Desktop provisioning and management is the Achilles' heel of the network administrator. In even a midsized network, the number of workstations alone can quickly become a management nightmare for the already overworked administrator. When you don't have any automated tools, installing an upgrade to an existing application can be a monumentally daunting task.

You'll find a number of tools on the market-that can ease your burden by helping you with day-to-day desktop management. However, you'll also quickly find a wide disparity among products that purport to offer the same basic functionality. Some vendors concentrate on one or two aspects of desktop management, whereas others offer packages that address virtually all desktop-management concerns. Key aspects of desktop provisioning and management software include the following:

  • OS and application rollout to new and existing desktops
  • management of service packs and patches
  • remote desktop and Help desk support
  • migration of user settings and documents from old desktops to new desktops
  • application version and licensing management
  • hardware configuration and inventory
  • health monitoring
  • security and IT policy compliance

Considering the number and variety of packages on the market, how do you decide which one is right for you? It's a task not to be taken lightly, and you'll probably find yourself frustrated by the process. You'll not only have to weigh the importance of individual features, but you'll also have to consider other determiners, such as the size of your environment. If you manage an enterprise environment, you'll probably have to deploy two or more desktop-management packages to obtain the breadth of functionality your company requires. Even midsized companies might end up with multiple packages.

Although finding the right tool can be a challenge, it can be a relatively easy sell to management. Simply present your management team with the significantly more expensive alternative: hiring additional staff. Another approach is to talk about your company's desktop-management pain points and develop a series of real-world scenarios that illustrate the potential power of the software. Armed with this ammunition, you'll be able to explain in clear terms how a desktop-management package can benefit your environment. Consider, for example, the following real-world scenarios.

Disaster Recovery
You've just completed your annual audit, and your audit firm has asked to review a copy of your disaster-recovery plan. Slightly embarrassed because you don't have an official disaster-recovery plan in place, you gracefully inform the auditor that it's "in progress." Many aspects of desktop management can assist in the formation of a disaster-recovery plan, as well as the recovery process. An integral part of any disaster-recovery plan is maintaining a current inventory of IT hardware and software so that you know what you need to order to replace any equipment that's damaged in a disaster.

A desktop-management application that offers IT inventory-management functionality for tracking hardware and software can save your company a significant amount of time while generating such an inventory list. More important, the disaster-recovery plan should be a "living" document that you review quarterly or at least annually.

Inventory management can not only help with the initial inventory list but can also help you update your inventory list to ensure that your disaster-recovery shopping list is always current. Of course, the primary goal of the disaster-recovery plan is to ensure a successful recovery, but recent emphasis has been placed on reducing the time necessary to recover.

Desktop-inventory features can help expedite any insurance claims by providing current inventory lists of items damaged in the disaster, thereby helping a cash-strapped company get back on its feet. Make sure the inventory functionality can track serial numbers of both hardware and software, because insurance companies often require serial numbers for hardware to settle a claim, and valid software serial numbers can help you obtain replacement media for lost software.

Desktop-management software that automates workstation provisioning can quickly roll out images of a base computer and applications, significantly reducing your recovery time. If you have many desktops to support, look closely at the amount of time it takes to roll out an image to a desktop: 15 minutes of save time per desktop can be substantial if you have many desktops to image. Assuming you have to move into temporary office space, using wireless networks is a quick way to bring up a temporary network, but how secure is it? Using desktop-management software that checks compliance with security and IT policy will ensure that the workstations are using the proper wireless encryption standard, are updated with the most current antivirus/anti-spyware patterns, and are up-to-date with the latest OS and application patches.

Some desktop-management applications offer automatic-remediation features that fix computers not up to company's standards, and other applications automate the patch and update process. Automatic remediation can fix a desktop without requiring IT intervention, freeing up the IT staff to concentrate on the recovery process.

Workstation Upgrades
You've finally convinced your boss to upgrade the Windows 98 desktops that your company uses for 3D rendering and CAD. However, you have 100 computers that you'll need to integrate into your network within a week. Of course, desktop-imaging features can be extremely useful in this kind of migration, but what about all of the users' existing applications, documents, and settings?

In this monumental task, a desktop-management application that handles user state migration can save a significant amount of time. Especially handy is software that can take a subset of existing applications and settings when a new workstation has an upgraded version of an already existing application. Also beneficial is software that automatically performs a backup of the original desktop in case the migration process goes awry. If you have many desktops to migrate, you might seek desktop-management software that performs exception reporting to alert you when a migration doesn't go smoothly.

With this type of major upgrade, you can expect a flood of calls to the Help desk, particularly when the upgrade involves new hardware, a new OS, and new applications. Desktop-management software that provides remote support and Help desk management features can track complex problems in an incident database and let the Help desk quickly respond to support concerns. IT staff members can use the incident database as an internal knowledge-base to ensure that they don't reinvent the wheel when other users encounter the same problem. Developing a Help desk database that addresses a company's support problems lets less experienced IT staff members solve complex problems quickly. Senior staff members are then more free to focus on major infrastructure concerns.

Health Monitoring
You have a desktop-management application that has workstation-monitoring capabilities, and it has notified you that certain workstations in your network are showing high network and processor utilization. After using your remote-management tool to access the workstations, you conclude that they're infected with a new strain of spyware. With relief, you see that your monitoring tool hasn't reported any abnormal activity on your servers on that segment, but you decide to shut down the infected workstations until a support person can get on site and investigate the situation.

By catching the infection sufficiently early, the desktop-management application prevented a major network outage. Your automated desktop-imaging functionality provisioned the infected workstations, so now when you arrive on site, you can push a clean image to the infected workstations and get users back up and running within a few hours.

Your software's monitoring functionality should offer flexible alerting and reporting mechanisms. And the product should let you monitor any aspect of the desktop: memory, disk space, processes, processor utilization, and any other user-defined process you want to track.

Prioritize Your Needs
You can use this article's scenarios to help envision how your company might benefit from a desktop-provisioning and management package. You might even find that you have additional requirements that I haven't mentioned here. If you do, make sure to incorporate them into your own prioritized list. When you create this list, mentally review how you spend your day—on patch management, Help desk tasks, application management, workstation monitoring? What are your company's downtime costs? How important is disaster recovery to your company? Does your company have to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), or some other regulatory agency? When you consider where you spend a majority of your time, creating a prioritized list should be relatively easy.

Armed with your prioritized needs, you should be able to quickly include or exclude potential vendors. You'll also know which features you'd be willing to sacrifice in one area to gain additional functionality in other areas that are more important to you. After you narrow your search to a few choices, you can attend a Webinar or sales presentation, read third-party reviews about the software, and get references from users who have experience with a certain tool in a production environment. You might ask the following questions:

  • How much does the product cost? Is there an annual renewal fee? How is it licensed? What is the return on investment (ROI)?
  • Is the installation process complicated? What kind of hardware does the installation require?
  • Which platforms does the product support?
  • How scalable is the product?
  • How well does the product work over a WAN? What are its bandwidth requirements?
  • How responsive is the company's technical support before and after installation?
  • What is the product's learning curve? How straightforward are day-to-day management tasks?
  • What are the product's best and worst features? What functionality is missing? Are you happy or unhappy with the product? Does the product live up to the sales hype?

These types of questions probably won't thrill a salesperson, but they'll give you a clear direction on your way to selecting the right desktop provisioning and management solution for your company. I also recommend asking vendors for references of companies already using a given product, but take any responses with a grain of salt. No salesperson is going to refer you to a company that is unhappy with the product. However, the reference might be willing to discuss implementation challenges.