When and how do you standardize your hardware?

If you're tired of supporting a hodgepodge of end-user machines, Jeff Davis' Daily Drill Down offers you a roadmap for successfully standardizing your company's hardware platform.

If you enjoy the luxury of working where there's a corporate standard for all end-user machines, you're lucky. In most IT shops, you're expected to provide tech support and network access for clients running four or five operating systems on PCs of eight or nine different brands. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll show you a way to successfully standardize your company's hardware platform.

Building your case
There are two big reasons why it's so difficult to maintain a standard environment:
  • The human factor: Some end users resist giving up machines (and software) they like. Entire departments or business units will cling to their legacy systems if the new corporate standard workstation won't run a mission-critical application.
  • The cost: It's expensive to upgrade every machine in your organization every time a new technology comes along.

Suppose your network configuration provides connectivity for Macs, Linux, and PCs running Windows 3.x, 95, 98, and Windows NT Workstation. You can accommodate a wide range of client machines, but what's the cost to provide support to all those folks?
  • Staff: It costs more to hire and train someone to support multiple operating systems and platforms than to train someone on a single, standard system.
  • Parts: Troubleshooting hardware problems is easier when every user machine has the same configuration, monitor, network interface card, and modem. You can keep an inventory of standard parts on hand for in-house repairs.

If you need evidence to bolster your case for standardizing end-user systems, check your database of help desk calls. Here are some good reasons for spending some money on new systems:
  • Systems frequently crashing
  • Insufficient memory or hard drive space for key applications (or for efficient connectivity to corporate network)
  • Systems too slow to keep end users happy and efficient

I recently experienced firsthand the frustrations that can come out of working in a shop where a "standard environment" exists. The problem was that the corporate standard was one thing, but my desktop machine was something else. I was given a state-of-the-moment Windows 98 machine when I was hired. In the meantime, a new IT manager upgraded the "corporate standard" machine from Windows 98 to Windows NT Workstation. But no one came around to upgrade my operating system.

A year after I started, something happened that required reinstalling the printer drivers on my workstation. The contract tech support person dutifully reported to my office, ready to install the drivers. Unfortunately, he was baffled when he found out I was still using Windows 98. Every machine he had previously touched was running NT, the current corporate standard. With a little snooping around on the network, we found the folder labeled Windows 98 Printer Drivers and completed the task.

I realize one anecdote doesn't constitute scientific proof that it costs more to provide support in a nonstandardized environment. But what that technician thought would be a five-minute job turned into a 20-minute job, and those kinds of support calls cost companies money every day.

In addition to lower support costs, having a standard platform makes it easier to enforce network security measures or roll out an application company-wide. But the process of implementing a standard machine requires several important steps:
  1. Pricing the right platform
  2. Getting a current inventory
  3. Counting desktops and laptops
  4. Verifying your vendor's ability to deliver
  5. Scheduling the rollout by department
  6. Taking advantage of a prime training opportunity

Pricing the right platform
Which platform should you choose for the corporate standard? The answer here is driven by your network operating system, the long-range needs of your users, your long-range plans for network services, and of course, your budget.

If you can determine that a particular workstation configuration is optimal for your corporate network applications, make that your standard machine. If you're running an older, stable version of a network operating system and you have no plans (or budget) to upgrade, Windows 95 might be the best operating system for your network clients. On the other hand, if you're moving to Windows 2000, you may have to upgrade every machine that needs to connect to your network.

After you've settled on your standard configuration, find out what your best price is. Ask your vendor to price your order as if you could buy as many as you need right now. Take a reasonable guess as to how many machines you'll need. You'll start your inventory soon enough.
If you're thinking of replacing your current PC inventory, check out "Buying computers? Demand RAM, value." This article highlights recommendations from Gartner analyst Kevin Knox on how to approach hardware purchases.
Getting a current inventory
While you're evaluating your options for your network operating system and client machines, determine your current inventory. Some of you will say, "That's easy—400. We have 400 network logons, and we've provided each user with a machine."

But do you have retired machines in storage? Do you have any users with desktop and laptop machines? Do you know for a fact how many systems the company owns at this moment?

And unless you know that all of those PCs are running the same operating system, you'd better have a spreadsheet somewhere that shows which operating system is installed on each of those machines, how much memory each has, and so on. When it comes time to upgrade everyone to the same platform, that information will help you determine whether you can get by with simply adding more memory or an additional hard drive to a client machine to enable it to run the standard operating system and applications. But you don't know what you need until you know what you have.

If it would cost more to upgrade a machine than to replace it, you'll need to account for that purchase in your budget. And if you retire a machine, your accounting department will want to know. Your company may want to liquidate the retired equipment to help pay for your new machines.

