OnDemand’s CEO Jack Palmer on Managing Desktops

Having to send someone from the IT department to a desktop every time there’s a computer glitch is inefficient and uncomfortable both for challenged users and skilled tech-support workers. But desktops increasingly are being treated as servers. That is, they are expected to self-report issues, head off breakdowns and remain running without disrupting the network.

At the same time, centralized desktop management — already a necessity to prevent adverse impacts from rolling out new applications or patches — has become an even more critical part of fending off the latest worms and other viruses that can wreak havoc on an IT environment.

OnDemand claims its latest WinInstall software is the answer to managing software centrally in the ever-changing world of desktop systems. To hear about developments happening in the world of remote desktop management, TechNewsWorld turned to OnDemand president and CEO Jack Palmer for an exclusive interview.

TechNewsWorld: What is the single biggest challenge in desktop management today?

Jack Palmer: The challenges are many, but I will sum up some of the apparent ones. A question needs to be asked: How much does it cost every time someone calls and says their desktop PC isn’t working again? Analysts have argued for years that it costs somewhere between US$8,000 and $10,000 to manage each and every PC each year. How many of these calls does the IT staff get each day or week or year?

Lost productivity costs are also mounting as users wait for the software application to be reinstalled or — even worse — if Windows has to be reinstalled. The IT industry has demanded server uptime for years. We’ve heard every story about 99.9999 percent uptime for all corporate servers. OnDemand Software says it is time to demand the same of every corporate desktop PC.

Imagine knowing what versions of operating systems, service pack levels, both in-house and off-the-shelf applications exist on every PC in your environment. Imagine being able to put a PC back in its original state before a problem existed, and imagine doing this without ever having to visit the PC. Instead of worrying about whether the Management System Information file is packaged correctly and then passed off to another product to install on your desktops, OnDemand suggests that there is a lifecycle management problem that needs to be addressed to provide desktop availability.

Lower IT costs of administering PCs, raise productivity of all corporate PC users, and do it without a high-end hardware platform that has to be managed in the data center.

TNW: So, in one sense, you’re talking about managing change?

How many times has the IT staff been the victim of finger-pointing? It is always the IT staffs who are at fault when PC problems arise. We know of three types of change that affect desktop availability. The first is easy: IT change. It happens. There is a good chance that something will break every time IT makes changes to the network. It is the nature of the beast. The second type of change is the largest: user change. Bringing in that favorite program from home or downloading that cool new thing from the Internet can step on DLLs and render the corporate desktop unusable more times than not. And the third type of change would be decay.

All of us that have worked with Microsoft Windows know that it has a lifespan. After a period of time, the operating system just has to be reinstalled. Sometimes it requires the disk to be wiped, the operating system replaced, and then all of the applications reinstalled. What if you could resolve all three of these types of problems without having to visit the desktop? Finally, we have a software company focused on solving a real problem and less focused on that new cool feature that performs this whiz-bang function.

Desktop availability should be just as important to your company as keeping those servers available. Remember that installing software automatically on networked and mobile desktops and laptops is more than just creating an MSI package and turning that package over to the Windows Installer and Group Policy.

Installing software and operating systems on desktops requires a process to manage the lifecycle of the software on those PCs.

TNW: What would you say about the level of competition in this area so far this year?

Palmer: We have seen a lot of consolidation thus far. Look at Wise being acquired by Altiris and the recent Symantec acquisitions. What we are seeing here is the point players can’t survive. A packaging-only solution can’t guarantee the successful installation of applications on the desktop. There is no way a packaging-only solution can see what actually exists on the desktop. So we’re seeing consolidation.

The problem with this, once again, is the integration of all of these point products written by developers. Corporations are starting to question the toolbox of stand-alone products to accomplish various tasks. Budgets are tight, so companies are watching every budgetary cent and are starting to question, “Why do we need all of these tools?”

TNW: What is the key issue for customers right now — migration, inventory management, patch management or something else?

Palmer: Using one product for application packaging, another for installation, another for hardware and software inventory and another for reporting has become a common problem to manage for IT staffs large and small. It becomes nearly impossible to troubleshoot software problems on desktops because you aren’t sure what tool has the proper information to tell you exactly what the problem might be.

Looking at desktop availability as a way to manage a user’s PC from introduction into the network to retirement can go a long way not only to reducing costs in the IT shop, but also [to helping the] IT staff out of reactive mode in managing desktops. IT managers are being asked to take a step back and look at all the tools they are paying for to accomplish various tasks. One for patch management, one for software distribution. We are offering an integrated approach where all the functions interrelate to provide proactive desktop management.

Again, it isn’t about just choosing a tool or even about choosing a tool that does one thing, such as application packaging. It is about the entire process of managing the desktop. Tools like WinInstall that continue to tackle real business problems will no doubt be the winner in IT shops worldwide for the long haul.

