Self-Serve and Save

Improving productivity while containing costs is not a pipe dream when self-service is the guiding principle.

Managing the end-user environment boils down to improving productivity while containing costs, and IT professionals can reach this desktop sweet spot by letting end users do the work for them. Well, not exactly, but self-service should be the guiding principle for IT departments looking to create efficiencies. Enabling end users to help themselves and one another is not only a good way to reduce direct costs but will also likely result in a significant reduction in lost work time.

The need for increased self-service automation is driven in large part by the two activities that generate the majority of help desk calls, according to Richard Ptak, an analyst at Hurwitz Group Inc., in Framingham, Mass.: end users adding an application or device that causes conflict, and software updates.

"Automating the response to these help desk calls by letting users help themselves is a key step toward lowering the overall cost to IT and to the business," Ptak said.

Organizations have a range of choices in automating desktop maintenance. eWeek Labs has evaluated software packing tools from companies such as InstallShield Software Corp. and distribution tools such as Microsoft Corp.s Systems Management Server and found that they can significantly reduce the complexity and cost of desktop upkeep.

Password management is another area ripe for optimization through self-service and delegation.

A strong password—one that contains more than eight characters and mixes alphanumeric and punctuation characters—is hard to remember. Given the choice, users will usually choose a password that is easy to remember and type, and will choose the same password or series of passwords for different applications.

IT managers can usually force the use of strong passwords for a single application. However, its almost impossible to keep people from using the same strong password across many different applications.

There are two ways to enforce strong passwords without incurring productivity costs: Implement a single-sign-on environment or adopt a self-service approach to password management.

Single sign-on is probably one of the bigger misnomers in the IT industry. More accurately, it should be called "reduced sign-on" because single-sign-on products almost never work with all the systems a user must access. However, the fewer passwords a user has to remember, the more likely he or she is to use strong passwords.

Novell Inc.s SecureLogin is a directory-based authentication system that works with a wide variety of desktop and server applications. Another compelling product, Passlogix Inc.s V-Go, increases user autonomy. V-Go uses a PC client and integration with existing LDAP or Windows authentication to capture all user log-on information. V-Go then takes over the entire authorization process after requiring the user to log on once.

Operating System Evolution

Recent changes in operating systems wont necessarily let users service their systems themselves but can reduce the need for service.

Windows 2000 and Windows XP, for example, encourage a reliance on the Windows Installer service, which governs how changes are made to the registry and tracks the creation of shortcuts and group files. This could mean big savings in help desk costs because products install in such a way that they can be repaired, rolled back and uninstalled with minimal effort.

Another important, and sometimes overlooked, capability in XP is .dll isolation. This feature allows applications to use different versions of .dlls—an attempt to end so-called .dll hell, or the unfortunate consequence of having identically named but differently versioned .dlls installed and used by a variety of applications. The .dll isolation capability will significantly reduce the number of help desk tickets for applications that wont start.

Software a La Carte

Another way enterprises can significantly reduce costs is to automate actions at end-user machines. Products and services from companies such as Novadigm Inc. allow IT managers to create an application menu from which users can select and install software. This pushes the burden and the cost of software distribution out of the IT department.

For example, products that are not part of the standard corporate desktop can be made available for users to download as needed. Although these kinds of products require a significant IT investment upfront, giving users the ability to serve themselves almost always pays off in reduced service calls.

However, to safely and effectively make end users more self-sufficient, IT managers must invest in well-equipped test labs and win important political battles for desktop equipment standards.

As eWeek Labs has said before, IT managers should seek to standardize and simplify the end-user environment so that costs go down and ease of administration and—importantly—the level of security go up.

As IT departments struggle to allocate the resources needed to develop and maintain systems that meet regulatory, security and other requirements, it will become increasingly important and necessary to delegate some of the responsibility for maintaining the end-user environment to products and the people using them.

The Enron Corp. debacle, for example, will likely mean that IT managers get tasked with developing the means to carry out a document retention policy, and HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, passed in 1996, is phasing in new requirements that directly affect end users by requiring only authorized access to confidential information.

Similar requirements are likely to percolate through Congress, requiring protections in financial services, banking, insurance and data-processing-intensive industries. Freeing IT from handling routine service calls is the best way to make resources available to handle these special developments.

eWeek Labs Senior Analyst Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at cameron_ [email protected].