Tips for maintaining an accurate inventory
Can you account for all of the PCs you've ordered? Here are some tips for keeping your inventory current:
  • Tag upon receipt: As soon as you take a new PC out of the box, tag it. In most shops, you'll attach a pair of tags with the same number—one to the CPU and one to the monitor. (Hardly anybody tags a keyboard or a mouse anymore.) You can record the serial number of the components in your database, but use the internal tag number as the main reference. Pick spots on the front of the CPU and monitor, and put the tags in the same spots on all of the machines. Later, when you're providing telephone support, your users won't have any trouble finding the unit number.
  • Track reassignments: In your inventory database, record the name of the user to whom the machine is currently assigned. If that person receives a new machine or leaves the company, record the name of the person to whom the computer gets assigned.

If you've inherited a shop in which no current inventory exists, you have a special challenge ahead of you. You have to send someone out into the trenches to create the inventory. If you've never conducted a hardware inventory before, you might want to download TechRepublic's ready-to-use system inventory form. You can customize that sample form to your own liking. It makes a great tool for capturing key information about a system during a personal visit to the end-user workstation.

Accounting for laptops and future hires
Your users probably have only a desktop, only a laptop, or both a desktop and a laptop. Of course, you'll tally up the number of desktops and laptops you'll need to upgrade or replace.

But don't stop at counting the number of mobile users you have today. As you're planning the implementation of a corporate standard, you need to poll your departmental managers and find out:
  • How many users who currently aren't using a laptop would like to have one?
  • How many laptops can the department afford?
  • How many new hires do your managers plan to make in the next four quarters, and what kinds of machines (desktop or laptop) do the managers think those new hires will need?

By the time you've done all of your homework, you'll know exactly how many end-user machines you have on hand, and you'll have a good estimate of how many machines you'll need for new hires in the year to come.

Verifying your vendor's ability to deliver
You'd think that, in this day and age, you could pick up the phone or get on the Web and order 100, 200, or 1,000 PCs, just like that. Unfortunately, it isn't that easy.

When you tell a sales representative that you want to order a big batch of new machines and that you're making that machine your corporate standard, here's the first thing you'll probably hear: "You know, if you can wait just two more weeks, we're supposed to be getting in the new models, which are cheaper and faster."

By the time the new machines arrive, faster and cheaper models often become available. You can't predict or control how soon technology will change, or whether there will be enough chips to build the machines you order. But you can choose a reputable manufacturer.

You want to avoid ordering and expecting to receive 100 machines, only to receive 10 machines with a "Sorry, they're on back order" notice for the others. The best way to avoid that problem is to know your vendor.

Ask for references and check them. To get the systems you need in order to stay on your upgrade schedule, put your purchase order in writing and get it in early. Better for your machines to arrive too soon and sit in storage than arrive late and put you behind in your upgrade schedule. If your vendor’s ability to deliver is in doubt in any way, consider ordering half of your machines from one vendor and half from another.

Scheduling the rollout by department
What's the best way to schedule a company-wide upgrade? I've upgraded as few as five and as many as 500 workstations for past employers. I have a friend who recently was the project manager responsible for upgrading 15,000 workstations at a state university. We compared notes and agreed that the best way to attack a company-wide campaign is by department.

You’ll probably do most of the software installation on new machines in the IT department, but you inevitably still have to send a warm-bodied technician to each end-user workstation. (If you’re upgrading but not replacing a machine, you may have to drag it back to the IT department and put it on the bench to upgrade memory or other components.)

If upper management asks (or requires) you to upgrade their systems first, go ahead and do so. But ideally, you start with a list of your department managers and take one of two approaches: Ask for volunteers or handpick the departments you want to "go first." Then you schedule the dates for all of the other departments.

You'll iron out any wrinkles in the process with the first department or two. By the time you get to the last group, your support staff should be performing the upgrades in their sleep.

Make promises you can keep
Set a goal of completing n upgrades per week. How many can you accomplish? Do some trial runs to get an idea of how long, ideally, each upgrade should take. You might set the goal of doing five complete upgrades per day or 25 per week.

Obviously, the number of upgrades you can complete depends on how many support technicians you have on staff—and how many other things they have to do while they're trying to meet upgrade goals. You may be able to make a case for hiring contractors to help with the upgrades.

In the long run, it may cost less to hire four techs for a week than to take your full-timers away from their other projects. But if you use contractors, don’t just point them at a pile of boxes and let them go at it. First, create an upgrade checklist or cheat sheet, and show them exactly how you want the upgrade to be performed. Walk through one or two upgrades with each contractor to make sure they’ve “got it.” Require the contractors to turn in the checklists at the end of each day to document which systems were successfully upgraded.

Notify your users
Don't just inform your department or team managers when they come up on your upgrade calendar. Before you start planning the timetable, give the managers and the end users the chance for their input on the schedule. For instance, you'll want to avoid planning your system upgrades in the accounting department for the same week that month-end financial reports are due. And, unless you want to perform the upgrades when your users are away, you’ll probably want to avoid scheduling the upgrades during holiday periods, when many of your users will be on vacation.

