Restrategizing support

In these times of economic woe, you have to get clever if you want to stretch your budget. And one area where we spend lots of money is supporting in-house users.

I see the problem this way: At one end of the spectrum, you lock down users to the point that they can’t breathe unless you give them permission. At the other end, you let them do whatever they want – the “anything goes” approach.

The former strategy, lockdown, has some major benefits: You don’t get any surprises, or at least very few. Costs and labour are manageable, on the whole, because you know the dimensions and scale of everything. And there is no opportunity for deviation. If a particular software title isn’t corporately sanctioned, it isn’t an option.

There’s a cool utility called DeepFreeze that can make such a strategy work. Published by Faronics Technologies USA Inc., it locks the configuration of PCs running Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000 or XP, and wipes out any changes made in the previous session when the system is restarted. (You can assign areas where changes will be preserved from session to session.)

DeepFreeze is used widely in education environments, and as far as I can determine has yet to be hacked, though many have tried (the company runs a “Crash this Computer, Win US$500” challenge at trade shows and so far, no winners). 2600 Magazine (aka The Hacker Quarterly) recently ran a story on DeepFreeze, but it was really a discussion of what the product does and had no helpful hacking advice.

The pricing of DeepFreeze is pretty good: 10 seats with a one-year maintenance package works out at just less than US$42 per seat – at 1,000 seats it drops to US$10 per seat. Faronics also has an enterprise version in the works to provide centralized administration.

But the key to making lockdown attractive to management is to minimize the cost of support. For example, you might require all support requests be conducted through a Web interface. The goal is to diagnose whatever problem the user has and give the user the information to solve the problem.

Then if your machine is really dead, tech support will replace it. And the crucial thing is that they will wheel out the old one with no futzing around; anything that isn’t backed up never will be seen again. Doesn’t matter what is on the machine, the rule is that the machine will be serviced if possible and returned to the replacement pool. End of story.

This wouldn’t work for environments where professional autonomy is expected, but for clerical, sales and production it could be an answer.

So how would you get a lockdown strategy at your organization? A simple cost spreadsheet should do the trick. If you can’t show that significant cost savings are possible, you will not get the attention and support of the CEO. And without the CEO’s support, a lockdown strategy ain’t goin’ to happen.

How about the “anything goes” strategy? It all relies on the computer skills of your users. Young hires are likely to have reasonable computer knowledge while older employees might not, so you’d have to make PC education available to and expected of all staff. They would be given preconfigured PCs with the required corporate software and told they can do as they please.

Tell them that if the hardware breaks, here’s where you can get a swap-out; if the operating system gets messed up, here’s the restore disk, and so on.

Could “anything goes” work? I don’t know. But from reader letters I know most of you sit in the middle of these two extremes with a lot of support overhead eating up your budgets.

If you are an IT company, such an expense is in line with your core competency. But if you’re not, then the question is whether you should provide anything more than a basic support service.

So where are you now? If you are in the middle, is that where you’ll stay? Or is it time to try another strategy such as lockdown or “anything goes”?

Draconian plans or otherwise to