the market -- is also being used as a substitute for traditional remote access services by using the Internet instead of a dial-up connection.

For example, Mauro Perez, vice president of operations for consulting firm Waypoint Solutions, says his company uses PC-Duo from Vector Networks to significantly cut down the time required to help manage a custom application at a customer site.

New capabilities

While most of the products available on the market do an adequate job of dealing with the problems at hand, there are areas that each can improve upon.

Topping the list of many IT directors is how to deal with mobile users. Alongside the mobile problem is the issue of new small-footprint devices, from PDAs to smart phones. Many companies are starting to ask questions about how to deal with PDAs and the like but haven't started implementing anything.

Novell's ZENworks does the best job of handling disconnected users from a laptop perspective (see review).

Web-based management tools make it possible to perform administrative tasks from any system on the network. Intel was one of the first to provide this capability in its LANDesk product, and other vendors are beginning to follow suit.

While network managers like this increased accessibility, they don't want to sacrifice any of the features of their dedicated consoles to get it. Vendors, such as Intel, provide a Web interface to their management consoles, but they look different from what you get in the dedicated consoles.

Moving forward

Tighter integration will be a driving force for new offerings. That includes integration with outside applications such as financial packages and enterprise business systems to enhance the ability to track hardware and software inventory into enterprise accounting systems.

Increased intelligence in the hardware and software inventory area is making it possible to predict hardware failures and software usage thresholds based on trends across the enterprise. This will give administrators the tools needed to do their job better. New trends like Microsoft's .Net platform and its new usage-based software pricing models along with companies tapping into application service providers will be new challenges for system and network administrators.

As is the case with just about any network management task, having the right tools really does make the job easier. While the products available do help tremendously in terms of cost and time savings, they must continue to evolve to meet the challenges of an even more mobile workforce.

Related links

Interactive scorecard and NetResults

Use our calculator to see what desktop mgmt. suite would your needs.

Buyer's Guide database

Compare product info. from eight vendors.

Intel's LANDesk stays on top in our annual desktop management suite showdown.

How we did it

Our testing methods explained.

This story, "Bulking up your desktop toolbox" was originally published by Network World.

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