Kevin Wilson, product line manager for desktop hardware at Duke Energy Corp. and an eWeek Corporate Partner, recently sat for an interview with eWeek Labs Cameron Sturdevant, Jason Brooks and Debra Donston. Wilson is directly responsible for the composition of the product line and the operational integrity of products and preloads and has served on advisory boards for major desktop, laptop and communications product manufacturers.
Wilson discussed some of the strategies that have made managing the end-user environment at Duke–one of the worlds largest energy companies–more efficient. Wilson also discussed the tail end of Dukes Windows 2000 implementation, as well as backup and disaster recovery in light of the events of Sept. 11.
eWeek: Can you give us a picture of the systems that you manage and the sorts of operating systems and machines that you have to deal with?
Wilson: We have our enterprise standard workstations, which go out with enterprise standard images. The group Im in is responsible for the hardware as well as the images. We have product owners for all the major components, from the anti-virus, to the browser, to the office suite, to the operating system, to the hardware and options. Collectively, our group puts out whats hoped to be a bulletproof, ready-to-run desktop.
We offer standardized configurations. Weve had [Windows] 98 and NT out there, and were probably three-quarters of the way through our 2000 migration. By May 2002, everything will be pretty well Windows 2000.
As far as active management of the desktop, most of our management now is, believe it or not, through log-in scripts.
eWeek: What does the log-in script do?
Wilson: When people log in, if theres any small maintenance or things that we need to do, like update the anti-virus software or something, well pop that down to them during the log-in process. But we can only do small things this way.
Now, for the large things, like Office XP, for instance, we collect all of our software updates, Lotus Notes, new browser, new Office, etc., into what we call bundled releases. Twice a year, we put out a new bundled release of all the desktop apps that ride on top of the operating system.
For example, … the big hitter in [our newest bundled release] is Office XP. Were on Office 97 now. We skipped Office 2000, and Office XP comes in this bundle here. Well send [the bundle] to the manufacturers that preload our images–IBM and Dell [Computer Corp.]–and the new factory images that get up there will have the new bundled release on them.
The installed base will have to run their bundle upgrades. This is when they have to sit back and twiddle their thumbs and wait on things to happen.
Lately, weve been giving users a list of the eight or 10 steps that are in the bundle, and, as each one finishes, it checks itself off. We front-end everything so people are presented with something thats understandable. Weve been doing this for about three years now.
eWeek: How many users does that affect, and where are they located?
Wilson: Our large campuses are in Charlotte, N.C., and Houston. Weve probably got 800 workstations in the big office in Houston. Here in Charlotte, we have about 3,000, 4,000, maybe. Total workstations across the company–those main campuses plus the other outlying areas–number in the 15,000 to 19,000 range.
eWeek: Are there any technologies that were developed in the past year, or that youre looking at now, that either help you when youre putting together the packages for distribution or help you when youre managing the desktop systems? Like DMI [Desktop Management Interface] or WMI [Windows Management Interface]?
Wilson: When we went out with Windows 2000, we made sure we had WMI in there. Our Windows 98 preloads did not have it, and I think were going to go back and add WMI to 98, even though its only going to be here another six or eight months. We use WMI for obtaining serial numbers and things in a dependable, programmatic way across different hardware vendors.
eWeek: Youre going to Office XP. Is there any thought of using the Windows XP operating system?
Wilson: If we werent so far along in 2000 now–if we were just starting now what we really started a year and a half ago–it would probably start on XP. But because were into 2000, obviously we have no compelling need to go to the XP stuff. Were pretty happy with what weve got.
eWeek: From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, what are the crucial parts of hardware you inventory and track?
Wilson: Well, because we lease, the crucial things are those things the leasing company demands back per serial number, which is definitely system units. For those that lease, [whats inventoried and tracked is] really determined by how they write their lease agreements.
eWeek: When it comes to software, are you guys doing inventory management for licensing purposes?
Wilson: We do. We put a big effort into software license management, and every now and then theyll scan the workstations for whats on there and try to tie it back. Im not as close to that as I am the other stuff, but weve got a [dedicated] manager for software licensing now.
eWeek: Will Windows 2000 change the way you manage computers?
Wilson: The basic things always yield the best results for us. The Manage Remote System [option under] My Computer Manager has been a real good tool for people.
We had Remote Registry before, and we had SMS Remote Control before. Remote Registry was good for those who knew what they were looking at, but it didnt help normal people much.
Windows 2000 finally got plug and play right. When our images are coming up on different configurations, were able to get them set up better so they come up on all the different hardware. Thats been probably the best thing for us. The power management–the problems it eliminated–has been a benefit.
eWeek: Is there anything in Windows XP you wish Windows 2000 had?
Wilson: The wireless support–not only having one of the wireless card drivers in there that eliminate the need for the different applications but also the [proposed IEEE standard] 802.1x encryption. That would have been nice. Were going down the Cisco [Systems Inc.] encryption road right now.
eWeek: Do you have a lot of wireless users?
Wilson: We have hot pockets of wireless, as I call it. The network people will gladly come put an access point in, if you request it, but theyre not actively going around wiring buildings for wireless at this point.
eWeek: What about handheld devices?
Wilson: Right now, Im watching for PCI wireless cards that are coming out for use in notebooks, with the integrated antennas. [An issue I have is] with vendors that provide their own mini-PCI cards, or people bringing them in–the trouble with them not working with our Cisco backside security. We know the Cisco cards are going to work, but if you order a Dell with true mobile, it probably wont work with the Cisco encryption.
eWeek: You said earlier that the 802.11b standard isnt a standard anymore because of all the stuff that you have to layer on top of it. It becomes a proprietary system?