TNW: What is the effect of the number, size and complexity of patches released by software vendors to address security and other issues?

Palmer: Well first let me say that WinInstall is and has been used as a patch-management system for many years. Over the past year, patch-management systems have joined the point-product solution throng and are now charging per-seat costs that range from $6 to $10 per desktop and server in corporate network environments. There are two function areas that need to be addressed by products that detect and patch desktops with operating system patches and other changes that protect against vulnerabilities.

It is important to note that WinInstall can make virtually any change to a machine, whether it is a desktop or server. One important area that needs to be addressed is vulnerability assessment. Many viruses and worms today are beginning to register themselves in ways that disguise a machine as being patched when it very well may not have been. It is not enough to merely check a machine’s registry to determine whether a machine has been patched. To assure that a machine has been properly patched, a check at the systems file level and file attribute level is necessary.

Patch-management systems provide important functions in today’s very destructive environment. However, it should not be necessary to manage another product that does nothing more than patch management. None of those systems, such as Update Expert or Patchlink, has the ability to build MSI packages, install applications or provide any other function in managing systems. WinInstall can do so much more, and patch management is just one more very vital function that it has provided for many years.

TNW: Are there concerns that you are too dependent on companies such as Microsoft or Oracle with the new centralized database that runs on their servers and software?

Palmer: Implementing a tool that uses the most widely used database technologies in the world isn’t a bad thing. We find that IT organizations of all sizes use either a Microsoft or Oracle database. WinInstall also provides versions for smaller environments.

TNW: What are the biggest advantages of that centralized database and inventory collection, and what has been the industry response to Version 8 of WinInstall?

Palmer: WinInstall implements a fully functional inventory module. We deliver a routine bill of materials. We deliver software inventory not by the conventional way of polling .exe files and referencing them against a master database, but instead by qualifying every single file on the PC and creating a master application list that “knows” every single file associated with an application. In the event of application corruption, an administrator will have the “known state” of any application on the desktop — remotely.

Inventory products are desperately in need of moving to the next evolution. We subscribe to the theory that most companies use their inventory tools an average of once per year to understand what machines need to be upgraded or replaced. Why continue to pay for software you don’t use? WinInstall’s new software inventory provides IT shops with functionality that they will use every day in managing the state of the desktops in an environment.

Another great feature coming around the corner with WinInstall is inventory compare. The troubleshooting comparison displays a list of which devices, applications and files are present on one workstation but not the other, as well as a list of devices, applications and files that are present on both workstations but are different in some way.

The response to this technological innovation has been astounding — as evident in the overwhelming download requests for our free trial version.

TNW: You’ve said in the past that new features of WinInstall have brought your product in line with competitive offerings of Symantec, Alltiris and LANDesk. Is there anything that makes your software superior to those?

Palmer: At WinInstall’s core is a central database, either the built-in MSDE, the full-blown SQL Server or Oracle. The database holds all of the information about software packages, conflict-assessment checks, inventory to the file level and the ability to relate that to machines in your network.

The key advantage is the inventory data, which tracks hardware and software and can be used to pinpoint potential conflicts by exposing the relationship of package contents, conflict assessment results and real fine inventory in our database. You now have the ability to compare a machine’s file inventory with package contents and conflict assessment results to truly understand where conflicts truly hide.

WinInstall doesn’t require any special hardware, such as dedicated servers or specialized software. A lot of solutions available today are the result of various acquisitions of different tools and the attempt to integrate these into a single console. Integrating features into a single console is just the tip of the iceberg. Interrelating the various functions to work together to proactively manage desktops is the real challenge. That is where WinInstall 8 takes you.

TNW: Can you describe plans for adding a PC-migration or problem-resolution agent to WinInstall in the near future?

Palmer: First let me discuss the definition of PC migration. I think it is important to understand this, as it has been incorrect for quite some time. PC migration is more than backing up and restoring the personality of the PC and backing up and restoring the data on a user’s PC. The better definition of PC migration speaks more to what we do — and will truly provide with the Desktop Availability Suite.

The process of PC migration includes backing up the personality of the operating system and core applications, backing up the locally saved data, installing the new operating system on the machine, installing the new applications that support that operating system or are also needed on the machine, and so forth. PC migration should not be thought of as a one-time event, but a day-to-day management of the PC environment that assures desktop availability over the lifecycle of all the machines.

TNW: Anything else you’d like to add?

Palmer: OnDemand’s award-winning WinInstall has been a household name in the software distribution arena for years, but now we are answering the question that IT staffs have been trying to solve for years: How do I resolve software problems at the desktop without having to send someone to the desktop? We offer a free 30-day evaluation.

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