Different Configurations a Problem: Managers Adopting Varied Approaches

By Bruce Schneier
MacWEEK
October 19, 1992

It's rare to find two people who configure their Macintosh the same way. Some users swear by System 7; others won't touch it. Some machines run QuickTime; others - The Talking Moose.

For those in charge of hundreds of machines, it's a potential nightmare. "Trying to manage several hundred Macs is, well, [almost] impossible unless you maintain coherency and consistency across them," said Roy Roper, assistant director for network information technologies at the School of Life Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"We try to create nearly the same look and feel: utilities, software, network resource access across as many Macs as possible," said Roper, who has defined a standard set of software for every machine. "We have centralized ordering, configuration, delivery and training. We install everything before the user sees the Mac."

Standard Software

Often the biggest problem is the staggering array of different utilities. Roper said: "We provide the utilities to give each Mac a variety of user and network support capabilities. Users can add other programs, but we are trying to provide the best utilities for the emerging area of collaborative computing."

Some managers avoid problems by making custom configurations the responsibility of individual users. "Everyone is responsible for [his or her] own Macintosh," said Richard Wepfer, manager of IM Architecture at GTE Telephone Operations in Irving, Texas. A help desk supports the standard software: Microsoft Word, Claris Corp.'s MacDraw, and Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint. Users of other software packages are on their own.

Keith Sproul, microcomputer manager for Union Carbide Corp. in Bound Brook, N.J., is responsible for 500 Macs. He also has a standard set of software products: Microsoft Word, Excel, Mail and PowerPoint; Claris' FileMaker Pro and MacDraw; and Aldus Persuasion. Even with this comprehensive list, there are always special cases. "If someone has a reason for needing something else, we'll discuss it," Sproul said.

Extensions can bring special problems. A good Mac manager keeps a list of those that work and those that don't. "There are some INITs we don't allow, and there is a set of INITs that we encourage, such as [Steve Christensen's freeware] SuperClock!, [Berkeley Systems Inc.'s] After Dark and [Evergreen Software Inc.'s] MacPassword. There are some that we require, such as Microsoft Mail and our Ethernet driver extensions," Sproul said. He uses Apple's Extension Manager to keep track of them.

While most managers try to standardize on the current versions of system and applications software, others have based their standards on each piece of hardware. Bob Bowman, vice president and manager of microcomputer support at Seattle First National Bank, is responsible for 4,000 Macs running System 3.2 to 7.0.1. "We have established a set of compatibility standards between the operating system and the hardware we are buying. And we have not migrated the operating system standards very much." His help desk can profile a system by asking what kind of Mac a user has.

What's on the Computer

Sometimes the hardest part of managing a network is discovering what software is out there. Tired of asking users to prepare lists, managers are turning to network-management tools that collect this data automatically. TechWorks Inc.'s GraceLAN Network Manager and Asset Manager, MacVONK*USA's netOctopus, ON Technology's STATUS*Mac, and CSG Technologies' Network SuperVisor collect and report on the hardware and software configurations of a network.

"We have 500 Macs and only two full-time people to support them. The ability to audit a machine across the network will save us time and effort and let us build a database of software," said Ken Carpenter, project manager of PC LAN technical support at Northern Telecom Inc. in Nashville, Tenn.

"I use GraceLAN to monitor what software people have on their hard drive, what system they are running and what hardware they have. It saves me from walking around to each machine," said Penny Smith, technical specialist for Region IV Education Service Center in Houston.

Updates

Updating software to a new version also can be a management nightmare. Most have learned the hard way not to let individual users handle their own updates. "Someone bought Excel 3.0 and became incompatible with everyone else still on 2.2," said GTE's Wepfer.

Some network-management programs, such as netOctopus, Network SuperVisor, GraceLAN Update Manager and Trik Inc.'s NetDistributor Pro allow network managers to update software remotely. This process is not without problems, however. Some anti-viral utilities interpret a network-installation program as a potential virus infection.

"We have to disable [Symantec Corp.'s] SAM when we do a network update," Carpenter said.

Tower of Babel. Most experienced network managers stressed the need for common ground across different Macs.

"You can have a Tower of Babel if you don't obtain agreement on the application layer as well as the platform layer. With these general agreements, you can create the homogeneity required to bring in interesting technology," Roper said. He points to his group's (near) painless introduction of QuickTime and some new collaborative software products as proof of his philosophy. "The goal is to create a foundation of change for distributed computing and not a static IS-type operation," he said.

earlier essay: Taking Backups out of Users' Hands
later essay: Flash Memory Offers Potential for Compact Storage Solution
categories: Non-Security Articles
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