Shawn P. McCarthy | Internaut: Beefing up for Windows Vista release

Shawn P. McCarthy

This fall would be a good time for government IT managers to take inventory of the PCs in their collections and make some hard decisions about establishing and enforcing lifecycle rules.

My research indicates that the total number of PCs in the federal government has continued to grow over the years, with as many as 3.2 million now lurking in federal civilian agencies and nearly 3 million within the Defense Department.

Two things are spur-ring the need for a realistic inventory. The first is the looming release, in a few months, of Microsoft Windows Vista. Even though most agencies won't make a quick migration to Vista, they do need to start making long-term plans for whenever the transition may occur.

One of the big concerns about the new Windows OS is the level of system resources it requires.

Although Microsoft says users could get by with a processor running at 800 MHz, it also suggests most users will want one that runs at 1 GHz or higher.

And if users intend to use the 3-D Aero navigation interface, they'll be more comfortable with a processor that runs close to 2 GHz and should probably have 1GB of RAM. [Read the GCN Lab's assessment of Vista's resource requirements at GCN.com, GCN.com/652.]

The problem is, that's a much higher-performance machine than what's found on the desk of a typical government user today.

In reality, it will be many months before Vista makes its appearance on most government desktops, and many agencies will have at least a three-year phase-in approach if and when they choose to migrate to the new Windows OS.

In many cases, that's because they'll phase in Vista as newer, more powerful machines are purchased.

Knowing what's in your inventory, including each machine's processor power and RAM, is the first step toward managing a transition to more powerful desktops.

What are you running?

The second issue spurring the need for a desktop equipment assessment is pressure from government auditors to do a better job tracking software licensing.

For example, earlier this year the Treasury Department inspector general's office issued a report critical of the IRS for lacking a solution to help them track software licenses.

Software vendors themselves have told me they suspect government agencies are both overpaying and underpaying for specific licenses because they lack reliable methods for tracking how many they need.

Machine age is a key part of the problem. The average PC in government today lasts about 31⁄2 years. But plenty of machines linger until they are five or more years old.

Older machines aren't always sold or trashed. Sometimes they are re-purposed and set up as workstations for temporary workers or used as back-up test machines in government IT labs.

It's easy to wipe the original OS and files from a disk, boost an older machine's RAM and install a new (and possibly unlicensed) OS to squeeze out another couple of years.

Because of this, IT managers may be running more operating systems than they realize'beyond what they're legally paying for.

To address both long-term Vista planning issues and ongoing software licensing requirements, agencies need a better understanding of their PC inventories.

Former GCN writer Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager for IDC Government Insights of McLean, Va. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

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