Phrases like "upgrading your system" send chills down the spines of most change-fearing end users. Ask if your proposed schedule is good for them, and remind them via e-mail a few days before their machines are set to be upgraded. When your technicians arrive, make sure they're courteous and patient with your end users. After all, without end users, there'd be no need for IT support.

Create an upgrade checklist
During the upgrade process, your full-timers will take days off or your contract help may change, but the job needs to be done with the same attention and quality on each workstation. Using a checklist helps make sure everyone doing the work is literally on the same page. It provides a nice tool for troubleshooting problems when new users call the help desk.

The checklist should include a brief description of the task that has to be completed, as well as space for the person completing the task to initial and date the form. You can use the same checklist when you set up machines for new hires. Table A contains a partial list of the items from a "real-life" checklist.

Table A: Support personnel should complete a checklist like this one for every machine installed or upgraded.
E-mail account confirmed    
Network logon confirmed    
Password "password" created    
Internet access set up    
Core applications installed    
Additional MB memory confirmed    
Time/billing application installed    
Laptop configured and tested    
User questions answered USER INITS  

Taking advantage of a prime training opportunity
When you upgrade a machine from Windows 95 to 98, the upgrade is fairly painless. All you need is the 98 CD, and Windows will update itself in place. You don’t have to worry about copying and restoring any user files. And there's hardly any need for user retraining.

If you're upgrading 9x to NT, the process gets a lot trickier. You’ll have to configure the user profile and register the user on the appropriate domain, and you'll probably have to copy all the user files to a network volume for safe storage. You may have to export all e-mail message folders to a safe location and import the messages after the upgrade is completed.

When your upgrade significantly changes the "look and feel" of the end-user workstation, you must take into account the human factor. You’ll have to retrain your users in these areas:
  • How do I log on and log out? If your users are getting NT for the first time, they’ve been taught that [Ctrl][Alt][Del] is for rebooting a machine, and now they’ll be using it to log on.
  • Where are my files? It’s extremely frustrating for users to figure out where their Personal folder is under NT workstation. They’re accustomed to navigating to My Documents. Now they're expected to navigate to C:\WinNT\Profiles\Username\Personal.
  • How do I check my e-mail? If you fail to teach your users how to check e-mail after their systems have been upgraded, you're inviting a flood of calls to your help desk. Make sure that your technicians cover this topic with each and every user.
  • What about remote access services? If the upgrade means that users must learn a new way to connect remotely to your network, you’ll need to make sure your users have crystal-clear instructions, or you’ll wind up getting dozens of tech support calls immediately after the upgrade.
  • How do I dock and undock my laptop and synchronize my e-mail messages? You’ll need to train your laptop users in the proper way to dock and undock a laptop machine. You’ll also need to make sure users with laptop and desktop machines know how to synchronize their e-mail messages.
  • Why do my applications look different? If part of your standard workstation includes upgrading applications, such as moving from Office 9x to Office 2000, you’ll need to make your users aware of the differences in the behaviors. First, be sure to mention that Office 2000 opens new instances of the application when users open new or additional files. (This is a big difference from the previous behaviors, where multiple files opened as windows within the application window.) You should teach them how they can now use [Alt][Tab] to cycle between those open application windows.

Ideally, your support person will be able to speak to the end user when the machine gets upgraded. However, the end user may run off to lunch or to a meeting, and your technician can't afford to spend all day sitting and waiting. Here are a couple of tricks for minimizing the amount of time you spend teaching end users new tricks:
  • Create a leave-behind user's manual—Invest some time to create a short "frequently asked questions" document describing the changes an end user might notice after the upgrade. Include detailed descriptions and screen shots wherever possible.
  • Recruit a "designated trainer"—Perhaps the best way to get end users trained is to recruit one person to act as the "designated trainer" for each department or team. Your IT staff should conduct hands-on, train-the-trainer sessions with each designated trainer. The designated trainer's duty is to make sure everyone on the team is brought up to speed on how to use the new system.

In most IT shops, the benefits of implementing a standard end-user machine include easier end-user training and lower tech support costs. Once you've won approval to implement a standard machine company-wide, the fun begins.

As we've seen in this Daily Drill Down, to successfully standardize your end-user systems, you need a clear vision of the benefits of upgrading, an up-to-date inventory, a carefully planned schedule for the process, documentation, and an excellent relationship with the end users whose machines are being upgraded.

If you do your homework and deliver a smooth upgrade process, you'll start reaping the rewards immediately. Your users will enjoy the benefits of improved network services, and you'll see a decline in the number of calls for tech support.
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. And you can get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff's View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you'll get a bonus of Jeff's picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for TechMail subscribers.

Jeff Davis is the senior technical writer for a Louisville-based application service provider. He has over 10 years of experience as an IT manager and developer.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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