Power Struggles: Who's running this network anyway?

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Like a 14-year-old who shows a bunch of kids how to inhale helium from balloons, some users aren’t such great influences on their peers.

One employee had been with his company for only two days when he downloaded Napster -- and proceeded to teach everyone else in his department how to do so. "Thanks, new guy," quipped an IT staffer who witnessed the fallout. The company until then had been pretty liberal about employee Internet usage; not long after, network executives decided to block users from downloading music files.

Incidents such as this perpetuate the stereotypes that exist about users and IT staff members. Users view IT as an obstacle, and IT views users as uninformed troublemakers.

"Users should not be given carte blanche to do whatever they want, how they want, simply because they prefer something else or believe something else is better," writes one Network World Fusion reader. "It’s not their job, and they almost always end up creating bail-me-out work for IT."

From the other side of the fence, another reader writes: "IT should be introducing new applications to better meet users’ needs in the marketplace. Instead, they assign themselves the role of ‘standards cop,’ with the philosophy that everyone should mold their operations around IT rather than the other way around."

For IT, trying to keep things standard is a frustrating, draining proposition, particularly as users become more Internet-savvy and start playing with instant messaging, downloading audio files or tuning in to Internet radio.

Struggle Summary
Struggle: Users vs. IT
Opponents:Users exercising their download skills and IT staffers flexing their administrator muscles.
Outlook for resolution:If users communicate their needs to IT rather than taking matters into their own hands, IT departments can become more proactive about finding the right tools to increase users' productivity. There will always be stubborn parties on both sides.
User impact:Give a little, get a little. Cut back on the recreational activities and business tools may improve.

Bono Vox, a systems administrator at an insurance processing company, explains how he deals with users who alter settings without permission and deviate from company-approved applications and devices: "I’ve given up. I provide a standard. I don’t give a flip one way or the other whether users use the standard app or their own. They can use DOS edit.com if they want to. Just don’t call me."

So who’s to blame for such bad will? First there are the users who ignore corporate policies without considering that legitimate management and security reasons might warrant software and hardware restrictions. Then there are the IT staffers who deny all nonstandard requests without considering that genuine business reasons might justify deviating from standards.

"It’s a two-way street, and both sides have ttheir share of maniac drivers," sums up Andrew Bell, network manager at Siemens Milltronics Process Instruments in Ontario, Canada.

Tempting apps

While the battle between IT and users is not new, it has taken on new life as mobile devices and file-sharing services such as Napster multiply and make their way onto the enterprise network.

That’s happening at a steady clip. The U.S. mobile and remote-user population will grow from 39 million in 2000 to 55 million in 2004, predicts market research firm IDC. As for Napster, it claims 38 million users, according to company figures. Even if Napster’s recent deal with Bertelsmann AG - and the likelihood that the partnership will yield a fee-based service - hurts Napster’s popularity, other free file-swapping sites are tempting users. Among them are Gnutella and iMesh.

Granted, it’s much easier to make a business case for a mobile device than it is for using recreational services such as Napster. For corporations, deciding to ban Napster isn’t tough to justify.

"Anything seen as an uncontrolled data pipe is disallowed. Napster certainly ranks right up there," says one network architect, who asked not to be identified, at a regional bank in the Midwest. For one business unit that truly needs access to .wav and other multimedia files considered a security risk, the bank has set up a separate firewall.

At the same bank, network executives made a decision about a year ago to support PDAs in-house, provided the devices comply with a defined configuration. A business case must be made before IT commits to supporting any new devices, says the network architect: "It’s not just toys for toys’ sake."

One department at the bank wants to go a step further and deploy mobile devices with wireless access. But wireless access raises additional security concerns. "We don’t want to discourage enthusiasm," says the network architect, but "they’ve done some things that have put us at risk, and we’ve had some conversations."

Indeed, dialogue is required to keep peace between parties - and to ensure business users have the tools to do their jobs, and IT has proper training and resources to support those users. Developing policies to accommodate users or departments that have nonstandard IT needs requires cooperation from both sides.

At Fisher Scientific, a wholesale distributor headquartered in Hampton, N.H., senior systems analyst Larry Reynolds is behind a pilot project to give the company’s national sales staff remote access to corporate data via Palm Vx devices with OmniSky wireless services. Currently 10 pilot users are trying the setup, Reynolds says. If the Palm proves to be a robust enough platform and provides cost benefits, the device will be rolled out to 400 sales staffers in the coming year.

The company chose a mix of technically savvy users who had used mobile devices before and some users new to the Palm platform. Supporting the users is challenging because they work remotely.

Also, because the program is so new, no one is trained to support the users with wireless access. As a result, Reynolds is the de facto support staff because he’s the most experienced. "I have to train the support staff to support these users," he says.

Meanwhile, fielding phone calls from sales staff takes away from his real job -- developing applications. "It definitely requires some patience," he says.

Reynolds and the rest of the IT department at Fisher Scientific are making a serious attempt to adjust to new trends. As IT observed PDAs evolving from personal toys to business tools, it got behind a corporate effort to take advantage of mobile devices for enterprise applications. A trial period provides a good opportunity to uncover weak areas in the plan -- such as support -- before a full-scale rollout.

That kind of preparation cuts down on strife. Afteer all, at any company, an application or device that IT has an opportunity to evaluate properly stands a much better chance of a favorable reception than one that IT is made aware of only after it has crashed a workstation or spread a virus.

This story, "Power Struggles: Who's running this network anyway?" was originally published by Network World.

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