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Sun 10 Feb 2008 10:00 AM

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Everybody wants to rule the world

In my previous life in technical support, I often had occasion to travel to the offices of various regional enterprises to repair PCs and perform various sundry upgrades.

In my previous life in technical support, I often had occasion to travel to the offices of various regional enterprises to repair PCs and perform various sundry upgrades. During the repair process, I'd often get random employees coming up and asking me to covertly join in convincing their boss to spring for new gear to replace their existing machines, which they perceived to be too old, slow or in some cases, unfashionable when compared to what their colleagues had.

Now naturally, CIOs can't buy new equipment on the whims of employees, but there is clearly an element that needs to be addressed here - a need to keep the existing workforce happy with the systems they use day in and day out.

Think about it - you, the person reading this column. How many hours a day do you spend virtually chained to your desk and keyboard, whether for work or pleasure? How would you feel if your machine was chuggy, prone to unexplained crashes and used applications written at the dawn of civilisation? Considering the now pivotal nature of PCs to every organisation, isn't it fair that your machine should be reliable and as bang up to date as enterprises can ensure?
CIOs and IT managers, of course, have another way of looking at the situation. In a recent case study, I spoke to an IT manager who spoke of the immense frustrations involved in providing technical support. On any given day, users could be counted on to be installing unauthorised applications, browsing non approved websites - or horror of horrors, burning productive hours lurking on social networking sites and updating their profile ad nauseam.

It's not just the availability of the internet as a distraction. There are significant security risks lurking available. While organisations worry about hackers cracking the extensive walls of security they have built, it's just as easy - and this has been said many, many times before but bears worth repeating - for disgruntled employees to use built-in USB ports, rewritable optical drives and personal e-mail accounts to remove sensitive information from inside an organisation.

Thin clients - essentially a riff on the old mainframe model, being ‘virtual' PCs that exist purely on a server and which users access through a very basic terminal system - are one answer to this problem. On one hand, since these are server based, there's never any question of slow performance, since the PCs are active right on the server level and what the user sees is in essence only data screens. For administrators, it's also simple to keep the virtual systems current and patched to the most recent level.

In fact, maintenance is one of the strongest reasons to choose a thin client architecture - if a system ‘breaks', it's exceedingly easy to repair - just take another terminal box out of the supply closet, connect it to the network, switch on and voila! The user's current session appears on screen, with little to no assistance required from the system admin. There are security benefits as well - without built-in optical drives or USB ports, users are no longer able to remove data at will, and since the entire architecture runs off the server, access can be managed on a per-application basis.

If all this sounds so wonderful, why aren't more companies in the region plumping for thin clients? The reason goes back to the conversation I had with that IT manager, who actually did deploy thin clients throughout his organisation.

What do you think was the first major challenge he faced? Inadequate network infrastructure to cope with increased data traffic? A need for new servers and management tools?

The answer was unfortunately all too obvious - he faced massive resistance from his users, all of whom complained about the unfamiliar new system and applications, while also demanding that they get their familiar USB ports and optical drives back. Many were adamant that they would never switch to the new system.

The IT manager eventually had to visit all the users in person and convince them that the system was no different in reality from what they used previously. It's not an approach that I would personally recommend to deal with employee conflicts, but perhaps the only option that was available to him at the time.

The moral of this tale is not that thin clients are or are not a suitable technology to deploy in enterprises - in fact, the technology or systems are largely irrelevant.

The real problem, in my opinion, is a vast disconnect emerging between IT managers and their internal users about what constitutes a productive and healthy working environment. IT managers are faced with an increasingly difficult balancing act of trying to balance the growing needs of their users with ever-tighter budgets. Conversely, users know that the blossoming regional market means if their current employer doesn't offer benefits commensurate to their responsibility level, somebody else will.

It's a problem that's not without answers - for more expert advice from specialists on how to keep employees positive productive, look to my March feature on the subject. As always, write to me at imthishan.giado@itp.com about your workplace horror stories - and if you are a CIO, the trials of running an IT team.

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