E-Business Commentary -- The Truth About Cats And PCs

A houseful of felines is easier to manage than your company's computers.

Managing a flock of personal computers and the multiple flavors of software that sit on them is worse than managing a houseful of cats. I mean, at least the cats are creatures of habit -- they'll be lazing in that sunny spot on the rug each morning, and you know they'll come bounding up, like fat leopards, when you put their food out each evening. PCs, by contrast, are unpredictable. Day or night, stone cold or warmed up, they up and crash for seemingly inexplicable reasons. Complicating matters, many software programs contain bugs. What's more, employees are constantly tampering with their PCs, mischievously loading new software that corrupts company-loaded applications. And PCs need big-time care and feeding. Not only is there the cost of software and regular software upgrades and new applications, but there's also the cost of maintaining and managing both hardware and software. For large manufacturers with 30,000 or 40,000 employees, the nourishment and tending of their PCs can easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. No wonder manufacturers are concerned with the total cost of ownership (TCO) of computers. Invariably, when you are talking PCs, the device itself turns out to be a fraction of the TCO. IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., has come up with a couple of pretty clever hunks of software built into its machines that help companies curtail these costs. "Our goal is to develop new technologies to give our PCs an advantage over the competition," says Rich Cheston, director of systems management in the personal computing division at IBM's Research Triangle Park, N.C., location. The first, Rapid Restore PC, enables super-fast restoration of the PC and its software after a failure. One company that has had some experience using Rapid Restore PC is Noritsu American Corp., a manufacturer of "minilab" photofinishing equipment for one-hour photo centers. Noritsu provides sales and service support for its minilabs at customer sites throughout North America. The labs use IBM's computers to run the photo-processing systems. As digital photo processing grew in popularity, Noritsu's machines required increasingly greater support to maintain uptime. In a further complication, the labs tended to have high employee turnover. "There are many reasons people would leave, and sometimes they would sabotage the system by zapping the program," explains Floyd Kimura, vice president of technical services at Noritsu American, in Buena Park, Calif. Some system crashes could be fixed with tech support over the phone. A typical recovery would take two-hours or longer. "There was a lot of trial and error, and often we had to send out a field engineer to help them," Kimura says. "With Rapid Restore, it's easier to get the customer up and running." Using Rapid Restore, a Noritsu call center employee walks the film lab technician through a few steps to restore the PC, including all software programs. "It takes very few steps, and usually in 30 minutes or less the lab is back up and running," Kimura adds. "In the one-hour photo business, that's pretty critical. The labs today can take less than 20 minutes to print a roll of film and get the customer out the door." The Rapid Restore feature, which comes with the IBM computers, was so popular with Noritsu that the company decided to put it on its own proprietary machines also. Another IBM creation to help big companies cut the cost of managing their PCs is ImageUltra. This system, which comes with IBM PCs, enables the company to easily restore its "core image" -- that is, the operating system, common applications such as Microsoft Office or Lotus Notes, and variable applications such as ERP or CAD. In one example, IBM won a contract to provide 40,000 PCs to Kodak, Rochester, N.Y. In the rollout of the first 10,000 PCs, Kodak was able to cut baseline support costs by 40%. Overall, using technologies such as these, Kodak was able to reduce its estimated TCO by $5 million. As they say in the cat business, that ain't kitty litter. Doug Bartholomew is an IW senior technology editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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