Where once IT managers were willing - if not always happy - to buy-conscious environment. Agata Cruickshank reports. the latest, high-specification PCs for their corporate users, they are fast becoming more knowledgeable and more cautious. The advent of the Network Computer (NC), although initially slow to take off, has brought the concept of TCO (total cost of ownership) to a wider audience, with the result that IT departments are now considering alternatives to the idea of having top-of-the-range PCs on every desk. There is now far greater emphasis on buying systems that are suitable for a particular task: a sensible move given that users who spend all day working with word-processor and spreadsheet applications are unlikely to need the fastest processor, a wavetable sound card and a state-of-the-art 3D graphics accelerator.
With companies now far more keen on the horses for courses approach, PC Week decided to sample some of the business systems available in this cost-conscious environment.
The four systems tested here, from Dell, Elonex, Gateway and IBM, have not been compared on a head-to-head basis. Instead, we've looked at each system in turn to see where it has its strengths and its weaknesses for use in a networked environment, by IT managers looking to reduce mounting administration and maintenance costs. These aren't NCs, but we did take network management issues into consideration when reviewing the four systems.
In an ideal world, all of the PCs on a network would be running happily with 100Mbps network connections, sending automated status reports to the central server which could then inform the network administrator of any errors, and whether any action was needed. Few of us live in such a world. The reality is that, within any given company, some of the PCs will be using 10Mbps network adaptors, with others using 100Mbps devices.
Some of them will be brand new machines with DMI logging, wake-on-LAN support and remote update features, while others are likely to be 486 systems with no manageability features other than a floppy drive.
The task for IT managers when upgrading older systems is to take serious account of manageability issues. For example, if a PC supports wake-on-LAN and remote update features, its software can be automatically audited or updated overnight, with no human interaction. Given the alternative, which is to walk around to each PC in turn with a floppy disk in your hand, this is an obvious benefit. The task of system management can be made even easier with the use of software packages such as Power-Quest's Drive Image Professional, which can create identical hard drive configurations on large numbers of PCs simultaneously, from a central server, with little or no user interaction.
Continuing with the manageability theme, one of the biggest headaches for IT managers, whether they realise it or not, is the introduction of illegal software by users. Whether it's an installation of Quake II to pass the time during lunch breaks, or a favourite piece of utility software, such installations have the ability to cause havoc. Witness the editorial team of another publishing house who inadvertently brought down their entire global WAN by playing a lunch-time game of Doom before the broadcast packet bug had been fixed. Quite apart from such dramatic problems, unauthorised software can potentially cause conflict with existing applications by altering vital registry values or over-writing DLL files.
One deterrent is to remove local CD-ROM drive access, something that IBM has obviously taken on board for this review, since its system ships without such a drive. In addition, software is available from various third-party sources to prevent the use of floppy disks that haven't already been certified and "stamped" by virus scanners on a centrally-managed PC.
Of course, there is a new threat to the integrity of desktop PCs in the shape of the Internet, from which all sorts of potentially troublesome programs can be downloaded.
At the moment, most companies operate a fairly open Internet policy, and don't restrict their users' access to particular sites. That may change in the future, but for now the problem remains of how to deal with such downloads, which can be very real sources of problems. For example, most IT managers will know of individuals within their company who downloaded and installed beta versions of Windows 98, only to complain that their PCs didn't work properly any more.
Remotely-manageable PCs such as those reviewed here can be a real boon in this situation, since images of the users' hard drives can be taken in a "clean" state, and then restored back to the hard drive overnight should things go drastically wrong with the installation of new software.
In such a situation it is, of course, vital that all data files are stored on the server rather than on a local hard drive, or the user concerned is unlikely to be particularly happy when he or she comes into work the next day. But for the sake of a healthy network and a reliable IT strategy, the PC users' freedom may have to be partially sacrificed for the good of the company.
There is a trend developing here, to which the NC is a pointer. The four machines we've reviewed on these pages all have some quite advanced remote management features that allow them to be controlled and updated by network administrators from almost any remote location. Eventually, the corporate IT industry may end up back where it started, with semi-dumb terminals having no local hard drive or user-accessible storage medium, connected to a file and application server that does all the work.
It's a model that is already catching on in the educational sector, where the risk of unauthorised software installation and the introduction of viruses is probably higher than anywhere else. NCs may be the future of corporate computing in some areas, but even if they aren't, a low-maintenance, remotely-manageable desktop PC such as those reviewed here has to be a step in the right direction.
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