Wilson: Thats right. If 802.1x works like its supposed to, it may take the standard up to the security level.
eWeek: Is there a corporate standard for handheld devices?
Wilson: With handhelds, our approach was, first of all, to make them obtainable through our normal ordering system. By funneling the orders in through our order system, we knew we could enforce some sort of standard.
eWeek: Are you involved with the anti-virus side of things?
Wilson: I work around the people that are involved, but I personally am not as involved as them.
From the management perspective, we can control our anti-virus software real well. Centrally, we can set the scan intervals, update files and control anything on the workstation. I think having that central control of the anti-virus is the most beneficial.
I mean, forget the asset and the inventory and all those normal things. If you can control your anti-virus–for instance, if you can take someone whos disabled it, like stopped the service under 2000, and go back and cut that back on and update all the stuff and reset the scanning intervals, youve got to have that. Nimda kind of [made us] realize that.
eWeek: When you talk about the importance of anti-virus software and policies, you think about the importance of a backup to recover from attacks. What is Duke doing with backup, and where does that fit into your strategy?
Wilson: The philosophies and policies are department by department. Centrally, we have a backup tool that people can use whenever they want that will create a backup on a server that will last 30 days. But its up to them to run it on some sort of schedule or as necessary.
Centrally, we provide the tools. We like simple things. We have a lot of do-it-yourself tools that we can keep customizing to meet our changing needs. Weve got complete control over it.
But we back up everything under their documents and settings. We get all their preferences, as many preferences as we can, their shortcuts, their network and printer connections; were backing up the personality of the desktop as well as the data. We wrote it originally to support the reimaging of workstations, but on a daily or weekly basis, the client could use it to back up data because you can click the boxes and cut off all the profile stuff and just back up things that have changed in the last 30 days, for instance.
eWeek: What tool is that?
Wilson: Its one we wrote in-house.
eWeek: Was that because nothing was available, or you just preferred to do it yourself?
Wilson: If youve got a good programmer that can put a tool like that together and is around through time to keep changing it, its an invaluable thing. You can buy things, and they may be grandiose, but they dont always do what you want them to do–you work around them instead of them accommodating you.
I think our personality, as a company, is to develop simple things and keep changing them as time goes on. Weve done that for many things in the past.
eWeek: What kind of programming staff do you have?
Wilson: Apps like that dont come along every month. Maybe once a year some app comes on thats of that status–where everybody in the company is going to use it to do something critical.
We have a staff of eight to 10 scripters. A client can go in and say, “I want to go to 2000.” One click, and it happens. I mean the data is backed up, the workstation reboots in DOS mode, it brings down the new ghost images, it comes back up, brings the data settings and profiles back down, moves them under documents and settings, and my documents and all the new proper structures under 2000, and brings them up ready to roll.
We had to put a lot of underlying utilities in place to make that transparent process happen. We couldnt have bought anything to do that.
eWeek: That implies a fairly stringent homogeneity of hardware platforms in the company.
Wilson: Yes. We started leasing in 1995, with about two standard desktops and two standard laptops. Its come to be about three standard laptops now, but we managed the transitions of those, and so we know what weve had, at least for the last three years.
When youre leasing, you may have a platform change once a year, at the most. Processor changes and stuff dont affect the images much, so we may not buy every unit with every processor change, which I expect to be quarterly now. But weve been running 815-based systems for a year and a half now. Were just starting to look at the 845s for November, and thats what I would call a major platform shift.
eWeek: What about Linux and systems based on AMD [Advanced Micro Devices Inc.] chips? Do they figure into possible future plans at all?
Wilson: I guess most people who go there go there for cost. And at the corporate level, with the buying power we have, we get pretty good prices on the mainstream items. For example, Windows 2000 with enterprise agreements and the Intel chips.
So, I think corporations that are buying in bulk, and getting good rates and getting their hardware out, dont see the need to go to Linux and AMD and those things. But if theres a place where they do something better, then corporations may even be willing to pay more money for them.
eWeek: In light of everything thats happened in recent weeks, one of the things wed like to cover is disaster recovery.
Wilson: Being a central workstation group, we make sure all of our images are included in the off-site backups. So, if we lost an office in a building and somebody brought in a bunch of PCs, we could get an image on those to get them up and running.
eWeek: Are there any practices that you might change in light of whats happened?
Wilson: Were not stocking machines off site. For example, we have a customer service center on the north side of Charlotte, where we have 800 workstations. They run two shifts of people out there, but they have workstations for everybody, in case everybody is ever there at once.
If we lost that, they would have to go find 800 workstations somewhere. We dont have the workstations stashed for them. So we have an image that we could quickly adapt to whatever hardware did come in, to get them up and going, and that would get all their apps, all their configurations and everything on there.
eWeek: Are you actively using SMS [Short Message Service] now?
Wilson: We used to collect inventory with SMS, and we ended up with an SMS database with all this data in it, but nobody ever could get to it or make … sense out of it. It was just too hard to mess with.
SMS 2.0 is a little more stealthy than previous versions. It kind of hides itself better on the workstation, especially with the 2000 configuration. So, we still have it running under the covers, and the hook is still there if we ever need to cut it on or do something.
eWeek: Many vendors suggest that you must know every square micrometer of your equipment or bad things will happen to you.
Wilson: Well, leasing is the best thing you can do for hardware management because things arent ever more than 3 years old. If you purchase stuff, people will absolutely keep systems running somewhere on some table in some corner and never throw them away. I think leasing is the first thing you can do that will ensure all your hardware is pretty current.