“Giving away budget never felt so good." Those were the words of an IT manager attending one of our roundtables recently. But why was he so happy about losing control of a chunk of his IT funding?
The topic of the roundtable was end user computing, and he was explaining how the annual budget negotiations around desktop equipment were becoming so miserable. For many years, his IT department had defined a range of standard desktop and laptop machines to meet the needs of different types of user, refreshing a subset of kit on an annual basis. It’s a familiar model that many will recognise, and from an IT perspective it’s not a bad way of making sure everything stays manageable.
The problem was that it had got to the point where he and his team were spending hours listening to stories from users and managers within the business justifying why they, or even their whole department, should be an exception. Some were adamant that the latest Apple MacBook, Microsoft Surface or some other clever convertible was the only thing that would solve their productivity needs.
Others said it was essential to have an iPad with all the accessories, which would meet all of their requirements - though of course they would have to hang onto their Windows laptop “just in case”.
Add to this the usual sob stories about how 18-month-old laptops really had to be replaced because they didn’t support the latest Wi-Fi standard, only had 4GB of memory, had a disk rather than an SSD installed, etc, and the process was getting wearisome. And with IT in control of the equipment budget, and users not giving up easily when told they couldn’t have what they wanted (even though it would cost twice what was in the plan), there was no escaping the wrangling.
Fortunately, the IT department had been quietly investing behind the scenes in a VDI and digital workspace management environment.
It hadn’t taken much working out that most employees were almost completely desk-based; even so-called "mobile" users were actually more "nomadic" in their working patterns - they were usually sitting on a company LAN in one office or another, or on their home Wi-Fi network.
This opened the door to switching many of them to server-hosted virtual desktops, and where this wouldn’t work (for genuine connectivity reasons) you could still centralise and "stream" a lot of what they needed. The workspace management software then allowed most essential resources to be accessed through tablets and smartphones.
The pilot had been going well (despite some initial technical glitches and suspicion on the part of users), so our brave IT manager went for it. He got his guys to put together a service catalogue detailing what was available in terms of virtual desktops and application services.
Guidelines were then issued highlighting the experience a user could expect given a particular type of device of a particular class. He then transferred the bulk of the desktop equipment budget to business unit managers, which most gleefully accepted – “Free from those killjoys in IT at last!”
You can imagine the kind of conversations that took place from there on in.
Passing down the line
Dept head: “A lot of my guys are asking for iPads.”
IT Manager: “It’s your budget, you can do what you want with it.”
Dept head: “But will they be able to run everything they need on an iPad?”
IT Manager: “Well it’s not a Windows machine, so there are some limitations in some areas, and access to some things will depend whether or not they are on the network. But it’s all written down in the guidelines we circulated. It’s basically up to you to decide whether your team can live with the constraints.”
Dept head: “Yeah, I saw that document, but it says the iPad won’t run some of the things we use, and they’ll have trouble directly accessing some of our document shares. So, I think they’ll still have to have laptops as well, and some of those machines are pretty old and need replacing.”
IT Manager: “Well, as I said, it’s your budget.”
Dept head: “But there isn’t enough allocated to give everyone an iPad and upgrade the laptops.”
IT Manager: “Then go and talk to the FD make the case to him for more budget.”
Apparently, some of these conversations got pretty heated, but they did succeed in getting business managers to start to appreciate the difference between "want" and "need".
During the subsequent discussion at our roundtable, we agreed that what our hero had done was a pretty good start, but that the real point of all this was a need to rethink how we tackle the whole end user computing need.
Some of the pushback received during the above type of conversations was around why the IT department couldn’t make the same capability available regardless of whether the user chose a Windows machine, Mac, iPad, iPhone, android device or whatever.
While the obvious response to this is that they are all different, and run different flavours of software, if we consider the question from a business perspective, particularly if we look forward over the next five to 10 years, it’s pretty clear that we need to drive towards making IT systems in general as device-agnostic as possible.
In practical terms, this essentially means that end user computing is rapidly becoming less about devices per se (which will come and go over time), and more about the infrastructure that enables the application services delivered to them. Obvious when you say it, perhaps, but the truth is that the infrastructure options we ideally need are still a big work in progress from an industry perspective.
Mobile application frameworks and middleware are becoming more enterprise ready, and digital workspace solutions are now getting pretty good at presenting services and resources coherently to users across a range of devices. But if vendors are honest, they’ll own up to some aspects of the technology still being a work in progress.
The possible exception is VDI, which has matured quite nicely over the last couple of years. Today you can get a hyperconverged platform from pretty much any mainstream vendor, or cartridge-based system (such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise Moonshot), that comes out of the box designed for virtual desktop serving. It’s no longer the black magic art it used to be.
Specific technology to one side, though, the main takeaway from all of this is that things need to change. Right now, too many organisations have one thread of activity around Windows desktops, and another totally different thread around mobile devices and applications. Meanwhile, they just muddle through on things like Macs and possibly Linux machines as best they can. Then to cap it all, the IT team is too often left in the untenable position of having to referee on the conflicting wants and needs of users within the business.
Against this background, separating device decisions and budgets from those relating to the infrastructure and back-end systems may be something for more IT teams to aim for. It might not be the answer for everyone, and you certainly wouldn’t want to go down that route before you get your act together on some infrastructure basics, but users are constantly pushing for device freedom, so it’s something to consider as you transform the way things work in your environment.
If you have tried any of this yourself, or have other ideas on how best to deal with the increasing complex problem of delivering services into a heterogeneous device estate, we’d love to hear from you. ®