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Top 10 ways to improve desktop management

Following some common-sense principles can make desktop management easier for all parties involved.

Desktop management is one of the big headaches of the IT world. Systems administrators face a number of challenges...

in controlling the corporate desktop. Tracking an entire company's PCs, which can range into the thousands, isn't an easy task. Making sure every employee has a functional desktop and coordinating rollouts of software updates and operating system migrations across those PCs is no picnic either.

But following some common-sense principles can make desktop management easier for all parties involved. Here are 10 suggestions that come from three prominent desktop management companies. You may want to institute these tried-and-true methods of keeping desktop management under control.

1. Know what you're managing. It sounds simple enough, but when you have a diverse staff that may not all be in-house, it can be complicated. John Epeneter, director of technical marketing at Altiris in Linden, Utah, and an IT veteran, offers advice from his personal experience. "With the 1,500 or so machines we managed, one of the biggest challenges we faced was that we really didn't know how many we had," he says. "If you don't have appropriate tools to assess what you've got to manage, you'll never be able to manage it."

Some criteria to keep in mind when selecting a good asset management tool are its inventory capabilities, application monitoring, remote/mobile capabilities and tracking abilities. Altiris offers a suite of asset management products designed to cover those requirements.

2. Implement remote management. IT staff will save a lot of time if they don't have to visit each desktop every time there's an operating system migration or a software update. In addition, it's easier to keep track of the systems and identify problems before they happen if it can all be consolidated to one place. "If you can't monitor how things are going, you won't really know when things go wrong," Epeneter says. Colin Bartram, marketing director of Vector Networks, concurs: "You haven't got a hope in hell until you've got remote control in place." Vector Networks offers its PC Duo Plus as one option for implementing remote monitoring, although there are several other products in the market, including Computer Associates'  Unicenter Remote Control.

3. Keep track of your help desk. "A good help desk tracking system is absolutely critical, and finding one that's integrated with your toolset is even better," Epeneter says. Tracking the help desk will help you watch trends and find ways to make it more efficient. "Having a help desk system should reduce the amount of time it takes to support clients and thereby reduce the cost of supporting users," he adds. The latest help desk systems have come a long way from those of the past, allowing users to submit their own trouble tickets. Many are also Web-based, so problem resolution can now be done via a browser.

4. "Have a way of properly defining and matching application installs to desktop users' needs," suggests Bartram. For example, all members of one department may need a certain piece of accounting software, while another department may need inventory software. You don't need to have every application on every desktop, and sometimes you'll have to roll out an update for only a portion of your workforce. Tools exist, such as Vector Networks' LANutil Package Policy Manager, that allow systems administrators to define a template of applications for each department. The application then matches each employee's desktop settings to the corresponding department from a central database. Epeneter agrees on the necessity of this functionality. "One of the challenges we faced was that we wanted to make a change to an application, but we couldn't just distribute the change to all of the machines that had this certain scenario," he says.

5. Don't worry about standardization. This follows naturally after customizing application installs -- not every desktop has to be the same. "Rather than just going for corporate rollouts of the application to play it safe, have an easy-to-use mechanism of defining which groups of users need which particular applications," Bartram says.

"Standardization is almost like a holy grail" for some systems administrators, Epeneter adds. "But, in the process of trying to standardize, you make everybody unhappy." Instead, focus on matching software installations to the needs of each desktop user.

6. One word: communication. "I've met a million IT managers that just don't get it that you've got to send an e-mail to people a week before you make a change," Epeneter says. That way, people can be prepared and ready to stay off the system while it's being maintained. But that's not the only communication required. "Make sure that you're able to share knowledge of problems and solutions among your desktop management team," Bartram adds. If a staff member has already solved a given problem, there is no need to reinvent the wheel when the problem rears its head again.

7. Find unique ways to empower your organization. To facilitate knowledge sharing, "we implemented an on-the-job training concept," Epeneter says. "Once a week, each team member would give an update of the morning and teach everybody about that technology or that piece. Our help desk actually became a really powerful knowledge source for people in the organization."

8. Keep an eye on safety. Sometimes something that appears to be a time-saver will actually be the opposite. If you take a chance on something that works even nine times out of 10, that one time that it fails "you run the risk of actually blowing away desktops and creating 10 times the amount of work you ever had in the first place," Bartram says.

9. Implement information filters. Desktop-management systems generate huge amounts of data, more than you can possibly handle. "Make sure that the tools that you use produce focused information on which you can act. You should be looking at actions rather than masses and masses of management data," Bartram says. [For example, a network administrator with 20 pieces of software on 3,000 PCs will have 60,000 "items of information" in the inventory relating to around 200 total applications, he explains. A tool such as Vector Networks' LANutil Suite can analyze this information in detailed reports for use in desktop management.

10. Automate wherever possible. "On the administrative side, automation is key," says Kia Behnia, vice president of marketing at Marimba Systems. Having applications repair themselves and providing tools to avoid help desk calls will save a lot of time in the long run. Administrators can implement this sort of functionality with Microsoft's Systems Management Server, or products such as Marimba's desktop management products.

About the author: Krissi Danielsson is an assistant site editor at TechTarget.

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