Ready or not, here comes user PC choice

IT is preparing for employee-owned devices with virtualization and baseline PC requirements to help keep up with support demands in a less standardized world.

"They might spend it on a Treo, a desktop or laptop PC, a cellular service plan, wireless keyboards, or a wireless router. They can even use it on software that makes them compatible with the office, such as antivirus tools," she said.

Durack said she works closely with attorneys to help them decide how to spend their stipend. And she also monitors what technology they are buying so she can figure out how to safely support it within the corporate network.

Her team also uses Novell Inc.'s GroupWise Mobile Server and BlackBerry Enterprise Server to support and manage devices that communicate with the corporate e-mail system. "Unless we can have that level of management, we won't support the device," she said. For instance, some users wanted to use their money for the recently released iPhone. She allowed them to do so with the understanding that because it is still an immature product, she would support only access to e-mail via the iPhone's Web browser, as opposed to the more comprehensive enterprise support her IT department provides for the BlackBerry.

Durack enlists the help of computer retailer CDW to help the firm's 240 attorneys make informed decisions such as which laptops and personal devices fall under the acceptable use guidelines.

To gain support from top management, Durack showed that offering a stipend would be 15 percent less expensive, over five years, as compared to refreshing technology such as handhelds every 18 to 24 months. "And if we didn't keep that pace, we'd have disgruntled employees," she said.

While she admitted her help desk does have a wider variety of devices to support than if they were standardized on a single option, she said it has worked out fine. "Our users and staff are better at adapting to new technology; they're not afraid of it," Durack said.

Gartner analyst John Pescatore has found that help desk costs and security are the two biggest possible gotchas when figuring out hardware choice programs. "You may get out of the capex [capital expenditure] cost of hardware, software licenses, etc., but [in exchange] you might get a user with a home PC that's riddled with spyware and viruses or some outdated PC that needs support. Then you have to add back in help desk costs and security to keep your data from flying out the door," he said.

But he said choice programs are a "when" and not an "if" decision in a lot of organizations and that IT has to evolve to court a younger generation of workers. "College kids that are graduating now and entering the workforce expect to have a certain level of freedom. They have their own Web sites, they want to check their personal e-mail and text messages, and they don't want too many restrictions," he said.

This has certainly been the case at the University of Connecticut's School of Business. "Students, faculty and staff all want to have choice and control over their computer systems," said Michael Vertefeuille, director of IT. "And we can't expect an employee or student machine to only be used for work purposes. Technology isn't just about business alone anymore," he said.

Vertefeuille and his team are evaluating ways they can move away from the current system of leasing preconfigured laptops to the 1,200 students enrolled in his school. "Today, we provide close to perfect service to the students in terms of hardware support, software support, loaners for broken or stolen laptops, and insurance," he said. Also, with the university-owned, locked-down standardized laptop, Vertefeuille can guarantee that students won't bring viruses or other harmful code onto the network.

However, the standardized approach has drawbacks. "Buying and supporting these laptops adds huge overhead for us and the students. With PC choice, you can take a sizable capital expenditure off your books on a yearly basis and turn that into discretionary spending," he said. Also, he pointed out that many students and faculty already have laptops they are comfortable with and many resent having to use the university's equipment.

"Standardization has a tendency to inhibit entrepreneurial thinking, so having them buy their own equipment can lead to creative solutions you never thought of," he said.

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