One of the many ambitious goals for Windows NT5 – the new operating system being developed by Microsoft – is the ability to turn PCs into managed PCs. This new operating system is not due out until late 1998, or even early 1999 according to some reports. But, it may be worth the wait.
With Windows NT5, the IT department can give individual PC users as little or as much freedom to use or alter their PC as its IT policy dictates. For a company whose chairman has largely pioneered the so-called Information Age and who often speaks publicly of “empowering the end user”, Windows NT5 almost appears to be a bold step backwards for users. On a PC running the Windows NT5 operating system, the “empowering” has largely been taken away and handed over to the system administrators that manage central IT departments.
The reasoning behind this is cost. In the last two years, the PC as a business tool, has been highly criticised in reports from analysts such as Gartner and IDC. They argued that acquisition is but one small part in the overall cost of PC ownership. Much of their arguments stemmed from the fact that it was the user who had overall control of a PC.
Walk along the corridors of any open plan office and it is quite easy to spot people who are not working. They fidget with their pens; adjust their seat; arrange and rearrange their desks; continually natter to friends on the phone and play with their personal computers.
The humble PC which sits on or under a hundred million desktops worldwide, can easily confound productivity. If on Monday morning someone brings in the latest computer magazine complete with a cover-mounted floppy disk or CD, by Monday afternoon the office may as well be the arcade on Brighton pier. The extent to which software, particularly games software, perpetuates in an office is legendary.
By and large, companies have a policy on misusing PCs but, as the example illustrates, there is an inherent shortcoming in the PC. It is personal and can be altered easily. Once altered, the changes may adversely affect an employee’s ability to use the PC for work purposes. That employee’s work productivity is hampered until the fault is corrected.
While an IT policy for PC usage is certainly essential, to calm the temptation to tamper, it is necessary to strap it into a straitjacket so that all tinkering is undertaken by staff authorised to do so. The PC thus becomes just another piece of IT equipment, managed solely by a centralised IT department.
Windows NT5 allows the system administrator to decide exactly who in the company is able to run what software. There is no need to purchase a 4,000 user site license for a package such as Microsoft Office Professional, which includes a piece of database software called Microsoft Access, if only a dozen people use it. Balancing and controlling how software is being used means the IT department can save costs by not purchasing extraneous software licences.
It also helps reduce the time it takes employees to gain access to new or updated pieces of PC software. Today, it is not uncommon for IT staff to make a visit to every PC in a company to upgrade software or install new applications. Not only can the employee’s productivity suffer because of the delay in gaining access to the software; there is also a considerable overhead for the IT department which may require staff to work outside normal hours or to use contractors. With Windows NT5, software is installed onto PCs automatically.
Another feature of Windows NT5 is that it allows users to move to another PC in the office and work without disruption. At present, hotdesking staff are hampered because they have to use someone else’s PC, which may not have the same software as their own, and will look entirely different.
And when a PC fails, all the software that the user runs must be installed on the replacement PC. This can take a considerable time, during which the user is unable to do any PC-related work.
On Windows NT5 the centralised IT department has full control over everybody’s PC and keeps track of the configuration and software installed for each user. When someone is using a different PC, it looks no different to their own PC in terms of the applications installed and the way the screen looks.
When a PC fails, the IT department simply needs to replace a physical box in order for the user to continue working.
By the way, for the computer games players, Microsoft is developing an alternative called Windows 98. The two are light years apart and should not be confused.
Cliff Saran is features editor for PC Week.
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