Trench Tales: Wrangling too many breeds of computers

Wouldn’t it be nice if all our computing technology was the same size, same make, same model? Welcome to the real world of desktop management.

While those of us who work down in the trenches of IT often wish we lived in a fantasyland like the one I’ve described above, the reality is we’re often surrounded by mess and total chaos. In midsized business environments, this is especially the case when it comes to the computers that employees of the company use to do their work.

Because midsized businesses often start out as small businesses and grow in fits and starts, the desktop and laptop computers usually end up being bought over a period of time from several different vendors. As a result, the person in charge of administering IT for the company has to wrangle PCs of a variety of different makes and models from several vendors. They typically have different processors, varying amounts of memory, hard drives or SSD drives of different makes and capacities, and other assorted differences. Some of them may also have vendor-specific software utilities and other customizations if they haven’t been reimaged since they were purchased.

Martin Urwaleck knows all about the headaches of trying to wrangle a heterogeneous mixed bag of different PCs. Martin has been featured recently in several of our Trench Tales articles, and in this one, he tells the tale of what it’s like to deal with having to manage 50 different types of PCs for a company that has almost 200 employees.

Hint: you wouldn’t want his job.

But if you listen carefully to how Martin responds to my questions you might learn something that will save your bacon (and save you from loads of stress) if you ever find yourself hired to restructure a similar mixed up environment.

MITCH: Martin, thanks again for sharing your experiences with us on these topics. Can you please begin by describing for us the diverse mix of PC makes/models you found at the company when you started working there?

MARTIN: We are supporting three different units with their own purchasing departments and strategies. One unit changes its hardware every four years and only provides one desktop model and one notebook model. The second one buys hardware as they need it — and what’s cheaply available — and of course a different brand than the first one. They keep the PCs running until they break. My own unit has hardware from only one brand and constantly replaces the oldest hardware first — with about five PCs per year. So, stacked up we have a lot of different models and brands.

MITCH: Ouch. What sort of problems does a diverse assortment of PCs like this pose for those tasked with managing them?

MARTIN: The biggest issue is that we have to handle hardware up to eight years old and get it in line with current hardware. We need one unified OS distribution that contains a lot of (often deprecated) drivers. We are running into memory issues because these old PCs had only 4GB RAM. We are running into HDD issues because of sluggish performance (we often replace them with SSDs). And it’s hard to keep enough spare parts around — think of at least six different notebook power supplies, etc.

MITCH: What systems management solution or tools are currently being used at the company to manage its PCs?

MARTIN: Before I started working here the preferred solution was “sneakernet” and some scripts (.CMD files, no PowerShell). I’ve since introduced Baramundi as a full-featured management solution for smaller installations. I know SCCM from my last company pretty well, but it needs a team to run it. Baramundi is run here by one person now.

MITCH: That’s pretty cool! What other steps are you planning (or have already taken) to address this problem of having such a diverse assortment of PCs?

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MARTIN: Well, I got in touch with the decision-makers in each of the different units and explained my problem. As a solution, I offered that all of us stick to one hardware vendor for both desktops and notebooks as this makes driver and BIOS management much easier. That idea was accepted — the other units started buying the devices proposed by my technicians. So, things are getting better every day — and the other units save costs because we have fewer problems now — and they get billed less from us too!

MITCH: Sounds like you’ve really given this whole problem of desktop management a lot of careful thought. What other tips or advice would you give to admins who face similar problems when they assume a position at a new company?

MARTIN: I can think of a number of things. First, be sure to take the time to get a clear overview of the whole situation. Make sure also you understand why the situation arose as knowing this might give you a lot of good arguments for homogenization and standardization.

Be sure also to make the effort to get all of the decision-makers on board by describing the problem to them in detail. If this involves finance staff, even better since they have a simple focus: to cut costs. So, you need to be able to present to them the savings you can gain out of homogenization of your PC infrastructure and by implementing a good central management solution.

MITCH: Martin, that’s terrific. Thanks a lot for taking time off again from your very busy job there at your new workplace and sharing some of your experience and expertise on desktop management for the benefit of our TechGenix readership.

MARTIN: You’re very welcome, thanks.

Featured image: Wikimedia

Mitch Tulloch

Mitch Tulloch is Senior Editor of both WServerNews and FitITproNews and is a widely recognized expert on Windows Server and cloud technologies. He has written more than a thousand articles and has authored or been series editor for over 50 books for Microsoft Press and other publishers. Mitch has also been a twelve-time recipient of the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award in the technical category of Cloud and Datacenter Management. He currently runs an IT content development business in Winnipeg, Canada.

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